Water service management, organisation and financing build on different traditions and designs in different countries. In Europe, production and distribution of drinking water is mainly based on the fact that the principals have a full-cost charging system. However, many countries finance investments with municipal tax assets meaning the price of water services is not fully reflected by the price paid by consumers. Several countries are facing a revision of their systems and regulations due to the major challenges that climate change and extensive reinvestment needs entail.
An island’s water saving abilities are partly a result of how its water services are managed, of how the use of rainwater and reuse of wastewater are stimulated, and of the price of water for households, hotels and industries.
Of Europe’s 2,160 islands, 1,920 are local communities without their own jurisdiction, 206 are municipalities, 32 are regions or states and 2 are countries. While mainland water management covers large drainage basins, islands are micro-systems where water is often scarce and it is hopelessly impossible to fit them into the big schemes.
These islands have 18.9 million all-year residents, 50 million summer residents and half a billion visitors. They consume approximately 6 million m3 of freshwater a year but produce 10 million m3 due to leakages. As the water needs on islands peak sharply in summer, much of the water is produced at a high cost, using lots of energy in reverse osmosis processes.
Some of the 1,920 non-municipal islands are managed from the mainland, ensuring high technical competence but not always with an understanding of the local conditions. Most of them manage themselves, with a certain lack of competence as well as resources, but with deep knowledge of the local circumstances.
Local water management on islands is of utmost importance. Water planning includes analyses of supply and demand, descriptions of existing facilities, and proposed construction programs. Although many master water plans do consider the potential effects of future conditions, recent advances in technology and changing social concerns are beginning to exert a significant influence on the future course of water system development. Some of the new considerations which should be incorporated into municipal water system planning include the “Safe Drinking Water Act”, coordination with wastewater planning, wastewater reclamation and reuse, environmental concerns, energy utilization, financial constraints, changing public attitudes – and of course, water saving.
In France, the management of water services is quite complex. Many of the country's municipalities are too small to manage and finance water supply themselves. Development and operation partnerships with private actors are common and can be organised in different ways. A private operator can have a long-term (20 years) responsibility for the entire water supply system, a type of privatization typically dating back to the mid-1800s. Still, the municipality has the ultimate responsibility towards its consumers, it owns the pipes and it is responsible for setting the water prices.
In addition to the 36,000 municipalities, there are three more levels of responsibility: ministries, regions and six "Agences de Bassin" which are a decentralized state representation. The state allocates some funds to the municipalities. The Ministry of the Environment issues special fees for water extraction, and the drinking water quality is controlled by the Ministry of Health.
The municipal water tax may only cover cost coverage within the fiscal year’s water activities. The water fee consists of two parts: (1) a government-based amount designated for the different municipalities, plus (2) a variable consumption fee.
Special attention is paid to social corrections of the water tariffs where necessary. Although household water costs are quite reasonable in France (lower than in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark), households with a low disposable income are eligible to receive a contribution for water (and electricity, gas and telephony).
On Houat, water issues are clearly and fairly controlled through the PLU (Plan Local d’Urbanisme), which stipulates that all new buildings are to be built with a rainwater reservoir, and that swimming pools and private drills are prohibited.
Houat actively cooperates with its neighbouring islands and the mainland, being a member of the island association “Les Îles du Ponant”, the Auray Quiberon Terre Atlantique and the European Small Islands Federation. Water supply, treatment and storage is not managed locally but by the public drinking-water service company Eau de Morbihan Syndicat, SAUR (a French Urban and Rural Development Society established in 1933, specialized in the production and distribution of drinking water and wastewater treatment). Distribution is managed by Auray Quiberon Terre Atlantic community of communes, where the Mayor of Houat, madame Andrée Vielvoye, is also the chairwoman.
No single water tariff structure is trending. There is no magic bullet water managers can rely on. Increasing blocks, decreasing blocks, fixed charges versus variable charges, environmental charges - all these have different advantages and disadvantages around Europe. The most we can say is that the ideal tariff structure should seek to find a balance between the economic, environmental and social demands placed upon water resources and supplies.
The International Statistics for Water Services reports on “Total charges for Drinking Water for 165 Cities” (2016), showing the amount of fixed charge, variable charge, and other charges, adding up to total charge. Dublin is not there, why is that?
In Ireland, new water charges were introduced in January 2015, followed by huge protests. Irish Water, the utility set up to provide water services nationally, said that in the first billing cycle, only 44 percent were paying water charges. In the third billing cycle of 2016, 61 percent of their customers were paying – meaning 39 percent were not.
When the present Irish Government was being formed in 2016, the hot issue of water billing was given to a cross-party committee which eventually issued a set of recommendations, basically that there will be no water charges for 92 percent of the households. Only a tiny fraction of the population will pay extra for water (i.e. households who are seen as water wasters and use more than 1.7 times the average amount). The average use in Ireland is defined as 345 litres per day for an average household of 2.6 people. That is 128 litres per person per day (l/p, d).
Households that use more than 589 litres of water a day (1.7 times the average amount) will be the ones who will be targeted for extra charges or levies. An estimation says there are 70,000 households in total in this bracket. There will be allowances for bigger families and those in exceptional circumstances who might pass the 589 litres figure earlier.
If water is free for residents up to 135 l/p, d, most people will not be engaged in saving water. On the other hand, businesses, who pay for water, will.
We are used to “economies of scale”: the more we buy of a certain utility, the less we expect to pay since we know the production costs fall by numbers. It is one of the laws of industrialisation and it drives consumption, of course.
But what if we could turn this backwards to save water? What if we could use not only reverse osmosis but also reverse economies of scale? What if you pay less per m3 if you use less water, by using backwards billing?
On Ithaka, which we visited during lecture 3, the demand for water was estimated at 247 million litres/year, where it is seems the islanders’ use of rainwater meets one third of the demand. The total cost of extracting, producing, distributing and administrating water on Ithaka is 400,000 euro per year.
The cost is covered by billing the consumers 280,000 euro and by a 120,000-euro support from the Ministry, which is part of the Government’s aid to islands who are off-grid and are forced to use desalination techniques.
The municipality has a brilliant backwards billing system: The less water you use, the less you pay per m3. If a household uses 0-40 m3 per 4 months, you pay 1 euro/m3; if you use 41-80 m3 per 4 months you pay 1.30 euro/m3; if you use 81-120 m3 per 4 months, the price is 1.50 euro/m3; if you use 121-160 /m3 per 4 months, the price is 2 euro/m3; and finally, if you use more than 501 m3 per 4 months you pay 3 euro/m3.
The same goes for businesses (category 4, i.e. hotels) but with slightly different numbers and prices: if the hotel uses 0-150 m3 per 4 months, they pay 2 euro/m3 /m3; if they use 151-300 m3 per 4 months, they pay 3 euro/m3; if they use 301-500 m3 per 4 months, the price is 15 euro/m3; and if they use more than 501 m3 per 4 months they pay 6 euro/m3.
There is also a semi-professional category (3). If they use 0-50 m3 per 4 months, they pay 1.60 euro/m3; if they use 51-150 m3 per 4 months they pay 2.00 euro/m3 3; if they use 151-200 m3 per 4 months, the price is 2.50 euro/m3; if they use 201-250 m3 per 4 months, the price is 3 euro/m3; and finally, if they use more than 251 m3 per 4 months they pay 5 euro/m3.
Finally, hotels that “go green”, meaning they meet a set of water-saving criteria as defined by a municipality board in 2009, pay a flat rate of 1 €/m3 for water. An example of such a hotel is Nostos, which has a dual line for both tap water and well water so that it is possible to use slightly salty water from a garden well to flush the toilets in the hotel rooms but municipal water for the basins and the showers. Rainwater is used for the pool. The hotel guests praise the pool water and are happy like fish in the sea.
Turning off the water
A radical measure is to turn off the water during the night or certain days of the week.
On Inis Oirr, the Tigh Ruairí (Strand House) Hotel cleverly gets water by three different means: (1) rainwater is collected from the roof via gutters and downpipes to a 3,000-litre tank buried in the garden. It is used to flush the toilets. (2) Two wells found by divination by Rory’s father. One is 116 m deep, the other is 49 m, they are of very good quality, maybe a little high in ferrum. It is filtered with UV and pumped to two reservoirs, a steel one (15 m3) and a smaller plastic one, and distributed by gravity to the hotel. This works 7 months a year, during “the wetter part of the year.” (3) Imported water. Same as the rest of island, mains supply. 5 months a year, in 2016 up into November.
Still, the girl in the hotel reception told us: - “We have a scarcity of water. Please use it wisely. It will be closed off between 9 pm and 6 am. “
Ithaka has three independent water networks: The Vathi-Perachori network, the Kioni network and the Stavros network. The latter is dependent on a desalination plant from 2005 which produces 200 m3/d, pumped to a 100 m3 reservoir in the Stavros village. In 2016, the plant produced 46,772 m3. Since the water produced by the plant is not enough, the villagers only have permission to water two days a week (Mondays and Thursdays) from July 20 to September 15.
Borkmanns Point is a crime novel by Swedish writer Håkan Nesser. The title of the work refers to a tipping point in the solving of crimes as proposed by chief inspector Borkmann, an admired senior colleague of detective Van Veeteren. Borkmann argues there is a point in an investigation where no more information is required. Having reached that point, a good detective knows enough to solve the case. All the evidence is there, fingerprints are secured, all the suspects and the witnesses have been interrogated, all the clues have been found. It is just a matter of understanding how it all fits together.
We have already given you a set of answers on how to save water. There are many more answers to water saving, there are many more questions to ask and there are many more people who can advise you. To name a few, the UN, who has a library of best water practices, the Global Water Partnership, and the Stockholm International Water Institute, issuing the yearly Stockholm Water Price, and arranging a symposium for more than 2,500 delegates from all around the world. You will find links to these and others on our website.
Eventually, you will arrive at Borkmann’s Point. When you do, get in touch, coonect with us, and share your solutions.