api: Mr. Schneider, you previously served as Vice-President of the Austrian Association for Gas and Water (ÖVGW) and have now been appointed as president and spokesman of the water sector for the next two years. What will be on your agenda?
Schneider: Basically, my ambition is to continue on the successful path our association has been following in recent years, building on the great deal of technical competence already established and on the reputation we have gained through our certification programme for updating ÖVGW standards and guidelines. We will also seek to extend the range of our member services and intensify PR activities to inform people of ÖVGW’s involvement in the sustainable supply of high-quality drinking water. Last but not least, we will promote public awareness of water values and provide better staff training to small water suppliers that are not yet members of ÖVGW.
api: Considering the current offers of regional water suppliers like evn wasser in Lower Austria, WSG in Salzburg, or WDL in Upper Austria, don’t you think there is a risk that ÖVGW will soon “run out of” small water suppliers?
Schneider: I don’t see this risk. But we certainly need to distinguish between the west and the east of our country. In Austria’s east, with its topographical situation and its less abundant water resources, mergers may in fact prove economically advantageous. Water suppliers and their customers in the west, however, can rely on a much larger number of water sources; many residents also have established strong bonds with local suppliers and their sources. On the whole, neither west nor east show an explicit demand for the takeover of services or even assets.
api: If the much expected concentration process is not really an issue, what are the hot topics of the industry?
Schneider: It is true that climate change and its implications have also been a concern for our domestic water industry for some time. Water scarcity in general is not really a problem in our country; the challenge rather is to improve regional and temporal water distribution between north and south and take up preventive measures for coping with a future increase in disaster events. We have already taken some countermeasures, such as launching supraregional collaboration programmes and building water transfer canals (such as in Styria), but we will need to further expand these in the future. Besides, suppliers need to tap into new sources of water as well as forge ahead with the expansion of existing water supply networks to ensure a sustainable water supply.
api: This implies major investments, for which end users will ultimately have to pay. Will this lead to a significant increase in water tariffs in the near future?
Schneider: Water tariffs vary greatly across the country. Prices charged by the major suppliers are currently in the range of € 1 to 1.50/m3, which would compensate for new investments. But in the case of smaller suppliers, some of whom charge as little as 40 cents/m3, a price increase is certainly justified. Having said that, I don’t expect that end users will be excessively burdened. Suppliers facing extremely high investments will without doubt investigate options of public funding.
api: Investments also relate to quality assurance. What needs to be done in this respect?
Schneider: Nearly all our water suppliers are doing extremely well in terms of quality. It is widely known that most water problems are of agricultural origin. But as these problems occur only in specific areas, it is hard to raise awareness among the general public. Problems can therefore only be solved at local level. Politicians are currently not expected to launch large-scale campaigns against agricultural malpractice.
api: Rumour has it that ÖVGW will become more active at EU level. What are the implications?
Schneider: Now that the usual over-regulation of EU officials seems to have somewhat subsided, it is important that we ourselves take action by keeping decision makers in Brussels abreast with regional news and showing them that water management is best left in the hands of individual member states. Also, we need to work together closely with our German partners to develop EUREAU into a powerful tool. At the same time, we are expanding our activities in Southeast Europe. The two most important initiatives are the European Forum Water, with its next meeting in Vienna on 27 – 28 June, and the newly founding Danube Water Competence Center/DWCC, to which ÖVGW lends human resources and financial support (editor’s note: aqua press will report in detail on DWCC in one of the upcoming issues). The purpose of both initiatives is to make our colleagues and partners in Southeast Europe acquainted with the water industry approach adopted in Austria and Germany and support them through a transfer of know-how. Along the same lines ÖVGW will also provide its full support to the IWA World Water Congress 2008 in Vienna.
api: Thank you very much for the interview!
(Source: aqua press Int. 1/2007, Mag. Christof Hahn)