Monday, July 26, 2021
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Enrique Cabrera Marcet

The iWater forum: a think tank needed to move towards sustainable water management

Professor of Fluid Mechanics-Polytechnic University of Valencia

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Enrique Cabrera Marcet. Professor of Fluid Mechanics-Polytechnic University of Valencia

These days, no one argues that the sustainable management of water is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in this 21st century. And possibly it is the greatest. In fact, this is the opinion of the World Economic Forum, which has described water crises as the risk that has the greatest social impact. And as if this is not enough, this is corroborated by the United Nations which, in establishing the SDOs (Sustainable Development Objectives), has placed water and sanitation at the forefront. In fact, it is the sixth SDO when fifteen years ago, defining the challenges of the millennium that had just been born, it only managed to occupy a second level (7C), within the seventh challenge, to Ensure the Sustainability of the Environment. And in the next fifteen years, the situation will have to improve considerably so that, when the progress of the SDO is reviewed in 2030, the undesired protagonism that today's water crisis has assumed does not go up another level. Because despite undoubted progress, problems grow faster than solutions, so the overall balance remains negative.

We live, dragged along by the globalisation that presides over us, a world of great technological changes. Fortunately, the world of water does not escape this. So deep are these changes that we can even drink purified water that meets the most demanding standards. Advances that should make us regard the future with optimism. But the reality is that the millenary culture of water, well anchored in the past, has many solutions. The passage of the centuries has been so much has consolidated that this has been adapted to modern times in very few places. Millennial historical rights prevail (established in a context that has nothing to do with the current ones) and there are still centuries-old laws whose reform to conform to today's reality is very difficult to do. On the other hand, management structures created decades ago, created for what was then convenient, to promote works, are not now sufficient to do what matters most, manage better. As an example, they are unable to control the overexploitation and contamination of aquifers. Finally, the vast majority of citizens do not know that managing water sustainably requires significant investments and has a cost to be borne by the user, since it is the solution that best suits the general interest, which is why the Water Framework Directive Requires it. Water is a commodity, not just social, but also environmental and economic.

In conclusion, to solve the problem of water is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to educate the citizenry to facilitate changes that favour its sustainable management. And also educate those responsible for making decisions in any of the axes that frame their management: political, managerial and technical. So much so that we will only get out of this mess by educating users and decision makers. To get to at balanced and consensual decisions on such a cross-cutting issue, each party must know and understand the alternative views. Easy to say and difficult to do, both because of the enormous inertia of this complex world, and because of the vested interests that time has generated.

Immersed in this complex framework, problems increase. Geographic areas with scarcity of water are the ones that grow the most and where the threat of climate change is greatest. Pollution, especially in developing countries, is not controlled. On the other hand, the solution to these problems (desalination, purification of quality to be able to recycling, transport of water from where it is to where it is needed,...) is demanding on energy, favouring the emission of greenhouse gases that, in turn, accelerate climate change. A catch-22 situation. Infrastructures are also lacking, but if the existing ones are not maintained, the deficiencies increase. With serious financing problems (most governments do not have the capacity to promote works), private capital, though attracted by the low risk associated with the activity, remains undecided by the ongoing turbulence surrounding this complex world.

The end result is well known. One thousand children die every day from water-related diarrheal diseases, one thousand million people lack quality water and two and a half thousand million do not have sanitation. Figures that overwhelm and that are probably greater because they are the synthesis of massaged official data. And in any case it is the tip of the iceberg, because the catalogue of minor problems is countless.

In short, they are complex problems without a single solution (because it depends on the analysis optics) in an age-old frame of maximum complexity. But there are solid points of support. Such as technology, able to solve problems and increase efficiency to do more with less. But technology is the means, not the end. Let us not forget it. Another fundamental point of support is the common sense that can project its undoubted subjective component based on success stories. There are also formulas that are not open to discussion. How to save water (which requires recovering the cost), better management of demand, recycling water (the best alternative source) and even encourage virtual water trading. But this requires breaking down cultural barriers and suppressing privileges, that is, relaxing the framework in which this game is played.

iWater just landed in this complex playing field. And it has done so with two objectives. The first is to exhibit the tools with which to attack problems with guarantees of success. An Exhibition that Tech Hub supports in bringing the technological innovations to those most interested. The second is the raison d'être of the Forum, to identify viable solutions that, as has been said, are not unique and reflect on how to transform the current rigid framework into the one that best suits the 21st century.

Therefore the Forum is a key pillar of iWater. In its 2016 edition it has debated three issues: resilience, governance and financing, closely related to current problems. To facilitate its reading, the ideas presented and the discussions, together with the final conclusions, are detailed in three summaries (one per theme): a final document, synthesis of the syntheses, future matters that should be analyzed in forthcoming editions. And all to record the first step of a long and fascinating journey, which we must follow.

First day

In a world evolving at a high speed, changes related to the natural environment tend to make things worse (more needs, a consequence of population increase, less availability of water, especially in areas where it is already scarce and towards which, precisely because of this productive bonanza, everyone moves, and, in the end, because of more extreme weather events (droughts and floods) it is vital to properly prepare agricultural and industrial structures as well as the cities where we live for these new boundary conditions. Which will, by the way, will be much less kind. A greater capacity for resistance has been called resilience and, in short, consists of adapting our ways of life to the new circumstances. Precisely the resilience (fundamentally from the perspective of the uses of water) is the subject that the first day of the Forum of IWater presided. It is not an original term, rather it is imported. The dictionary of the RAE contemplates resilience at applying to living beings (ability to adapt to disturbing agents) and for mechanical materials (ability to recover its initial state when the disturbance has ceased). Thus, it is a generalization of much more complex systems (such as cities) and, like many living beings, must learn to coexist in the best possible conditions in the face of the formidable disturbances that extreme events are, both heavy rains and prolonged droughts.

Well then, with the common thread of resilience, the day was structured in ten papers and two round tables. Following the opening of the Forum, with the presence of representatives of administrations and professional bodies, the first speaker Peter Gleick reviewed the evolution of water management over time and outlined how that management should be in the future. Carolina Rodríguez then presented the European programme PRIMA focused on the Mediterranean, one of the geographical areas of the world most exposed to extreme events. Two initial framework statements followed the analysis of how the productive structures (agriculture, Jaime Lamo and industrialist Josep Molas, Xavier Cardoso and Dirk van der Stede) should be adapted to suit the new framework. The activity of the morning closed with a round table moderated by Montserrat Termes in which the fundamental role of the water economy in the new context of scarcity was discussed.

The afternoon session was much more specific, being focused on how to enhance the resilience of cities, no doubt the most vulnerable structures (due to the serious damage associated with them) to the adverse consequences of climate change. It was organized in three sections. In the first one, the responses of three European cities, Paris (Youseff Diab), Lisbon (Rafaela Matos) and Barcelona (Gustavo Ramon) to some of the extreme events that already have endured were presented. In the second, the specific floods risk of natural hazards in cities was addressed. And it was done (Javier Sanchez) by reviewing how the European regulations (and their transposition to Spain) have been adapted to the future climate framework. The afternoon session ended with a roundtable moderated by Francisco Cubillo, focused on how to increase the resilience of urban water services.

To this brief synthesis of the programme of the first day of Forum, there followed a synthesis of the contents presented by speakers and participants in the round tables. It seems that whoever draws these conclusions comments the main contributions of each speaker. But We should not forget that this task has a notable component of subjectivity and that, although one is sensitive to all the problems linked to this cross-sectional world, it will always be conditioned by my training and my field of work. Well, without forgetting this caveat, let's get down to the details of the promised summary.

Peter Gleick's inaugural conference, director of the Pacific Institute, began with a brief description of water management over time. Once brought up-to-date, it detailed the majors problems that we still have pending in their opinion. These include restoring water quality, producing necessary food, resolving water conflicts, guaranteeing the human right to water and, finally, successfully tackling the challenge of climate change. He also outlined the path to be followed to solve them, in good harmony with the themes of IWater. And so he emphasized the reform of institutions (governance) to adapt them to the current framework, to bank on the technology that allows us to drink purified water with total guarantee (recycling) and to improve efficiency (IWater rationale). As an example of sustained efficiency, it compared current US water expenditure with that of 1970. While since then the economy (Gross Domestic Product) has multiplied by 2.5, water consumption is 10% lower than it was then. Until 1970, water consumption and the economy had grown in unison. Greater efficiency has decoupled them.

The second presentation, very technocratic (Carolina Rodríguez, European Union), is another proof of the current importance lent to the subject. She described the main features of the PRIMA programme (Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean) that the European Union has just launched (October 2016). In fact, it was born to develop and implement methodologies that favour a more sustainable water management, in agriculture in particular. With the participation in PRIMA of almost 20 countries (the Mediterranean, the EU and North Africa), the programme is scheduled to last for ten years (2018 to 2027) and the budget of 400 million Euros, financed at 50% by the EU and the countries involved.

These general contributions followed four presentations and a round table in which the speakers reflected on the adequacy of agriculture and industry to a framework of growing water scarcity. Professor Lamo de Espinosa in their discourse synthesized their recent book (2016), water in a global world undergoing climate change in which, from a general perspective, it analyzes irrigation. It defended a more rational and compact administration (to achieve this would require a state pact), continue to modernize irrigation to improve efficiency, the progressive implementation of "climate-smart" agriculture that includes the concepts of virtual water and water footprint and, in the end, empowers technology to do more with less.

Speakers who represented the industry abounded, as it could not be otherwise. The first of the presentations (Josep Molas, Coca Cola) was articulated around three basic ideas. Quality water, a strategic element for the food industry (hence its commitment to preserve it), the need to minimize its consumption in the production process (promoting efficiency and recycling) and already, in a more corporate context, its commitment not to consume, rather return all the water consumed to the natural environment. The second speaker (Xavier Cardoso, Nalco), framed the industrial use of water in a much wider context, obvious by the profile of their company, conveying a similar message to the audience. Efficiency must be improved by enhancing the three strategic environmental principles (reduce, re-cycle and recycling). A reflection that concluded with two comments linked to water as an economic commodity. In the first place he commented that, too often, water is cheapest where it is most scarce. He then referred to the interest of the new tool designed by their company, the "waterriskmonetizer", which allows assessing the losses that their lack causes. The third speaker (Dirk van der Stede, Vlakwa), on the basis of two notable studies, assessed the socio-economic importance of water. The first, of a general nature, Water and Employment, published in 2016 by the United Nations and, among other notable assessments, concludes that 42% of the world's employment is linked to water. The second, more local, an analysis of the role of water in the economy of Flanders. No matter the cost (hardly impacting on the P&L statement) but nonetheless essential to have. The sustainability of most companies is at stake.



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