Co-ordinated action needed now to avoid sky-rocketing water & wastewater costs

Dec 08, 2023

It is nothing new that the pipeline network has a huge backlog in Norway. There will soon be a doubling and tripling of water and sewage charges to clear the backlog.

Norsk Vann estimates that the annual municipal rates for water and sewage for Oslo households will double to almost NOK 10,000 in 2040. According to the same long-term plan, residents of Innlandet, Nordland, and Romsdal would pay the most expensive water and sewerage tax in 2040, between NOK 20,000 and 30,000.

The State of the Nation publications, which were first released in 2010, then in 2015 and the latest in 2021 greatly helped to make the backlog visible. Visibility, however, is insufficient; action is required.

Opportunities abound

On behalf of the Ministry of Local Government and District Affairs, the Ministry of Climate and Environment and the Ministry of Health and Care, Oslo Economics, Cowi AS and Kinei AS prepared The Feasibility Study (Mulighetsstudien) for water and wastewater. The goal was to highlight opportunities to guarantee water quality and public safety while minimising socioeconomic costs and negative environmental effects.

Traditionally, upgrading water and sewage lines has involved digging up old pipes and sumps and replacing them with new ones. The work is costly, increases greenhouse gas emissions significantly, and taxes society in the form of closed roads, traffic-hazardous work, and more. In the article from September of last year in Teknisk Ukeblad (Technical Weekly), Kim Paus, a wastewater engineer and stormwater expert at NMBU, argues that we don't necessarily have to install pipes. The issue at hand is the doubling or tripling of water and sewage fees, a backlog of billions of dollars, and how one kind of solution, the blue-green ones, might significantly lessen the impact.

"We must dare not always to lay pipes. It breaks down a little with how it is done today, but it is quite logical. We have shown ourselves to be exceptionally bad at maintaining the pipes we already have," said Kim Paus. An emerging technology so-called No-Dig, which might help Oslo municipality save 40 per cent of the costs of improving the pipe network, was also noted in an article from Vannfakta in 2019.

This trenchless pipe installation technology has several techniques, which are required to be familiarised with to reach its full potential. Combined with the use of sensor technology to be able to operate correctly and ensure that we do not waste too much water, we will reduce traffic stoppages and road closures which are major causes of social costs. All techniques have some advantages and some disadvantages, and we must also take that into consideration. The publication of The Feasibility Study (Mulighetsstudien) was critical because it developed concrete recommendations for the government and municipalities. The time has come to start acting rather than just researching.

The requirement for collaboration between municipalities and a national action plan

The results pointed out that the cost of replacing the water and sewage systems can be significantly reduced by new planning, increased competence and the proper application of technology and working practices. In order to make use of these opportunities, the municipalities must ensure the right expertise, and small municipalities in particular are currently struggling with access to expertise and the fact that the professional communities are small. In order to solve the sector's challenge, the study considers that the most economically profitable thing would be a regional organisation of the municipal water and wastewater units combined with more government systematic management of the sector. However, as confirmed by the government in the study, many municipalities are struggling to catch up with this maintenance backlog over several years to ensure safe drinking water and sewage services for its residents. The responsibility and challenges are too significant for single municipalities to handle. In addition, water and sewage networks cross municipal boundaries, as do our stormwater and water systems, to some extent.

Why are the measures not used to a greater extent?

In September 2019, director Thomas Breen of Norsk Vann described how at least 40 laws and regulations, distributed among nine ministries, regulate the water industry in an NRK article. The Feasibility Study (Mulighetsstudien) was commissioned by only three ministries, the Minister of Local Government and Districts, the Minister of Climate and Environment and the Minister of Health and Care. No one takes responsibility for the whole. The fragmentation of responsibility for water and sewage is a significant reason why things take time. The water industry demands that the government point to one responsible.

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