Juggling sewers and motorways in the EU

By bne IntelliNews December 7, 2012

Tim Gosling in Prague -

The eastern EU member states are locked in a bitter fight to protect their level of cohesion funding in the 2014-2020 EU budget. While those development funds are popular for their use to build high-profile infrastructure such as shiny new motorways, however much they manage to secure, governments may now be forced to spend a larger chunk than they might like on mending leaky water pipes and upgrading sewerage networks.

The European Commission published "A Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources" in late November. According to Sarah Bogaert of Arcadis, one of the authors, the proposals are aimed at supporting EU member states in meeting the targets included in the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD).

That programme, rolled out in 2000, hoped to achieve "good status" for water across the EU by 2015, a deadline the new report notes is "fast approaching". However, the level of compliance is poor in many countries, Bogaert notes. The blueprint is intended to be a carrot, she says, "to try to support member states deal with the lack of improvement, rather than using regulatory measures."

The stick, she notes, exists under the original WFD and is in the armoury to be used. "Germany has already been taken to court, and the European Commission has threatened more enforcement on the original targets."

That mix of carrot and stick then will look to help states improve water quality and management, not only to boost environmental issues such bio-diversity and the quality of drinking and swimming water, but also to deal with very real economic issues.

For instance, afflicted by drought, a sharp fall in output by Hungarian agriculture has done much to antagonize the economic slowdown. A little further south in the Balkans, meanwhile, water shortage is costing governments' there millions of euros as they are forced to import electricity due to their heavy reliance on hydroelectric power for generation.

For the meantime, the blueprint is merely the basis for discussion in the European Parliament and a variety of regional EU bodies, but will clearly be used to form policy for the coming years.

Dirty work

As ever, however, when hard cash enters the equation the going will not be easy. At the base of the blueprint is an idea for the European Commission to persuade European governments - and farmers - to direct more of the funding they receive towards achieving the WFD targets. Given the bitter fight in Brussels over the EU's new long-term budget, that is likely to prove especially unpopular.

Talks over the 2014-2020 budget stalled in late November, with the net contributors to the west of the bloc demanding that the budget should reflect the austerity being implemented at national level. The eastern states - net beneficiaries to a man - are fighting that tooth and nail, with cohesion funding their primary focus. They're joined by France, which is jealous of the other big ticket in the budget - the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The betting is that both those programmes, the CAP and cohesion funds, will have to accept some limits given that the European Commission's original budget proposal for a €100bn rise in budget spending failed to be approved at the Brussels summit in November. "Lots of regions are suffering from the effects of drought on their agriculture," says Bogaert from the international infrastructure and environmental consultancy. "There's a lack of funds at farmer level to invest in water efficiency and retention. The European Commission wants to introduce priority for water in CAP funding."

However, as she adds with no little understatement: "The timing is unfortunate."

Considering the brutal complaints from CEE over suggestions that they may need to accept a cut in cohesion funding, Brussels is unlikely to find it easy either to influence governments to spend what development funds they do receive to do - quite literally - the dirty work of fixing their pipes and sewers. A shiny new motorway or airport is clearly a far better headline for incumbent administrations. "The European Commission can't provide extra funds," Bogaert notes, "but it has identified water as one of its priorities for regional funds in the next budget - particularly for leakage improvement and waste water treatment."

"Water leakage and distribution issues are one of the biggest challenges," she continues, "and generally constitute up to 30% of total water loss. However, in the likes of Romania, the Czech Republic, or Bulgaria, there are probably more problems in that area than elsewhere in the EU."

The issues, she says, are mostly down to the state of water infrastructure. "Action can be taken to improve matters," Bogaert states bluntly. "It's just a question of spending priorities."

At the same time, she notes that "extending sewerage networks out to some of the more rural areas needs to be completed within the 2014-2020 budget terms," while CEE states also urgently need to improve their compliance rates on pollution and environmental standards.

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