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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

"The Water Challenge"

Bled Strategic Forum 2010, organised by the Centre for European Perspective

Bled (Slovenia), 30 August 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me first thank our Slovenian hosts for inviting me to this important event.

There is a saying that "when the well is dry, we know the value of water".

I think we have realised the value of water well before our well has run dry.

We know just how important it is…especially in our changing world.

In the 20th Century, we lived through what has become called "the great acceleration". We experienced a 4-fold growth in population; a 40-fold growth in economic output. But we also increased our use of fossil fuels 16 times, our fishing catches 35 times, our water use 9 times and our carbon emissions 17 times!

Of course this kind of resource abuse continues and it is happening in a very different world. It is more fragile and harshly competitive. It is more connected, more interdependent where our challenges merge and flow into each other like a huge ocean. Climate change, future energy supply, food and water scares, biodiversity loss…need I go on?

Water then is one of our greatest challenges. Just ask any of the millions of Pakistanis, fighting for their lives because of floods and flood-related disease. Stakeholders throughout the world know how important it is that we meet the challenge head on.

We need to turn the tide in our favour.

The international community has framed its response through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). Progress towards the achievement of the global objective - to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation - will be reviewed at the upcoming New York Summit in September.

The European Commission response to the WSSD and MDG goals is its EU Water Initiative. This integrates water resource management through a "river basin approach". It is an approach developed through EU experience, and resulting from close to 1.5 billion Euros of water project funding.

It depends on strong partnerships with Member States, developing countries, specific regions, civil society stakeholders and the private sector and of course, people. The objective is better governance in the water sector and more regional investment, to lay the groundwork for regional cooperation.

It also aims to make the existing financial mechanisms more efficient and streamlined. This should help with funding coming through existing EU development programmes, which are open to all countries and regions, and focus on Africa, the New Independent States and Central Asia.

The EU Water Initiative helped create a 500 million Euro "Water Facility" fund. This is delivering greater investment in water and sanitation services in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Between 2004 and 2007, 177 projects have improved:

  • access to water for 20 million people;

  • access to sanitation for 9 million people;

  • education on health and hygiene for 7 million people by 2010.

Further funding of 200 million Euros will see the facility helping even more people up until 2013.

Of course, projects are one thing; getting the political dialogue started which can lead to the right infrastructure being put in place is another…especially in developing countries.

This is why the EU-Africa Partnership on Infrastructure is so important. It responds directly to the need for regional integration and growth voiced by the African Union, and is supported by an infrastructure trust fund. This is designed to get that additional finance for infrastructure development…through a mixture of EU grants with loans from the European Investment Bank and other European and African development financing institutions.

I have spoken many times about the importance of putting the right governance in place – this is no less true for water policies. They have to be based on effective participatory governance, which balances water supply and demand, and is grounded in sustainability.

We know that climate change is already increasing water scarcity, droughts and floods in many regions of the world. This means that our water policies must include adaptation strategies that strengthen ecosystems and help us cope with it. This is why the EU domestic water responses concentrates on the sustainable management of water resources, using an integrated management approach, covering both water quantity and quality.

The key policy is the EU Water Framework Directive. It takes into account the fact that all our waters are connected, that we use water for all kinds of human activities. Most Europeans live in transboundary river basins – and this is why we take the "River Basin" approach. Water boundaries – as you can imagine – are fluid. And this is the only logical way to manage them.

There is good international cooperation happening already, through international river commissions. Among the 14 countries who share the Danube and the 9 along the Rhine, for example. These are examples of good practice that are worth sharing.

The Directive is a new direction in EU water management. And now 10 years after its adoption, we have now reached a crucial time in the implementation of the Directive with the adoption of the River Basin Management Plans. The plans set out the measures aimed at achieving good water status by 2015 and we will need to implement them.

There are still many challenges. Things like integration into agriculture, transport and energy policies; to the application of effective water pricing policies. We have to fight waste through new smart incentives. Water pricing in agriculture based on a fixed amount per irrigated hectare - rather than on actual volume of water consumption – just to give one example – is not the right way to do things.

The EU Strategy on Water Scarcity & Droughts complements the Directive. It stresses the importance of a water hierarchy: water demand management should come first and alternative supply options should only be considered once the potential for water savings and efficiency has been exhausted.

Integrated water policy management flows throughout the broader European policies too. The European Commission flagship initiative on resource efficiency, which is currently developing under the EU 2020 Strategy, makes water saving measures and increasing water efficiency a priority.

I spoke about climate change as a driver for our water policies. The IPCC themselves have said that changes in water quantity and quality due to climate change will be the main pressures on societies and the environment.

In response to the growing impact of climate change, we adopted a White Paper on how we can adapt better to it, last year. This highlights the need to increase the resilience of health, property and the productive functions of land to climate change, by improving the management of water resources and ecosystems.

Of course, successful adaptation to the impacts of climate change on water resources does not depend only on effective water policy. Agriculture, regional, energy, industrial, transport and research policies – to name a few – all contribute to water protection in their own way. This is an essential extension of the integrated approach. And if we do not involve everyone who has a role to play, then we may as well not bother at all.

Another important example, where our European experience could be of use to other continents is the development of so-called macro-regions approaches designed around the water basins. These include the EU Baltic Strategy and the Danube Strategy, whose potential benefits in achieving sustainable growth and territorial cohesion are very important.

Ladies and Gentlemen

As I hope I've shown you, a lot of effort has been put in to water polices. We are not trying to "reinvent the wheel" because the main policy and legislative framework is already in place.

We are trying, however, to refine our policies. Back in January, at my European Parliament hearing, I stressed the importance of implementation, resource efficiency and integration of environmental concerns in other policies.

The "Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's waters" I will present in 2012 is fully in line with these principles. It will look at:

  • Member States' success in implementing the river basin approach, which tackles all pressures on European waters;

  • The potential for water savings and increasing water availability and climate resilience;

  • The extent to which other policy areas are contributing to the achievement of good water status in 2015.

It might also contain elements of a new EU innovation Strategy, including an innovation partnership, which would boost innovation in the water sector. This, in turn, could contribute to achieving the even more sustainable use of water.

The Blueprint is not meant to tell us how to change our existing water-focused Directives. They will, after all, only deliver in 2015. It is instead a way for us to reinforce our EU water policies and to point them in the right direction.

Flowing in the right direction…doesn't that sound about right for a water policy?

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to our debate.

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