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CEE countries need better water policies – interview with Konstantin Ivanov, Regional Coordinator at GWP CEE

To ensure a post-COVID-19 recovery that is green, sustainable and inclusive, the European Commission proposed a new recovery instrument, Next Generation EU, of which Central and Eastern Europe might be one of the main beneficiaries. However, currently, there is a lack of integration of water policies with other sectors.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Konstantin Ivanov, Regional Coordinator at the Global Water Partnerships (GWP) Central and Eastern Europe about the importance of investing in water that supports sustainable development, boost the economy and create new jobs and opportunities.

He begins by reminding us that, according to the European Commission, the total national allocation from the Recovery and Resilience Facility to the 10 CEE countries is more than 71 billion euro (23 per cent of EU27) and from the Just Transition Fund is more than 16 billion euro (55.73 per cent of EU27).

“A proposal for an additional 750 billion euro funding from the Next Generation EU, is an opportunity to foster innovation and climate-proof solutions for the 21st century,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS. “Not all the priorities are connected directly to water – building renovation, clean mobility and waste management. However, water is an important connector, especially concerning climate change.”

He mentions the Position Paper of GWP CEE Green Recovery in Central and Eastern Europe from a Water Perspective which confirms that the recovery instrument is a one-time unique opportunity to do things differently.

“To bring countries in Central and Eastern Europe to a carbon-neutral future, they must decouple growth from ecological degradation and loss of ecosystem services,” Mr Ivanov says. “The climate change is progressing fast and the region urgently needs sustainable, climate-proof future investments.”

Of course, the situation is unique in each country and, as we have learnt over the past year there is no a fit-for-all solution. Plus, the Just Transition concept means exactly to not leave anyone behind.

“National Integrated Reform Plans will address issues from the past, such as infrastructure debt in water supply and sanitation and present challenges, for example, water monitoring as well as investing in the future with digitalisation and green infrastructure innovation,” Mr Ivanov points out.

“However, the National Integrated Reform Plans should include long-term reforms. It would be important to align priorities with the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 on the national levels to avoid overlap.”

For him, relaunching the economy does not mean going back to the status quo before the crisis, but should be forward-looking.

Konstantin Ivanov. Courtesy of GWP CEE.

“We have to address the short-term consequences of the crisis from the long-term perspective,” he adds. “According to the European Commission, the European Green Deal, as the EU’s recovery strategy focuses on a massive renovation wave of buildings and infrastructure and a more circular economy, bringing local jobs, rolling out renewable energy projects, especially wind, solar and kick-starting a clean hydrogen economy in Europe, cleaner transport and logistics, including the installation of one million charging points for electric vehicles and a boost for rail travel and clean mobility in cities and regions, strengthening the Just Transition Fund to support re-skilling, helping businesses create new economic opportunities.”

The Commission’s regulations such as the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 or the Farm to Fork Strategy should really support Member States in defining the right strategies.

“Speaking of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, nature-based small water retention measures in the landscape, forest and urban areas provide valuable ecosystem services,” Mr Ivanov explains. “In addition to flood and erosion prevention, nature-based solutions decrease the negative consequences of drought. Watercourses, lakes, and wetlands are providing vital habitats and are important bio-corridors, safely connecting these areas for animals.”

However, he believes that CEE countries need better water policy including revision of the regulatory policy in the water sector.

“Regulation in the heating and electricity industry, partly in the water industry, is outdated and prevents the introduction of innovative solutions,” he highlights. “In addition, analytical capacities need to be strengthened when setting up transparent and open regulation.”

“There should be a development of environmentally friendly forms of transport, including sustainable water transport wherever this is a relevant option. Degraded wetlands, lakes, rivers and streams should be restored together with the improvement of ecological stability and integration of green infrastructure into landscape planning and management. Integrated water resources management, river basin planning and flood risk planning will be more closely interlinked with landscape planning. Complex reforms of public administration should take into account water administration and its cross-cutting functions, for example, permits, flood protection and so on.”

Currently, according to the European Environment Agency, water quality has improved, however, there is little or no progress in some types of pollution from agriculture. Mr Ivanov reminds us that investment in water can support sustainable development, boost the economy and create new jobs and opportunities.

Danube Basin. Source: International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River.

“Common Agriculture Policy on national level supports land-based subsidies that prevent agricultural land from being used for green infrastructure measures,” he says. “The number of hazardous substances is growing and there is limited knowledge on their cumulative effect. Also, there is still a need to renew and build water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure.”

And, when it comes to fighting climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy, cooperation is key.

“As water knows no boundaries, GWP CEE works across sectors and administrative borders to identify solutions that promote sustainable transboundary water resources management,” the Regional Coordinator says. “It facilitates dialogues and provides learning opportunities for water governance and international water law. Transboundary river basins provide benefits to millions of Europeans.”

He goes on to mention the Danube River, which is the most international river in Europe and, according to the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), home to 83 million people. Mr Ivanov explains that the transboundary rivers are a source of drinking water, water for industry, agriculture and buffer impacts of climate change by providing valuable ecosystem services. They are under pressure, depending on the level of socio-economic development of the riparian countries, for example, from agriculture, population growth, emerging pollutants, or climate change.

Danube Basin. Source: International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River.

“In Europe, transboundary water challenges are addressed by the Water Framework Directive that is based on water management on a river basin scale,” he says. “According to the assessment of the benefits of transboundary water cooperation by UNECE, this cooperation supports economic growth, increases the quality of life, protects the environment, and increases political stability.”

And Central and Eastern is home to some interesting practices, beginning with Slovenia which, according to Konstantin Ivanov, shows support for circular economy, biodiversity and others in the reform plan.

“The main focus in the environmental field is the digitalisation and resource (waste) efficiency, particularly promoting the market for high-quality secondary raw materials,” he says. “Digitalisation supports producers to better trace the process of using resources and raw materials. In a circular economy, the national Water Action Plan is welcomed by the agriculture and food production sectors. Slovenian reform plans aim for better drinking water protection.”

Also, brownfields remediation will clean up and secure high-risk brownfields that were contaminated by past industrial, military, mining, transport and agricultural activities. They are sources of surface and groundwater water pollution by toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and pose a risk due to poor maintenance and structural dam failures.

“Only in Slovakia, there are more than 1,800 environmental burdens,” he adds. “Brownfields remediation should be funded by other financial instruments, only the high risk can be considered for the Next Generation EU. This is an opportunity to establish applied research groups to find innovative solutions for brownfields remediation.”

This is going to be a crucial year in the fight against climate change if the EU wants to become carbon-neutral by 2050. According to the European Environment Agency report The European environment — state and outlook 2020, we have around ten years to bring Europe to the sustainability path.

“Transport, energy and agriculture are crucial sectors for the transition, in which water plays an important role,” underlines Mr Ivanov.

“In Central and Eastern Europe, local level stakeholders need capacity building to prepare and implement climate change adaptation and to engage in integrated monitoring and citizens science, use Earth observation from Copernicus and nature-based solutions, support water-related research and innovation technologies and last but not least raise awareness,” he concludes.

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