Water is an integral part of our lives. Equally important is the way it is managed in cities, which is often limited only to offsetting the negative effects of natural disasters. This is a mistake.
We talk to Klara Ramm, an expert on water management, about what we will find at this year's City-Water-Quality of Life congress, why water is so important and which way thinking about its exploitation should evolve.
Wiktor Bochenek: TheCity - Water - Quality of Life congress is fast approaching [17-19.10.2022 - editor's note]. What will we find at the congress this year?
Klara Ramm: The congress is already a regular event in the calendar of urban and water specialists. The majority of the population lives in cities, the problem of their proper organization and efficiency affects basically everyone in Europe. Like any living organism, a city needs water to live. Clean and healthy water, in the right quantity and quality, at the right place and time. Urban water management is therefore not an easy challenge. During the congress there will be an exchange of experiences among experts, we will learn about urban water management presented from many perspectives, both technical, social and economic.
For me, a special event is the presentation of the results of the Water City Index ranking. I have the honor of being a member of the team developing this ranking. Every year we improve the tool, striving for objectivity in the evaluation. In addition, we try to add new aspects that could inspire decision-makers. The WCI is intended to help those involved in urban water management assess the local situation. It is also intended to broaden interest in the topic and to inspire. There are no losers in the ranking, although there are better and worse ones. However, the WCI provides an opportunity to find the city's weaknesses, find solutions and improve, and we are very eager to share how we create and develop the ranking. Our ambition is to constantly improve it, popularize it and develop it for Europe.
CITY-WATER-QUALITY OF LIFE congress begins this Monday.
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Victor: How has the approach to urban water policy changed in recent years ?
Klara: Because cities are constantly changing, water management is constantly changing. In my opinion, the authorities are increasingly aware that it is not enough for a city to have a decently performing water and sewage company. There are many more challenges. Decision makers and residents see climate change forcing a constant evolution in reducing water shortages and flooding. In addition, the city's water is increasingly polluted, so the challenge of reducing pollution, adequate treatment of not only wastewater, but also rainwater, must be addressed.
In my opinion, despite the evolution in the understanding of the issue of urban water management, urban water policy is still an unpopular term. There is still, unfortunately, a "here and now" approach that has been humbling.
Victor: Which way is the evolution of the approach to urban water heading?
Klara: As I said, I'm glad that residents and authorities recognize the problem. However, what worries me is the lack of effective, long-term actions related to education, implementation of sustainable solutions, consistency in pursuit of the goal. Unfortunately, there is a long way between awareness and concrete action. Moreover, cities still have to choose. To choose which investments to make, to decide on priority projects.
© Klara Ramm
Water is rarely a priority. The reaction is there when the problem is already apparent, as it floods properties or the pressure in the water supply system drops. So it can be said that the direction is right in most cities, but unfortunately too slow and too haphazardly implemented. The tenure of municipal authorities does not help. Moreover, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on solutions based on nature, on trusting nature rather than fighting it.
Evolution, then, should move toward emulating nature' s genius, which is not easy, since we have learned to fight it. Hardening urban areas, channeling rainwater or cutting down trees makes city life more and more inconvenient.
A diagram from the Water City Index 2021. the next report will be presented this coming Monday
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Victor: What does effective urban water management entail?
Klara: It is necessary to take both a holistic view and an attention to detail. This is a difficult task. A serious mistake made in many places is to solve very local problems, basically shifting them to another place. It would be great if development plans were created in all Polish cities, so that they would also take into account the entire urban ecosystem, with a proper approach to water management and natural solutions. The development plans should also eliminate the pathological urban development of very dense settlements and sealing every piece of land.
It is also very important to look at water management in conjunction with other aspects, namely the development of greenery and natural areas, which in a city must be. In the "Life" category of the Water City Index, we just pay special attention to issues of well-being, maintenance of biologically active areas and safety.
Victor: How can cities protect themselves against disasters related to the elements of water - drought, but also floods?
Klara: The best way is to construct the urban fabric so that we don't have to respond to disasters. This is a long-term effort related primarily to climate change mitigation. Cities still heat with heat produced from coal, only a few have taken decisive steps to eliminate low emissions. What about thermal power plants? When will cities force them to change their fuel?
It is also necessary to take care of efficient public transportation, which reduces individual traffic. In turn, in the context of water, education is important. I think a lot has been achieved in terms of saving water. Currently, the average resident uses an average of about 100 liters a day, and this is an amount that is unlikely to decrease markedly. Unfortunately, the problem comes on the side of wastewater, which carries more and more pollutants, as well as garbage. Throwing waste down the toilet is still a fact of life. The conscious consumer does not do this.
In addition to climate change mitigation, adaptation is needed. Infrastructure should be resilient to violent weather events. For this, investments are needed, if only in restoring biologically active areas. Unfortunately, the change in mentality and priorities is very slow. Still, in many cities, only roads, sidewalks and parking lots matter most. Of course they are needed, but they should always be planned in conjunction with blue-green infrastructure.
The first basic principle in rainwater management is to get the rain to stay where it falls. The next steps involve retention. Sewerage is a last resort that should be avoided.
Victor: How has the approach to managing water and wastewater systems changed in recent years ?
Klara: A great deal has changed at the turn of the century. Thanks to the openness to knowledge from the world, but also to the support of European funds, Polish companies have developed a lot, modern infrastructure has been established. However, it should be emphasized that the most important thing is people and their competence. It is thanks to them that water and sewage enterprises have become so efficient and modern.
The value of employees is growing, as the sector is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. It is no longer enough to collect wastewater and treat it. It is becoming necessary to recover energy, heat, valuable substances, and water from them. Thanks to the increasing competence of employees, treatment plants are transforming into biofabrication plants that produce electricity, heat, fertilizer, water, etc.
In addition, employees are increasingly knowledgeable about new water contaminants of concern and how to eliminate them. They are involved in cyber security, critical infrastructure management, risk assessment, education, etc. Unfortunately, it is not possible to get valuable employees everywhere. There are places, especially in very small towns, where these competencies and money are lacking. These places should receive special support from the state administration.
Changes in thinking about the use of water and sewage infrastructure is one of the elements of an efficient water policy
Photo by Bourgeois.A, © Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Victor: Are local governments and the public aware of the need to reform water management systems? How has this attitude changed since you have been involved in water management?
Klara: I have been dealing with this issue for almost 20 years and I still see an amazing evolution. Local governments are aware of the seriousness of the situation and the need to improve infrastructure. This sector has the distinction of being very capital-intensive. It requires systematic investment in infrastructure and continuous professional operation, and for this you need systematic financing, which in the water and sewer sector comes mainly from the fees paid by service recipients. I think they are mostly aware that services must be paid for. The more difficult situation is with politicians, who often take a short-sighted view, looking at terms of office rather than generations. It will rebound on future generations if we leave them with degraded infrastructure and a destroyed urban environment. It is therefore necessary, in my opinion, to educate and involve local communities that can influence not only local, but also central authorities.
Education and transparency of actions are the most important in my opinion. The congress is an excellent example of effectiveness in spreading knowledge and building environmental awareness among generations of urban residents.
Wiktor: Thank you for the interview!
Photo by Slawek Ilski, © Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0