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SPEECH/12/391

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Every drop counts!

Closing session of the European Green Week 2012

Brussels, 25 May 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We come to the end of a most intensive week in our water year, but also a most fruitful one. The quantity and quality of the discussions, the number of participants, the enormously valuable input so many of you have provided, to both Green Week and the 3rd European Water Conference, have been most impressive.

At the beginning of my mandate I identified water as my priority for 2012. I am happy to see that - a little more than two years down the line - we have made good progress towards developing a water policy fit to face the challenges ahead. But policy-making can only be as good as the knowledge it is based on.

Numerous studies and assessments conducted by the Commission, the European Environment Agency, Member States, national agencies and various stakeholders have helped boost our knowledge and understanding of the current trends, emerging problems and existing gaps in the implementation of our water policy. They have shed valuable light on new and emerging challenges that change the picture once again, allowing us to provide adequate responses.

In the course of this week you have tackled key areas of water policy such as water scarcity and efficiency, the status of water resources including marine resources, the Innovation Partnership on Water - which we just launched - and international water policy with its fundamental link to development and poverty alleviation.

The 3rd Water Conference has sharpened the focus on specific policy options. We are also consulting the public on these questions, in preparation for our Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources.

These events have provided us with an invaluable source of information and a much greater understanding that we are already feeding into the preparatory process of the Blueprint, including its impact assessment. Allow me to say, I am very grateful for all your contributions.

It will take a while to digest them all. But what are our first impressions? What is most striking from this week of discussions?

The first thing to note is the sheer size of the challenge ahead. The 2015 deadline set by the Water Framework Directive to achieve good water status in the EU is just round the corner.

The assessment of more than one hundred river basin management plans from all over Europe tells us that, in spite of the considerable progress made, there is strong need to improve pollution sources control across all sectors. If our rivers are to stay alive or to come back to life, we need to act to restore water bodies which have been significantly altered through physical modifications, leading to changes in water flows, habitat fragmentation and obstructions of species migration.

Moreover, rising water demand and the impacts of climate change are expected to increase the pressure on Europe’s water resources, underlining the importance of increased efficiency and savings in water use.

Europe is suffering from changes in patterns of rainfall and land use. These have increased the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts over the past thirty years and their environmental and economic damage. Further socio-economic, land-use and climate changes are likely to exacerbate the situation.

But however difficult the tasks ahead may appear, we have no choice. We must rise to the challenge. Without water there is no environment, no economy, no life.

As we have just heard from the youth representative, passing on to the next generation the bill of our failure to protect our water resources is not a valid option. We need to listen to this call.

As Deputy Secretary General Leterme has clearly recalled, this is not only in the interest of nature, it is in our economic interest. Let's try and turn the economic problems that we are experiencing into an opportunity for Green Growth, or rather Blue Growth, to ensure that our planet will still deserve the name of Blue Planet for the generations to come.

Because there are solutions and both the Green Week and the 3rd Water Conference have shown to us a number of areas and measures both voluntary and binding that we could take. It is time for us to address the big knowledge gap in water quantitative management that exists in many EU river basins. We need reliable water accounts that help us understand what a realistic amount of available water might be. Only then will we be able to make water allocations that make sense, respecting the minimum environmental flow that nature needs to keep providing the ecosystem services we rely on. This is also a question of credibility. The conference made clear that economic instruments like pricing or payments for ecosystem services will only work if the right information is available beforehand.

We also need to agree and implement water stress indicators that tell us in a timely fashion when action is needed because our water resources are becoming too scarce.

And let's not forget that in many parts of Europe, we also need a much improved integration of drought management into overall river basin management.

***

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since water is a natural resource that cannot be replaced - every drop counts! - This is why we have to improve our water efficiency. We have great margins in this respect in irrigation for agriculture; in buildings where water savings mean also energy savings; and in water distribution networks, where the leakage rate is too high in many parts of the EU.

I was interested to learn about the support expressed this week for targets for water efficiency at river basin level. It strikes me that they are a potentially powerful tool for integrating water efficiency objectives into other sectoral policies – so how about more "crop for drop" targets? They certainly merit our consideration.

But most of all, to foster water efficiency, we need to fully implement the provisions of the Water Framework Directive. That means pricing policies that provide adequate incentives to water efficiency.

Of course, we must also take into account social and local considerations for both targets and prices, but we can no longer allow water to be seen as a good with no price in the parts of Europe where desertification is advancing. We need to put a price tag on the ecosystem services that nature provides and address this major failing of the markets.

We have to bear in mind that our rivers, in order to thrive, cannot be turned into canals, they cannot be enclosed by ever higher walls, they cannot become motorways. We have to think of other ways to manage nature for instance by relying on Green Infrastructure:

  • Restoring natural flood plains will protect our people and economy from floods;

  • Protecting or creating wetlands will store water for times of scarcity while supporting biodiversity and keeping our soils fertile;

  • And protecting or planting forests will reduce water run off and increase our resilience to scarcity and droughts.

These measures are not wishful thinking. They are practical and we already have many examples in the EU where they are applied. They work on the ground because they are the result of effective governance systems. And there are many important tools within EU policies that can help implement these measures.

A reformed CAP, if the greening and cross-compliance proposals of the Commission are maintained, can become a game changer in the implementation of EU water policy.

The new Cohesion policy offers additional opportunities to support not only traditional water measures such as waste water treatment but also, much more so than in the past, Green Infrastructure.

At the same time, we can and must ensure that our transport and energy policy do not lead to unsustainable impacts on the water environment.

***

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends of water,

to conclude…

As some of you have probably noticed I was not around as much as I would have wanted this week. Unfortunately institutional obligations hold me in Strasbourg till yesterday late afternoon. I have tried my best to be replaced for some of them, but it did not work. Much to my regret. I would like to apologise to all my colleagues who have invested so much and took care of the practicalities of such a big event. I have been informed that they were very discrete and almost invisible. If you, the participants, felt like at home during the Green Week, it is thanks to their work. If I'm allowed to draw a parallel with the sport (which I like and enjoy much), the referee is the best when he or she is not visible.

Big "thank you" goes also to the Water unit and other experts for their substantial inputs to the discussions … and to our interpreters for helping us to understand each other better.

Finally, "thank you" to all of you, dear participants, for making this Green Week so special. Again! When you will be returning home, take a minute or two and try to imagine one single day of your life without water. What a misery… And to feel better … then think about this week and the valuable contribution you have made to protect and respect the water. What a mystery … of life.

If there is one message we should all take back home, it's the one that has surrounded us all week: every drop counts.

Thank you for counting all the drops and safe way back home.


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