The water sector continues to be of great industrial interest and, in particular, of great environmental importance. The industrial sector consumes over 7 billion m3 of water, 18 billion are used by agriculture (50%), while 5 billion m3 are distributed via civil networks, although 9 billion m3 are taken from water sources, highlighting major issues in terms of leaks and resulting in calls for action from institutes and the public in relation to the water emergency. It is clearly necessary to launch initiatives to reduce water use and incentivize its reuse.
The situation with regard to water infrastructure and management systems is critical. Massive investment is needed to overcome chronic structural weaknesses, but the main problem lies not so much in evaluating where and how to get these resources, but rather in identifying investment priorities. The deficit in terms of systems and infrastructure can be summarized as follows: 4% of the population is still without suitable water mains and 7% is without a connection to a sewer. In terms of water purification, a dramatic gap emerges, with 15% of the population living without water treatment plants (21% of the polluting load), with southern Italy falling drastically behind..
In Italy, 24% of water mains are over 50 years old, as are 27% of sewers, whereas the useful life of the same is 40 years. 92% of all work done on water networks is unplanned, meaning it is done to repair damaged pipes.
In terms of investments, after a decade of inertia (€30/resident/year), there has been some improvement with signs of recovery (€45/resident/year), and predictions of growth reaching, on average, over €50/resident/year. Things are changing but we are still nowhere near the €80/resident/year that is needed. An uptake in investment is key: from €3.2 billion/year (over €50/resident/year) to €4.8 billion/year (about €80/resident/year). There are many issues related in particular to the lack of water purification and treatment facilities, but also to the elevated operating costs of existing water plants (especially with regard to the disposal of sludge that is too wet and unstable) due to their high energy costs and their intense environmental impact (with limited recovery of nutrients).
Current maintenance does not seem to impact structural operations, so a modern, sustainable approach to the problem of quality is needed in order to move towards circular economic sustainability, with the baseline being the quality of holding tanks and basins, both in general and according to their specific use. Incentives must be provided to reduce waste, improve maintenance of the supply and distribution networks, reduce leaks, and encourage water recycling and the reuse of treated waste water..
Innovation and technological research therefore play an important role, which is something we seek to highlight at H2O. We can summarize with a few points: Smart land use, IoT, transmission technologies, system integrators, verifiability of water transmission, smart grids and metering, monitoring, consumption indicators, field sensors, new meters (for which there is still a lack of regulation) and recycling old ones (brass, glass, plastic), monitoring of microbiology, use of recycled plastic, reduced energy usage and a resolution to the sludge problem (few alternatives to incineration).
If you take the time to look around the stands you will find that there is a growing focus on technology, innovation, investment, management systems and best practices, which are areas that require an integrated approach. We have an opportunity for dialogue and debate on cross-cutting and niche themes alike, including industry, agriculture, the chemical industry and the water cycle integrated with the civil sector.
It is important for the public to participate in H2O
Citizens are, without a doubt, more aware of and attentive to their needs. Large agencies know that users must be made aware of the need to save water for domestic use, but also of the need to reduce the waste of water (potable or otherwise) used for production and irrigation purposes, and to encourage and support targeted studies 'including with economic incentives’ to improve the use of water in production processes.
The development of an economic basis for public environmental services thus becomes essential. A greater focus on costs and, especially, on prices and fees is required. It is, therefore, a question of civil development, but also of developing the economic basis necessary for local public services.
The provision of information is therefore essential. The importance of the quality and cost of water services as perceived by consumers (see REF laboratory no. 116, March 2019) is an important point of analysis. Perception is shaped by the regularity of service, network losses (in terms of technical quality) and sometimes by commercial quality (in cases of contact). A wider-reaching Sunshine Act (making quality indicators public) is needed.
The pricing system thus becomes one of the more essential, and perhaps more critical, aspects of the environmental services management system. The value, cost and price of the service provided should be connected and interdependent. However, despite the progress made in recent years, the price of water is still less than half of that in the rest of Europe. Water pricing reform (quoting from a REF study) has had a lengthy gestation period and troubled implementation. The goal of rationalization certainly has been reached. As of writing, however, 40% of all areas have not adopted the national regulation guidelines. The remaining 60% has mostly opted for gradual transition. The concept of the ‘standardized tariff’, introduced in Italy in 1997 by art. 49 of the Ronchi Decree (which provided for the switch from tax to tariff starting 1 January 2000), has been presented on multiple occasions as a pricing model that would give more weight to Europe's ‘polluter pays’ principle and encourage behaviours that are in line with the objectives of prevention, reduction of non-recyclable waste and an increase in recycling. The per capita tariff is a reality for 1 in 4 Italians although payment arrears are a problem, according to REF. The map of late payments shows an Italy divided into three parts: the south (including Sardinia and Sicily), in which unpaid bills amount to 14% of revenue, with peaks of 27%; central Italy, where the average value of unpaid bills drops to 6% but still with peaks of 19%; and the north, where the maximum level does not exceed 6% of revenue, while the average settles at 2.4%.
The ‘right price’ of water is an important incentive to encourage the sustainable use of the same (a well-thought-out pricing policy should regulate usage and more importantly assign the right value to the utility provided). At the same time, it is necessary to find ways to incentivize operators that encourage water savings. Explicit and implicit quality must be incentivized and rewarded - by means of appropriate pricing instruments - while penalizing delays and inefficiencies (service charters must become a contractual instrument and not serve merely as a marketing document). Rate increases should not just be connected to covering service costs, but also to quality parameters: the ARERA measures on contractual quality (Res. 655/15) and technical quality (Del. 917/17) are a step in that direction.
Scientific Coordinator of H2O