Approximately four billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month per year, while over 500 million people face severe water scarcity, with water consumption exceeding the renewable resource by a factor of two or more [1
]. The agricultural sector is responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption whereas industry and municipalities withdraw 19% and 11%, respectively. However, Hoekstra et al. estimates that agriculture accounts for up to 92% of the global urban water footprint [2
]. Large increases in freshwater demand can be expected in the next decade, particularly for industrial production in urban areas [3
]. These developments are estimated to lead to a 50% increase in water demand in developing countries by 2025 [4
] and a 40% freshwater supply shortage worldwide by 2030 [5
]. A wide plethora of factors including population growth, diets shifting towards water-intensive foods such as meat, groundwater depletion, salinization caused by unsustainable irrigation, as well as saltwater intrusion and sea level rise, which further increase the pressure on freshwater resources [1
]. The impact of water scarcity is expected to lead to substantial unemployment. In particular, water-dependent labor in arid and semi-arid areas—95% of which are agricultural jobs—will be affected. This type of unemployment may lead to food insecurity and social instability that could trigger large scale involuntary migration towards cities and across continents [8
]. These risks urge for water-use efficiency and water-reuse.
Wastewater is increasingly being considered, a largely untapped resource for freshwater and raw materials that can alleviate water stress [7
]. At present, high-income countries treat 70% of their wastewater, upper-middle-income countries 38% and lower-middle-income countries 28%. Only 8% of the wastewater in low-income countries undergoes any kind of treatment [9
]. Altogether, this means that an estimated 80% of the wastewater is released into the environment untreated [6
] which leads to eutrophication, biodiversity loss and can threaten drinking water, fisheries, aquaculture and tourism [10
]. Reusing treated wastewater therefore has a large potential to alleviate water stress. Moreover, since 80% of all wastewater is not treated, many Waste Water Treatment (WWT) systems have yet to be built. Thus, WWT systems and reuse systems may be a promising solution package to improve public health, reduce water pollution and alleviate water scarcity in particular in water-scarce urban regions.
The European Commission has recognized the untapped potential of treated wastewater, and has called for “closing the loop” through a circular economy approach [11
]. It recognizes and enables the reuse of wastewater as a safe solution to reduce water demand. From the total reused tertiary treated water only 2.3% is for potable purposes whereas most water is reused for irrigation (52%), industry (19.3%) and non-potable urban applications (8.3%) [12
In order to reduce water stress by a wider application of wastewater-reuse practices in cities, major changes are required in the way the water cycle is governed at the local, regional and national level. Spain is in the middle of such a transformation process where various multi-level governance barriers and challenges emerge [13
]. Despite the fact that a number of water reuse applications have already been developed and established in many countries, the widespread adoption or ‘mainstreaming’ of water reuse practices appears to be slow and various technical and non-technical barriers have been published [14
]. In environmental governance literature, a plethora of social factors and conditions have been identified that impede or enhance climate adaptation such as water reuse schemes [18
]. However, most identified conditions are based on conceptual and theoretical considerations with a lack of emphasis on empirical validation [18
]. In addition, concepts and definitions are often inconsistent, non-specific and in part, overlap each other [19
]. If findings are not organized in a common framework, isolated knowledge will not cumulate [23
]. Hence, a diagnostic framework is required that facilitates the accumulation of coherent knowledge that could improve the understanding of the barriers, opportunities and lessons beyond the case study itself [19
]. Water scarcity issues transcend administrative boundaries and involve many stakeholders. The capacity to collaborate, to collectively overcome different barriers, is therefore essential. A promising way to consistently analyze the main barriers and opportunities that might emerge in the adoption of water reuse schemes is through the concept of governance capacity. There are multiple definitions of governance capacity. However, a few common traits can be defined [24
]. First, capacity refers to the ability of actors to jointly act in the face of collective challenges. Second, capacity is the product of actors’ interaction that is influenced by the socio-institutional setting. Third, actors’ values, culture and interests shape their interactions and influence collective problem-solving. Accordingly, we apply the definition of Koop et al. who defined governance capacity as ‘a set of key governance conditions that should be developed to enable change that will be effective in finding dynamic solutions for water challenges in cities’ [24
In this paper, we focus on the governance capacity of cities to alleviate water stress by applying wastewater-reuse for non-potable purposes. Through a case study in the city of Sabadell (Spain), this paper aims to identify the main barriers, opportunities and transferable lessons that can enhance the governance capacity to implement systems for non-potable reuse of treated wastewater in cities.
This paper has the following structure. Section 2
describes the applied methodology and Section 3
provides the results of the case study. Section 4
provides a discussion of the results and reflects on possible transferable lessons from Sabadell for other cities in Spain, the Mediterranean and other water-stressed regions. The main conclusions are provided in Section 5
Based on an extensive literature review, Koop et al. [24
] developed a diagnostic framework in order to assess the most important conditions that together determine the capacity to govern water challenges. The Water Governance Capacity Framework (GCF) consists of three dimensions, nine conditions and 27 indicators (Table 1
). The “knowing” dimension relates to the need to be aware, understand, and learn about the risks and impacts of policy and strategic choices. The “wanting” dimension refers to the need for actors to commit, cooperate, act upon ambitions and use their skills to find solutions. The “enabling” dimension refers to network, resources, and instruments that actors require to realize their ambitions.
Each indicator has its own pre-defined question and indicator-specific 5-point Likert scale, ranging from very encouraging (++) to very limiting (−−) of the overall governance capacity to address a water challenge. A detailed description of each indicator’s pre-defined question is provided in Table 2
. For the indicator-specific Likert scale and link to the literature, we refer to reference [25
]. By substantiating the scores of each indicator according to a triangular approach, the findings are validated in a standardized and reproducible way. This triangular approach consists of three steps:
A desk study of scientific literature, official government sources, policy documents and grey literature resulting in a report of the substantiated preliminary Likert score of each indicator.
The construction of a standardized importance/influence matrix to identify stakeholders, categorize them, and specify their roles and responsibilities [26
]. In this matrix, importance refers to the priority given to satisfy the needs and interests of a stakeholder. Influence refers to the power of stakeholders to enhance or impede a policy, plan or objective. The importance/influence matrix consists of four classes: (1) crowd (low importance and low influence); (2) context (low importance and high influence); (3) subjects (high importance and low influence); and (4) key players (high importance and high influence). For each class, at least one stakeholder representing the government, the market and civil society were selected as suggested by Lange et al. [27
]. A coding system is applied in this paper to refer to maintain anonymity, where [SR001], [SR002], [SR003] and so on refer to the conducted interviews. The interviews were conducted face-to-face, lasted approximately 1 hour each and were recorded to increase the accuracy of the information gathered.
All interviewees were asked for their reactions to the indicator scores and their respective explanations. Their feedback took the form of additional information and they were asked to support their statements with reports, policy references, arguments etc. Based on the incorporation of the aforementioned further input, the final indicator scores were determined.
The selected stakeholders represented the organizations Simbiosy, the General Water Society of Barcelona (SGAB), the Consortium of Integrated Water Management of Catalunya (CONGIAC), Sabadell’s wastewater treatment plant, Riusec (EDAR RIUSEC), the University of Barcelona, the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, the local water service utility, Aigues Sabadell (CASSA), the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDÆA), the Technical Service Consortium of the Costa Brava, Figueres City Council, Sabadell City council, Barcelona Provincial Government and the Catalan Water Agency. Experts from the identified key stakeholders were selected for semi-structured interviews in order to gather the information to score the indicators and also to receive follow-up questions for clarification or to better understand the content. People with different roles, expertise and responsibilities were selected to reduce the risk of bias and in order to unravel socially desirable responses. A coding system is applied in this paper to consistently refer to these anonymized interviews. The overall indicator scores were determined based on the separate interview scores and the collection of additional information that may ratify or provide nuance to the interview findings. Altogether, 16 interviews were conducted during the period, 6 June–6 July, 2017.
3. Case Study Description
At present, around 11% of total treated wastewater is reused in Spain [11
]. Spain has experienced several episodes of water stress during the 1990s and the early 21st century. In particular, several acute droughts led to domestic water cuts and at times required the use of sea-going water tankers from different locations in the Mediterranean coast [13
]. In order to alleviate water stress, the central government and regional governments have promoted desalination plants and have devised a National Plan for Water-reuse [13
]. In particular, before 2011, approximately 50 municipalities in Catalunya had approved local regulations to promote decentralized reuse systems. The actions for the use of reclaimed water in Spain, mainly consist in transporting it for specific uses, such as the watering of golf courses and public gardens, the cleaning of streets, or for agriculture and industry. The implementation of a distribution network for reclaimed water, coexisting with the drinking water network, has, to date, been applied in only a few cities, such as Madrid and Sabadell. Only in Sabadell is water supplied for the use of flushing toilets.
With a population of over 208,000 people, Sabadell is the co-capital and second largest city of the County of Valles Occidental in Catalonia, Spain [28
]. It is situated 22 km north of Barcelona, in the basins of the rivers Ripoll and Riusec, both integrated within the Besos River Basin. It is a highly commercial and industrial city that acts as a driving force for economic and urban development. A dual network is already applied in a large part of the city that separately distributes drinking water and treated non-potable water from the EDAR Riusec treatment plant and from groundwater sources. The second WWT plant of the city, Riu Ripoll, returns treated wastewater upstream of the Ripoll River, aiming to restore the ecological flow. Together these plants treated 22,544 m3
and 14,170 m3
respectively in 2017 [29
]. Nonetheless, the total amount of treated non-potable water supplied through the dual network is only around 274 m3
The governance of the water sector in Sabadell is composed of both private and public stakeholders. In Spain, the national and regional governments mandate the normative and legislative contexts. Nonetheless, each municipality is responsible for the management of the water in its jurisdiction. Thus this role falls in the hands of the City council of Sabadell. This municipality, among others, has subcontracted the private company CASSA to do this. In addition, Water of Sabadell (CASSA) has recently become part of AGBAR (Aguas Barcelona), which in turn is predominantly owned by Suez Environment. The stakeholders with high influence and the most interest were identified as the Catalan Water Agency (state), the Provincial Government of Barcelona (state), CASSA (market) and the City Council of Sabadell (state). The stakeholders with a high interest but low influence are EDAR Water Treatment plant (state/market), Network of Cities & Towns for Sustainability (Civil Society), Consortium of Besos Tordera and the Catalan Association of Friends of Water (Civil Society).
A desk study of Sabadell’s Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)—called a City Blueprint—was performed within the European POWER project (https://www.power-h2020.eu/
) and indicated that the city is vulnerable to heat risk and water scarcity (Figure 1
]). In addition, financial pressures such as high unemployment (18.4%) and a moderate average GDP per capita (25,684 USD/year) could affect urban water management investments. Sabadell has a high drinking water quality, with 187/187 samples that meet the quality standards [29
]. Furthermore, Sabadell’s drinking water consumption of 96 L per person per day is one of the lowest rates in Europe of domestic water consumption. The average age of the pipes of the drinking water distribution network is 38 years, so some areas require refurbishment. Non-revenue water accounts for 19.4%.
The results of the Governance Capacity Framework on site research show that the multi-level governance system of Sabadell is complex and that the reuse of treated wastewater for non-potable purposes is progressive, but not yet widely adopted in the centralized water governance system in the area of Catalonia. Figure 2
summarizes the results of Sabadell’s multi-level governance capacity to alleviate water stress by wastewater-reuse schemes. The indicators are ranked from most limiting to most encouraging concerning the capacity to govern practices of water reuse. The limiting and encouraging conditions are presented systematically in accordance with Table 1
Condition 1: Awareness
The level of knowledge about the region’s water scarcity and the amplifying impact of climate change are found to be relatively high [SR015]. However, there is little understanding with regards to how the water is used and distributed within the region, the linkages and interdependencies in relation to weather patterns, land use or environmental processes (indicator 1.1). Accordingly, the impacts on the water quality of rivers, groundwater, and the risks and uncertainties associated with the increasing water scarcity are largely underestimated [SR002-SR011-SR013-SR015-SR016]. The general sense of urgency of water stress is moderate amongst the citizens [SR001-SR011; indicator 1.2]. Nevertheless, water conservation strategies (indicator 1.3) such as grey water-reuse on a household level is widely applied [SR001-SR002-SR004], which is reflected in the city’s low per capita water consumption of around 96 L person−1
]). The latter results from the fact that historically the region has experienced many droughts, and conservation strategies are engraved into the collective memory of the region [SR005-SR008-SR010-SR011-SR012-SR014-SR016].
Condition 2: Useful Knowledge
The perception regarding the availability, transparency and cohesion of the information varied considerably between the stakeholders. It was revealed that citizens have limited access to information (indicator 2.1) and that available information is difficult to locate (indicator 2.2). The regional meteorological information and the water reservoir data published by the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) and the regional administration are available but not presented in a way that is intelligible for the general public [SR011-SR014-SR009]. Furthermore, much of the accessible information is not fully up-to-date or has a technical nature [SR004-SR007-SR010-SR012-SR014-SR016]. At the city level there have been strong attempts to improve transparency and information services such as water saving tips on the back of water bills, education programs and conferences for all who are interested ([SR001-SR002] [30
]). In general, the publicly available information is somewhat limited, which may be a by-product of limited incentives for stakeholders to communicate with citizens [SR007-SR010-SR011-SR012-SR014-SR016]. Consequently, the available knowledge about water scarcity and reuse practices is not cohesive and demonstrates the existence of different perceptions amongst stakeholders (indicator 2.3).
Condition 3: Continuous Learning
The local water supplier CASSA has an advanced monitoring system (indicator 3.1) that can rapidly recognize alarming situations such as potable water contamination or leakages, and to some extent is also able to recognize long-term patterns of consumption, water flow and water quality [SR001-SR012-SR013]. Nonetheless, a more regional, national or cross-sectorial monitoring and evaluation of the water sector is largely lacking, leading to fragmented knowledge [SR011-SR014]. According to one interviewee, this is an important reason for the lack of transparency and the sharing of information between stakeholders [SR007]. Evaluation of policy (indicator 3.2) occurs on an infrequent basis [SR008], it can be non-directional and susceptible to political shifts [SR013]. The evaluation procedure is rigid, in particular with respect to the environmental laws, water distribution regulations and administrative aspects. In consequence, many norms are rather outdated and limit the application of water-reuse schemes [SR005-SR011-SR012]. For example, despite the higher quality standards of treated secondary wastewater compared to other water sources, it is still prohibited to use treated secondary wastewater as a resource for drinking water [SR001]. Criteria are largely based on the origin of the water source (e.g., freshwater or recycled wastewater) instead of formulating quality standards for different use categories. Finally, it was found that learning between stakeholders (indicator 3.3) occurs on the technical level, and often with respect to narrowly defined topics. It is not very common that cross-stakeholder learning takes place on a strategic, administrative or financial level [SR005-SR012]. Many stakeholders are reluctant to share information due to the sector’s competitiveness. Subsequently, cross-stakeholder learning is limited to a small alignment of stakeholders with similar interests [SR003-SR008-SR009-SR011].
Condition 4: Stakeholder Engagement Process
On the regional scale it is found that only a few and mostly conventional stakeholders are included in the decision-making process (indicator 4.1) which ultimately is bilateral and dominated by the national and regional government and ACA [SR002-SR004-SR005-SR007-SR010-SR011-SR012]. Most stakeholders, including academia for instance, are often only informed or consulted instead of engaged in decision making [SR005-SR012-SR013-SR015]. The decision-making process can be described as top-down with little opinion forthcoming from the local level. For example, local suggestions for more practical water quality norms for water-reuse schemes are not yet widely included in national guidelines. The water consumers or citizens have little active involvement or participation in the decision making process, which poses risks that their interests and core values can be harmed (indicator 4.2). However, citizen engagement is improving substantially (indicator 4.3) and new bottom-up initiatives as well as collaborations with grassroot organizations are appearing, such as ecological/green activist groups or basin associations (e.g., the Tordera River Basin Association and the Amics de l’Aigua civic organization).
Condition 5: Management Ambition
Sabadell aims to be one of the leading cities in water-reuse practices in Europe (indicator 5.1-[SR001-SR013] [28
]). However, the city has to deal with fragmented, sometimes contradicting policies that affect water-reuse practices. In particular, different guidelines exist originating from different government levels resulting in insufficient management cohesion (indicator 5.3). The national and regional policy ambitions regarding water conservation are moderate and most interviewees indicated that the statutory compliance to these policies is suboptimal [SR003-SR010-SR015]. Water quality and distribution norms are still determined by unilateral decisions, and a lack of sectorial, geographic and administrative alignment can be seen. Urban space construction permits have been released in the past even though they go against environmental efforts and restrictions for potential flood damage prevention [SR008]. Low water fees for agricultural purposes contradict with the efforts to lower the agricultural sector’s water consumption. Such discrepancies between national laws and the municipal administrative and geographical context can be observed and reflect a somewhat limited discourse embedding [indicator 5.2-SR007-SR009-SR014-SR016]. Ultimately, this leads to major inefficiencies and barriers in implementation of reuse schemes [condition 9-SR013].
Condition 6: Agents of Change
Agents of change are found to have a limited impact on the overall governance capacity. There is little room for local entrepreneurial agents in the region’s water sector (indicator 6.1). Water is ultimately publically administrated and even when subcontracted by a private company such as CASSA, the services are provided by monopolistic clusters and thus the sector is difficult to enter for entrepreneurs [SR007-SR008-SR009-SR012]. There is some sector-specific entrepreneurial space, particularly with respect to the technology development [SR011-SR013-SR016]. However, in most cases entrepreneurs who enter the market would have to work with a larger, already established stakeholder [SR001]. Most expertise is accumulated in research centres [SR002] and many entrepreneurs export their goods and services abroad to areas such as Latin America [SR009]. Most collaborative agents (indicator 6.2) are active in close collaboration between a limited number of traditional stakeholders [SR003-SR014]. More recently, new and more inclusive collaborations are starting to take place. For example, public communication strategies with respect to household wastewater disposal have been established between CASSA, Sabadell City Council and ACA. This type of collaboration is often brief and established for very specific issues or events [SR001-SR016]. A frequent barrier for closer collaboration is the divergent interests of the involved stakeholders [SR016]. Finally, it is found that there does not exist a unifying long-term vision or strategy, which transcends different levels of decision making or enables continuity beyond the political mandate of 4 years [indicator 6.3-SR013-SR014]. The leading body, ACA, is only recently recovering from a chaotic organizational period and thus their role as a visionary body has yet to be realized. At present, there is no entity that assumes the responsibility for leading the country’s or region’s water sector towards the implementation of water-reuse schemes or other water-conserving strategies. Rather, there is a great diversity in local initiatives that aim to implement water-reuse practices.
Condition 7: Multi-Level Network Potential
It was found that stakeholders have only limited room to manoeuvre (indicator 7.1) due to inter-organizational difficulties and the strict regulations and procedural demands of the ACA. Particularly with respect to the use or distribution of water permits, implementation is difficult [SR007-SR011]. A distinction between the private and public entities can be observed. Public management has more rigid structures and procedures whereas private management typically has more room and independence to determine strategies and to experiment [SR001-SR010-SR013]. Private companies can use this internally to remain flexible and to improve continuously [SR009-SR014-SR016]. In Sabadell, room to manoeuvre is also ensured by a long-term contract between the water supplier CASSA and the city council. The division of responsibilities (indicator 7.2) in Sabadell is mostly clear but also somewhat inflexible [SR005-SR007-SR008-SR011-SR012-SR014-SR015]. Water management is primarily the responsibility of each individual city council, with ACA and the Catalan government merely inspecting that municipalities comply with existing legislation. This leads to divergent, contradictory and overlapping approaches between different levels of decision-making [SR009-SR010-SR013-SR016]. There are also gaps identifiable, in particular with respect to financial responsibilities. It is unclear which organizations will finance the necessary infrastructural refurbishments [SR014]. ACA’s authority is strong [indicator 7.3-SR008-SR011-SR015-SR016]. However, some argue that ACA’s procedural demands may hinder the progress of the water sector, and procedures sometimes resonate with political shifts [SR015-SR001-SR007] due to organizational and financial uncertainty [SR014]. Partly as a result of this, the region of Catalonia lacks a clear centralized visionary leadership to enhance water-reuse practices [SR010-SR011]. On the other hand, the role of ACA is primarily to act as an arbiter that balances and arbitrates between the interests of different stakeholders [SR008]. However, with respect to water-reuse practices, strict control of existing regulations impedes further progression. ACA is in the position to unify the many different municipal approaches to implementing water-reuse schemes. Given the many experiences and promising results it would appear to be the opportune moment to develop a coherent legislative framework for water-reuse practices in cities.
Condition 8: Financial Viability
Basic water services are accessible for everyone. These services are either affordable or there are funds that support the most marginalized communities (indicator 8.1). Affordability for climate change adaptation is low because the possibility that citizens can apply to reduce the current and future impacts of climate change-induced water stress are rather limited. Although non-potable water reuse is feasible, legislation limits its distribution and only those living in a few specific areas of the city that possess dual networks can make use of it [SR001]. The water consumer’s willingness to pay (indicator 8.2) is however also restricted to basic services, and willingness to pay extra for an extension of the dual networks is relatively low, with citizens indicating that these extra investments should be financially supported by the government in consultation with the service provider CASSA [SR001-SR002-SR012-SR015]. The structure that can ensure financial continuity (indicator 8.3) of water-reuse practices (indicator 8.3) was observed to be very diverse among stakeholders and governance levels. At the national, Catalan, provincial and municipal level the continuity of funding for any climate change adaptation measures—including water-reuse practices—is largely susceptible to temporary, ad hoc, short-term policies [SR005-SR012-SR014]. At present, infrastructure refurbishment requires an estimated €3 million in Sabadell [SR013]. In order to build new infrastructure to promote the use of non-potable water, additional financial support will be required.
Condition 9: Implementing Capacity
Implementing capacity has been found to have both encouraging and discouraging factors. Some policy instruments (indicator 9.1), such as a progressive tax on water consumption or a connection tax for new water distributions, are being used effectively to incentivize low water consumption. Statutory compliance (indicator 9.2) is adequate, the legislation is generally respected and all stakeholders comply because noncompliance is an unnecessary risk [SR005-SR007]. There is good understanding of the dynamics of reservoirs and a lot of experience from past drought events that can be employed to mitigate future drought events in the region. Water-reuse practice is increasingly being recognized as a promising and necessary climate adaptation measure. In municipalities such as Sabadell, important progress has been made to implement water-reuse schemes. Sabadell has a long-term mitigation strategy and the city has demonstrated a capacity to respond efficiently to water stress in the past. However, given that it has rained in the past months and that water reservoirs are full, ensuring water supply for the region for the next 2 years, the issue of increased water stress has temporarily been put aside [SR005-SR014-SR004]. Hence, structural preparation (indicator 9.3) and infrastructural investments to mitigate water stress within a 30 or 50 year time frame appears to be an inevitable necessity. Some interviewees expressed their concern that the region is ill prepared for the impacts of climate change in the long run and current efforts seem to be insufficient [SR002-SR003-SR015]. Hence, the ability of Catalonia to prepare for future water stress within the next decades will be largely dependent on the willingness to learn from and enable local water-reuse practices.