On the occasion of World Water Day 2023, we are delighted to release our interview with Professor Eirò, Vice-President of WAREG and President of ERSAR (Portugal). In this interview, we discuss the theme of World Water Day as well as the important work of WAREG in economic regulation. Professor Eirò shares her insights on accelerating change in the water and sanitation sector and highlights the critical role of collective action in addressing the global water crisis.
Annually observed on March 22, World Water Day is a United Nations-designated observance day that emphasizes the significance of freshwater and its sustainable management. The theme for World Water Day 2023 is “Be the change,” which calls for collective action to accelerate the pace of tackling the global water and sanitation crisis.
With this in mind, what actions can individuals, businesses, governments, and regulators undertake to make a positive impact in this critical area?
As water regulators, we are aware of the critical importance of addressing the global water and sanitation crisis. World Water Day 2023 provides an opportunity to focus attention on this critical issue and take action to be the change, and we would like to encourage individuals, businesses, water operators, and governments to take action and be the change.
We all know how these 4 actors can be part of the change.
Individual actions are fundamental to manage water and support sustainable water management practices. For example, individuals can install water-efficient appliances, fix leaks, reduce shower time, and properly dispose of household products, not throwing them on the wastewater networks. Additionally, individuals can support organizations working to provide access to clean water and sanitation services to communities in need.
Businesses can also have a positive impact by implementing water-saving technologies and reducing water pollution. They can invest in sustainable water management practices, work with local communities, and support conservation projects.
Water operators are particularly relevant to ensure human rights to water and sanitation. They manage water services and have a role in improving water services accessibility, efficiency, and quality of service. Recent estimates show that $200 billion are lost each year to water leaks from municipal water networks. Considering the estimates of financing needs in the water supply and sanitation services, from $116 billion to $229 billion per year, the investment in tackling water losses through the rehabilitation of these systems could result in cost reductions that could then be redirected for other needed investments to improve water and sanitation services.
Governments have a crucial role in addressing the water and sanitation crisis by developing policies that enable investments in infrastructure for clear water and sanitation services to their citizens. They can also regulate industries to minimize water pollution and support sustainable water management practices. Governments can work with other countries to share best practices and collaborate on transboundary water management issues.
Finally, water regulators play an important role in addressing the water and sanitation crisis. Regulators are pivotal to enable and foster intervention from all the relevant stakeholders (public and private) in the water sector by drafting regulation related to water management and ensuring its implementation and compliance.
Overall, our role as water regulators is to promote sustainable water management practices and to ensure access to clean water and sanitation services for all. Additionally, we collaborate with other regulators and Government agencies to share best practices. We also work alongside local communities to promote awareness on the value of fresh water. Our commitment to ensure cross generational access to clean water and sanitation services for all is unwavering at WAREG and ERSAR.
Professor Eiró, you have been recently elected as WAREG Vice-President, and we want to take this occasion to congratulate with you for your election.
As the President of the Portuguese water regulator ERSAR and the Vice President of WAREG, how do you view the current state of water and sanitation services in Europe, and what do you see as the biggest challenges facing the water sector today?
The water sector is very special. In this sector, we need to balance long-term planning with flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness while also promoting transparency and engaging with customers and stakeholders to ensure mutual priorities. As you can imagine, it is not an easy task due to the vast number of goals, sometimes, in contrast, one with the other, and the diverse number of stakeholders involved in the process.
The water sector in Europe has made significant progress in recent years, but there is still much work to be done (to improve and to maintain what has been achieved). While access to clean water and proper sanitation is good in many parts of Europe, there are still disparities and challenges that need to be addressed, even within the same country. Among the positive developments, I could include the promotion of sustainable practices, increased transparency and customer engagement, and the investments and efforts to address climate change and man-induced security risks. Despite these improvements, it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure the sustainability of these services in the longer term and we, regulators, need to anticipate and mobilize other stakeholders to anticipate those problems.
Then, moving to the part of the question about the biggest challenges, there are different challenges in different areas across Europe. However, there are some common areas that have been identified as problematic.
Ageing infrastructure: The water and sanitation infrastructure in many parts of Europe is ageing and requires significant investment in repair or replacement to ensure it continues to function properly and provides safe and reliable services. Ageing infrastructure poses a significant challenge for the water sector, as the cost of upgrading or replacing the infrastructure can be high.
Growing urbanisation and migration of populations: Cities are growing at a quick pace, assimilating population migrating from rural areas, which will entail two problems – lack of capacity in some areas and excessive capacity in others. Additionally, poor spatial planning can lead to construction in areas more prone to flooding, requiring additional stormwater management infrastructures. Flexible and innovative solutions are needed to cope with these problems.
Water scarcity: Some regions in Europe are facing water scarcity due to climate change, population growth, and increasing water demand. Water scarcity is a significant challenge for the water sector, as it puts pressure on existing water resources and infrastructure, making it more challenging to provide safe and reliable water services.
Pollution and contamination: Pollution and contamination of water sources are major issues in some areas of Europe due to agricultural activities, industrial discharges, and urban runoff. These contaminants can have a negative impact on the quality of drinking water and aquatic ecosystems, posing a significant challenge for the water sector in terms of providing safe and clean water to customers.
Lack of access: In some regions, particularly rural areas, access to safe drinking water and sanitation services remains a challenge. This lack of access can have significant health implications and affect the quality of life of those living in affected areas. This challenge requires investment in infrastructure and service provision to ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all.
Financing: Ensuring sustainable and adequate financing for water and sanitation services is a challenge in some regions, particularly in lower-income areas where tariffs may not cover the costs of service provision. This challenge requires innovative financing mechanisms and strategies that can ensure adequate funding for the water sector. Without adequate funding, the sector may not be able to provide reliable and safe services to its customers, especially in the long term.
Regulatory challenges: Implementing and enforcing water and sanitation regulations can be challenging, particularly in areas with complex governance structures and multiple stakeholders. Political interference is also problematic since it can undermine the stability and consistency of regulatory policies. Having sufficient and reliable information is crucial for regulators to intervene effectively in protecting consumers and to being able to justify regulatory policy options.
WAREG considers effective regulation as a key factor in addressing water and sanitation challenges. Can you elaborate on what this means and how WAREG supports its members in developing effective regulatory frameworks?
Certainly. WAREG recognizes that effective regulation is crucial in addressing water and sanitation challenges. Effective regulation in the water sector refers to developing a regulatory framework that is designed to ensure that water and sanitation services are accessible, affordable, and of high quality. It also promotes sustainable water management practices, which are necessary for long-term water security and stability of the sector whilst protecting the environment and public health.
To support its members in developing effective regulatory frameworks, WAREG provides a platform for members to share best practices and exchange knowledge on regulatory issues. It also works to strengthen the capacity of regulators through training and technical assistance and engages with stakeholders to ensure that regulatory frameworks are adequate and proportionate. This transfer of knowledge allows the closing of the gap between countries, promoting more cohesion between European countries.
In addition, WAREG advocates for the importance of effective regulation at the national and international levels. The organization works with governments to support the development of regulatory frameworks that are conducive to sustainable and equitable water and sanitation services for all.
As the new Vice President of WAREG, what are your top priorities for supporting the organization’s goals and objectives?
As the new Vice President of WAREG, my top priorities for supporting the organization’s goals and objectives are centred on improving the regulation of the water sector in Europe, providing added value to our members and other stakeholders, and promoting transparency and information dissemination in the association and in the sector.
Firstly, WAREG needs to be recognized as a point of reference for regulation in the EU and in Europe. More than just a prestigious position, this would mean having WAREG recognized as a body of expertise that EU institutions and other international Institutions can consult for inputs. To achieve this, we need to demonstrate the merits of WAREG in achieving better policies anchored on technical knowledge and on a pragmatic and feasible approach.
Secondly, regulation should be considered an essential component of water policy. The effectiveness of regulation is frequently debated within countries and beyond their borders. WAREG will aim to promote the importance of regulation and the benefits it can bring to a well-functioning water sector. Additionally, we will provide more value to WAREG members and the water sector by establishing a robust information-sharing platform that facilitates informed regulatory decision-making. Access to reliable data from various operators is a crucial tool for regulators, ensuring consistency and cost benchmarking across the sector.
Thirdly, WAREG needs to interact with other relevant areas and stakeholders to raise the profile of water services regulation. It is important to reach out to other sectors and replicate some of the steps taken to raise their profile. WAREG should also be seen as a reliable source of data and regulatory solutions in Europe. Interaction with EU institutions, Governments, Parliamentarians (at the EU and national level), national agencies, consumer associations, NGOs, activists, and other relevant stakeholders should lead to a greater understanding of the role of regulation.
Fourthly, WAREG must improve decision-making by increasing interaction between the WAREG Board members. Collegiate decision-making is the best way to achieve better and quicker decisions at the executive level, and we want to work with other members of the Board to ensure better governance arrangements so that WAREG works more efficiently and brings added value to its members.
Finally, transparency and information dissemination are crucial to maintaining WAREG’s credibility and consistency. As a regulatory institution, WAREG should maintain and add efforts in ensuring transparency and the dissemination of information to its members, stakeholders, and other interested parties. Annual work plans, budgeting, and activity reports are important instruments to show the results of WAREG’s work.
How does ERSAR, the Portuguese regulator, collaborate with other WAREG members in the framework of the association?
ERSAR is one of the most established water regulators in Europe and a founding member of WAREG. ERSAR collaborates closely with other WAREG members in several ways within the framework of the association. One of the primary ways is through active participation in WAREG meetings, including the General Assemblies, which allows for the sharing of experiences and knowledge among members. ERSAR also takes part in Working Groups such as the one focused on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Task Forces, including the one dedicated to Waste, which aims to develop and implement common approaches and methodologies for regulation across Europe. Another way of collaboration is through the sharing of data, which is done through questionnaires and ad-hoc surveys, providing regulators with reliable information to make better decisions. ERSAR also uses the platform to answer regulatory questions posed by WAREG Members, and in turn, ERSAR can also ask questions and seek support from other members in case of need. Finally, ERSAR also engages in joint projects with other WAREG members, such as organizing workshops and training sessions on specific topics, which provide a collaborative approach to addressing common water sector challenges. Through these various means of collaboration, ERSAR aims to work with other WAREG members to improve water infrastructure and ensure investments are made in critical areas while also promoting transparency and accountability in water regulation.
As the Vice President of WAREG, what motivated you to join the association and pursue a leadership role in water regulation?
As the Vice President of WAREG, I am motivated by the opportunity to improve the water sector in Portugal and in Europe and thus to collaborate closely with other regulators across Europe. It is incredible to see how much this collaboration has evolved since WAREG’s creation. WAREG is a unique platform that allows us to share experiences and knowledge, learn from each other’s successes and challenges, and develop best practices in water regulation. I believe that by working together, we can address some of the major challenges facing the water sector. As the water and waste economic regulator in Portugal, I have seen first-hand how effective regulation can make a difference in ensuring access to safe and affordable water services. By taking on a leadership role in WAREG, I hope to contribute to the development of effective regulatory frameworks and policies that can benefit not only Portugal but also other WAREG members and, ultimately, the wider European community. I am excited about the opportunities ahead and look forward to working with my fellow WAREG members to achieve our shared goals.
How does WAREG support the development of regulatory frameworks and standards for water management, and what role can these play in promoting sustainable and equitable water use?
WAREG plays an important role in supporting the development of regulatory frameworks and standards for water management and in promoting sustainable and equitable water use through various initiatives. Sharing best practices and facilitating knowledge exchange between its members helps to ensure that regulatory frameworks and standards are informed by the latest practices and trends in water management.
WAREG also develops studies, guidelines, and recommendations on various aspects of water management, including performance indicators, tariff setting, and customer engagement. These documents provide a framework for regulators to design and implement effective and research-backed regulatory frameworks that promote sustainable and equitable water use.
In addition to developing guidelines, WAREG also supports the implementation of regulatory frameworks through capacity building and training initiatives. This includes organizing workshops and training programs for regulators, as well as providing technical assistance to help regulators implement regulatory frameworks and standards in practice.
By promoting the development of regulatory frameworks and standards, WAREG can help to ensure that water resources are managed in a sustainable and equitable way. This can help to address the growing water challenges that many regions face, including water scarcity, pollution, and climate change. By adopting sustainable and equitable water management practices, communities can ensure that they have access to safe and reliable water supplies both now and in the future.
As President of the Portuguese water and waste Economic Regulator ERSAR, how have you worked to promote effective water management and governance in your country, and what lessons can be learned from this experience?
As President of ERSAR, the Portuguese regulator, I have been committed to promoting effective water management and governance in Portugal. One of our key priorities has been ensuring that water and sanitation services are accessible, affordable, and of high quality for all citizens. To achieve this, we have worked to monitor the performance of water and sanitation providers, enforce service standards, and promote transparency and accountability.
More recently, we have also focused on promoting sustainable water management practices, such as encouraging the use of water-efficient technologies and reducing water pollution. We have tried to gather additional information on water scarcity problems and, by working closely with local communities, businesses, and government agencies, we were able to raise awareness about the importance of water conservation and to provide support for conservation projects.
Another important aspect of our work has been ensuring that adequate financing is available for water and sanitation services. We work to ensure that tariffs are set at a level that covers the costs of service provision while also taking into account the need for affordability for all citizens. This is a big issue in Portugal, and stakeholders need to understand the importance of sustainable tariffs to ensure quality and consistency in the long-term.
In addition, we have worked to develop recommendations and guidelines that support operators in tackling issues such as affordability, water scarcity, and equitable tariffs to promote sustainable and equitable water use. We collaborate with other regulatory agencies and organizations at the national and international level to share best practices and coordinate efforts to address water management challenges.
From our experience in Portugal, we have learned that effective water management requires a multi-stakeholder approach, with the involvement of Government, industry, civil society, and local communities. We have also learned the importance of transparency, accountability, and stakeholder engagement to achieve our goals.
Let’s move to a specific topic now. How do you balance the need for regulation with the need for innovation and flexibility in the water sector, and what role can regulation play in promoting innovation?
Regulation is in many cases seen as an obstacle to innovation, but I personally consider it is the opposite: innovation needs the stability and consistency regulators can provide to ensure that the investment in innovation has a payback. Of course, innovation must have boundaries, especially when we need to ensure the protection of public health, but balancing regulation and innovation in the water sector is crucial for achieving sustainable and efficient water management. Regulation provides the necessary framework and guidelines for ensuring safe and reliable water services, while innovation allows for the adoption of new technologies and practices that can enhance the sector’s performance and address emerging challenges.
To strike a balance between regulation and innovation, regulators must adopt a flexible and adaptive approach that promotes innovation while maintaining necessary standards and requirements. This can be achieved through regulatory frameworks that incentivize innovation and provide opportunities for experimentation and pilot projects, while also ensuring that new technologies and practices are thoroughly tested and proven before widespread implementation.
Moreover, regulation can play a significant role in promoting innovation by establishing clear goals and targets for the water sector and providing a stable and predictable regulatory environment that encourages investment and long-term planning. For example, setting ambitious targets for water efficiency, renewable energy use, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions can incentivize operators and businesses to innovate and invest in new technologies and practices that support these goals, generating long-term positive outcomes for society and rewarding operators for those outcomes.
In summary, finding the right balance between regulation and innovation in the water sector requires a flexible and adaptive approach that promotes innovation while maintaining necessary standards and requirements. By establishing clear goals and targets, providing incentives for innovation, and ensuring a stable regulatory environment, regulation can play a crucial role in promoting sustainable and equitable water use.
Thank you very much, Professor Eiró, for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with us on the occasion of World Water Day.
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