WiCE meeting: ‘Routes to a circular economy’

Is the water sector too specialised, too aware of its own role, too conformist, too gentle or too lazy?

On 11 April, a diverse group of forty experts in source protection, water quality, legislation, strategy development, advocacy and policy visited the PWN Visitor Centre ‘De Hoep’ for a meeting of the collective research programme Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE). The participants came from the Netherlands and Flanders, and from different types of organisation. The meeting was organised on the occasion of the completion of the ‘Circular Water 2050’ project looking at routes to a circular water chain.

One of the conclusions of that ‘Circular Water 2050’ project relates to the legacy period in which the temporary expansion of treatment for drinking water and sewage is unavoidable in order to fulfil the core responsibilities (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Backcasting based on a circular water chain in 2050 shows that we are now faced with the undesirable but unavoidable expansion of treatment plants for drinking water and sewage.

The expansion of treatment plants is undesirable because “end-of-pipe” solutions are not compatible with a Circular Economy. In his presentation, Bas Nanninga (Union of Water Authorities) showed how system change (‘Refuse’, ‘Reduce’ and ‘Redesign’ measures) is needed to maintain water management. ‘Recycle’ and ‘Recover’ measures are now receiving a lot of attention and they are important, but inadequate. The water authorities understand the need for system change and see the route to a circular water chain as a major transition.

Bas Nanninga.

Additional treatment unavoidable

The expansion of treatment plants runs counter to EU policy: the Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires water quality to be such that simple treatment should be adequate to make drinking water. Additional treatment phases do not fit in with the climate goals either, because the extra effort results in a larger climate footprint. On the other hand, Koen Zuurbier (strategic consultant on drinking water at PWN) used PFAS as an example to show that additional treatment is unavoidable. In any case, a 95% reduction of PFAS in PWN’s main source, the IJsselmeer, will take more than 20 years. So the legacy period is a given. This implies major modifications to existing facilities and it involves enormous costs.

Koen Zuurbier.

Law and water quality

In a Circular Economy, the costs of additional treatment phases and the protection of water quality cannot be passed on to the drinking water consumer and taxpayer. This would constitute an infringement of the EU environmental principle of ‘the polluter pays’ and the responsibility of producers as outlined in the European Green Deal 2050. Keynote speaker Professor Marleen van Rijswick (Utrecht University) provided the participants with many new insights into how law can contribute to the fair and sustainable management of the water quality and the equitable distribution of the associated costs. The obligation to deliver results makes the WFD a powerful tool. And, in terms of progress towards the WFD targets, the Netherlands is in bad shape: even the most extreme packages of measures are inadequate for 2027, and less ambitious goals will not provide a solution. Contrary to what we may have heard during the elections last March, European law takes precedence over national law. Professor van Rijswick also showed how the WFD explicitly addresses the equitable distribution of costs for water treatment.

Marleen van Rijswick.

Teamwork during the workshop.

Backcasting workshop

During the afternoon programme of the WiCE Meeting, the participants broke up into subgroups to explore different routes to a single objective: the polluter pays the inevitable additional treatment phases from 2030 onwards. Of course, these costs represent only a small part of the issue and they do not even include other costs, such as environmental damage. But a clear starting point is required for the backcasting method. The meeting was also intended to introduce participants to this method. During the final discussion, it was concluded that backcasting is a very useful method – particularly if you involve stakeholders in determining the desired route.

Public debate

Above all, the final discussion generated a number of future perspectives for the water sector. The participants were undecided about whether we, as the water sector, are too specialised, too aware of our own role, too conformist, too gentle or just too lazy. However, by arranging for the additional treatment work ourselves and passing on the costs to the public, we implicitly prioritise certain values and interests over others. The participants agreed that a new approach is needed. To begin with, that involves clarifying the difference between (1) the simple drinking water treatment we want to achieve (in line with EU legislation) and (2) the advanced treatment that is unavoidable due to factors such as PFAS. How much will it cost to bridge this temporary difference? By making this clear, we can conduct a better conversation about moral considerations. At the same time, we must ensure that the price does not become a licence to pollute. There was a feeling among the participants that the water sector should actually be organising the public debate about these costs: tell people about the dilemmas and make the decision political.

The backcasting and final discussion also generated a second action perspective: as water utilities and water authorities, we should bring all discharge permits into better focus from a strategic perspective. And submit a request to make permit requirements stricter if a discharge requires additional treatment. Tightening up permit requirements and phasing out permits are two things that are genuinely needed to make the Circular Economy a reality. The Environment Act provides a lot of scope, but no guarantees, for improving water quality. So water organisations will have to exploit this scope more proactively because other stakeholders are also being given more scope. Enforcement will also become increasingly important in the years ahead: this is an obligation under law. Finally, the participants talked about tackling things at source and authorising substances. We must ensure that substances such as PFAS are kept out of the environment. Everybody agreed on that. However, to get the transition moving, the first three steps are to (1) clarify the costs of additional treatment work, (2) review discharge permits, and (3) organise public debate.