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Experts debate how to fix Europe's water issues, from pollution to climate change

The debate was presented from the EU's Green Week event in Brussels,
The debate was presented from the EU's Green Week event in Brussels, Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Jeremy WilksNatalia Oelsner & Jonny Walfisz
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As part of the European Union's Green Week event in Brussels, Euronews science correspondent Jeremy Wilks quizzed experts about water pollution, droughts, and floods and asked when we will wise up about water.

“If we want to ensure that there's a future for Europe, you better get water right. Otherwise, forget about it. There's no fix for climate if we don't focus on water,” Henk Ovink, the Executive Director and founding Commissioner for the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, tells Euronews.

The Dutch water advocate was speaking at the Euronews Water Resilience Debate on 29 May, where a panel of experts were quizzed about how we should wise up about water.

Presented from the European Union's Green Week event in Brussels, our science correspondent Jeremy Wilks was at the helm.

He put questions to that panel, comprising Henk Ovink, Florika Fink-Hooijer, the Director-General for Environment at the European Commission, and Arnaud Valleteau de Moulliac, the CEO of Veolia Water Technologies, a €1.65 billion water treatment subsidiary of Veolia group, based in France.

Read on for the highlights of this important debate which will help you understand the intricacies of water – one of planet Earth’s most pressing issues.

You can watch the highlights at the top of this article, or watch the entire debate in the video player below:

Meet our panelists:

​​Dr. Florika Fink-Hooijer – Director-General for Environment at the European Commission

Henk Ovink – Executive Director and founding Commissioner for the Global Commission on the Economics of Water

Arnaud Valleteau de Moulliac – CEO of Veolia Water Technologies, a €1.65 billion water treatment subsidiary of Veolia group, based in France

Moderator – Jeremy Wilks, Euronews Science Correspondent

Dr. Florika Fink-Hooijer, Arnaud Valleteau de Moulliac and Henk Ovink (L-R) will be the expert panellists grilled by Jeremy Wilks
Dr. Florika Fink-Hooijer, Arnaud Valleteau de Moulliac and Henk Ovink (L-R) will be the expert panellists grilled by Jeremy WilksEuronews/Canva

Why is water such an important topic right now?

With the European elections coming up in June – and climate change and its effects a huge issue – it’s no surprise that water is a hot topic for politicians and leaders.

Water is a pressing issue for voters, too. A recent European Commission poll found that pollution was the number one concern for Europeans, with 69% going on to say they were worried about pollution’s effect on water security.

As Europe becomes increasingly concerned over water pollution, it is also becoming increasingly scarce. Yet demand is at an all-time high, with estimations that demand will double by 2030.

Our water comes from both within Europe – blue water from rivers and lakes – and from outside the continent – green water that travels through plants and rain – and ensuring the cleanliness of both sources is crucial. 

It's crucial for the hydrological cycle, for biodiversity, food and the economy: water is the basis from which all our lives depend. “There is no alternative,” Ovink says. “You can’t drink sand or anything else.”

A man carries children through flood water, with emergency services at the scene after heavy rainfall, in Tuscany, Italy in November 2023
A man carries children through flood water, with emergency services at the scene after heavy rainfall, in Tuscany, Italy in November 2023Adriano Conte/LaPresse via AP

Water pollution and the threat of PFAS

Just how polluted are Europe’s waters? Wilks quizzed the panel early on to check on the state of the continent’s waterways and confirm whether the average concerned citizen’s fears were fairly placed.

Compared to the global context, European water is comparatively healthy, but Ovink doesn’t believe we should be complacent. “We should be concerned. Water affects our health, our human health, the health of our kids, if we want to bring them up in a healthy environment. But also the health of our food systems, combined with industrialisation, pollution and chemicals in our waters.”

Included in the troubling substances found in our waterways are an abundance of so-called 'forever chemicals', the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances referred to as PFAS. There are also traces of antibiotics, hormones, industrial chemicals, cyanotoxins, nanomaterials and many more.

“What we find in our water is what comes from our environment,” Valleteau de Moulliac underlines. He argues that although we shouldn't be surprised that the byproducts of European industries are ending up in our water, we can monitor the influx and then treat the water as necessary.

This work has been buoyed by multinational regulation, Fink-Hooijer says, something which has already been seen with the Drinking Water Directive. “We have said PFAS will have to be phased out by 2026, or sorted out and monitored, and now we are giving guidance on how,” she says. There are also proposals that are awaiting votes to tackle water pollutants in surface water and groundwater.

“This is why there is a beauty in regulating it and making member states agree on the necessity,” Fink-Hooijer says, noting that broad acceptance will speed up any process of water monitoring and treatment.

On PFAS, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway have made a demand to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) to ban them outright. PFAS proliferated due to their utility in industries such as aeronautics and medicine. However, they can take thousands of years to break down, and have a nasty knack of polluting far from their source.

Should we give our waterways more legal protection in order to keep them safe?

Another question came from Charline Albericci, the COO of the Fluctuations Festival, a floating transnational festival wandering European rivers, aiming to engage people on social, environmental and citizenship topics.

She asked the panel whether, in order to preserve water and achieve EU climate targets by 2030, our rivers, seas and oceans be given a specific legal status?

“There are countries around the world that are not only considering that, but are actually doing that, like the Dominican Republic,” Ovink explains.

It’s a little less straightforward in Europe, given that each country in the bloc has slightly different approaches to water – yet there is hope, as well as regulations already in place.

“We do already have very strong access to provision, like the Environmental Crime Directive [which supports the protection of the environment through criminal law] which is very strong,” Fink-Hooijer says.

“In France, there's this idea of adopting a river for school classes, which I find is a very nice and good idea because you claim ownership and take responsibility for a particular piece of water,” she adds, “Giving kids that chance helps them to understand the importance of protecting our waterways.”

Ovink suggested that this is a small step towards wider national awareness of the issues at hand.

“It creates ownership and also the capacity to do something. A legal status really gives you the opportunity to say, 'hey, stop. I'll do anything to help', I think that combination is strong,” he says.

People stand on the banks of the river Main near the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, after sunset on Monday, April 22, 2024
People stand on the banks of the river Main near the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, after sunset on Monday, April 22, 2024Michael Probst/Copyright 2024 The AP.

Intensive farming and wastewater from food industry

One of the principal uses of water is in agriculture. Around 70% of all water extracted enters into farming to produce the food we all eat. If the water going into agriculture is polluted, that has direct repercussions for everyone. However, pollution from farming also needs to be tackled.

Policy that supports farmers who adopt more sustainable methods that reduce the pollutants they release into the water, should be prioritised, Ovink says, responding to a question from Jerry Mac Evilly, head of policy at Friends of the Earth Ireland.

Ovink, who comes from a farming background, notes though that it won’t help to single out individual farmers. “The single farmer is not to blame for the pollutants that end up in our environment, it’s the system around it that we need to change.”

That the products of agricultural wastewater are actually valuable shouldn’t be forgotten, Valleteau de Moulliac adds. “We can create energy with the pollution,” he says, noting the potential for food industry waste to be used to produce fertiliser.

An abandoned canoe sits on the cracked ground amid a drought at the Sau reservoir, north of Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.
An abandoned canoe sits on the cracked ground amid a drought at the Sau reservoir, north of Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2024 The AP

What are the solutions?

The concerns around water pollution and scarcity may be myriad, but so are the solutions. The panel were asked what would motivate a city to enact crucial changes to infrastructure to overcome situations such as sewage overflow into waterways, as can happen in cities such as Brussels during acute downpours. 

City-based solutions can include infrastructure expansion, but also more novel ideas like greening roofs and replacing concrete or tarmac. These solutions "are much cheaper than anything else, and they’re also having positive side effects for citizens' well-being, including mental well-being,” Fink-Hooijer says.

Solutions must also be scalable to the size of the issue. On this, Fink-Hooijer relates how policy such as 1991's Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive has changed.

Originally, it only focused on big agglomerations, allowing smaller ones to get away with dumping sewage. “They were not over the threshold to have urban wastewater treatment installations.” This was then changed to capture a wider range of polluters by focusing on the source producer instead.

Beyond the cities, there are also solutions to the larger hydrological cycle. This relates to the way blue water, green water, and grey water (waste water) all interact to create the holistic water system we rely upon. To ensure the longevity of a human-beneficial hydrological cycle, we need to create scalable natural solutions for both the rivers and the urban landscapes, Fink-Hooijer says.

One example Valleteau de Moulliac gives of such solutions is a park built in Alicante to absorb rainwater. This park was huge though, and Wilks points out the potential problem of relying on nature-based solutions that are so space-dependent. “There is enough space,” Valleteau de Moulliac retorts.

“We need to see water as a local topic. There is a global impact, but it’s a local topic," he says.

As Valleteau de Moulliac points out, improving the water system requires an outlook as broad and as complex as the hydrological cycle itself. If water will fit to any container it is put in, so must our solutions. You can read more about the EU’s Water Framework Directive here.

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