Dr. Dušan Plut : “Climate change will also require sustainable water resource management in Slovenia”
To celebrate the International World Water Day (22 March), UNA Slovenia organized a roundtable on 21 March called ”More space for water”. In preparation for the panel discussion, they talked to prof. Dr. Dušan Plut from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, about water resources in Slovenia. His fields of research include geography, natural resources and hydrology. In the interview, Dr. Plut explains challenges related to the water situation in Slovenia, proposes means to overcome these challenges, and presents different point of views on the eco-friendliness of hydroelectricity.
Please find below the whole interview prepared by Peter Kumer and Adriana Aralica, translated by Iva Petkovič.
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Are water resources as renewable natural resources at risk in Slovenia?
To answer this question, it is necessary to make an international comparison of water resources by looking at water resources in Slovenia comparatively on a global scale. This way, it is absolutely true that Slovenia is naturally rich in water resources. This is a great strategic and developmental advantage of Slovenia but it conceals several dangers or risks in the future management of water resources Slovenia. Firstly, I would like to highlight the fact that water resources in Slovenia are subject to drastic seasonal changes. The overall picture is pleasant, but particularly in summer time, the availability of water resources is significantly reduced. It is also necessary to highlight the negative aspect that Slovenia is a geographical meeting point of the four macro-regions of Europe, and consequently, there are large geographical variations in the availability of water resources, which is extremely unusual for a country of such small size as Slovenia.
The third factor is the questionable quality of our water resources – that is the human impact on it. The fact that Slovenia practically doesn’t use river water as drinking water is a sign that our rivers and waterways are contaminated, and instead, we use groundwater for drinking water. For the fourth factor, I would add the fact that the quantitative availability of water resources in Slovenia is falling. This is shown by the data on the water balance. If we compare older periods with the latest data, both the average flows and even the low flows are decreasing, particularly during the summer period. Most likely, these are the first signs of climate change. In the future, we will have to consider the first three restrictions (seasonal variability, different geographical distributions and relatively poor quality of primarily surface water flows) and also consider the fact that the overall volume of water in Slovenia is changing due to climate change. We will also have to adapt the use of water resources to these restrictions.
How should we adapt our use of water resources to climate change impacts?
In particular, we should come from the perspective that the current water consumption in Slovenia is very wasteful, that the losses in the water supply network are large (ranging between the 25 and 30 percent) and that we don’t need new wells but an effective use of already extracted water. We will have to start thinking about not using good quality water for all purposes but about a dual system in households: a system of high quality potable water and the use of rainwater for many other needs (showering, swimming, sanitation).
The dual system is a rational measure also used in New Zealand, where they have plenty of available water, but still use rainwater for purposes that don’t require high quality drinking water. Providing high quality drinking water is also a major economic and financial challenge. As for dry periods and areas, I suggest the construction of water reservoirs that would provide water during dry seasons.
Data already indicates that as a result of climate change we can expect a greater danger of flooding, which means that we will have to make room for the floodwater. The appropriate action to be taken will be the renaturation of watercourses or the so-called ecoremediation, management of river channels that will provide space for water in flood-prone areas, but we will also have to build some dry reservoirs in the higher areas, where we will keep the flood waves that threaten cities like Ljubljana. Climate change will require very deliberate steps in sustainable management of water resources in the country with abundant water resources, such as Slovenia.
To what extent is the use of water energy really environmentally friendly? Does this fall under the framework of sustainable development?
Understandings are different. There is an apparent conflict between environmental protection and water protection, and between the environmental and spatial approach. The use of water for energy means using renewable energy sources, and with regard to the protection of the environment, this is a suitable orientation. But on the other hand, the use of hydroelectric power also implies the necessary building of a dam, and with that, the ecosystem of the river transforms into the ecosystem of stillwater. This measure is negative from the nature conservation point of view. Also, the construction of hydroelectric plants, the seizure of agricultural and all other areas, is questionable from the spatial perspective. I think that at this moment, we cannot forgo the use of water to generate electricity, but we need to be extremely cautious. We could use different potential sources such as the river Sava in a way that takes the ecosystem into consideration, and instead of using traditional water plants (mills), build small hydropower plants, which would take into account all environmental and conservation restrictions. In the past, Slovenia was home to 4 000 traditional water plants that have shown over decades and centuries no significant environmental effects. That is why I think that the decentralized use of water is the appropriate approach.
What do you think are the most important levers of influence on the Slovenian environmental policy?
Since Slovenia is not an exemplary model of the rule of law and legislative instruments are of secondary importance, I think that the two instruments that should be at the forefront are the economic or financial instruments of influence and education. I will focus on the function of education. I am very bothered by the fact that we normally treat water resources through the anthropocentric perspective – water as the key strategic asset, which must meet the needs of man; we neglect to highlight water as a key ecosystem on our planet. On the one hand we emphasize that water has very important functions in areas of provision of supply, energy, tourism and transport, but we forget that water is a key element of the planetary ecosystem and all regional ecosystems. Our water management would be very different, more respectful, if this recognition was built into the educational system and emphasized at all levels from kindergarten to university.
And finally, what is your opinion on the European Directive on the management of water resources?
With regard to the general measures on water treatment, the directive has many positive aspects, because it emphasizes the ecosystem approach. I am very critical of the possibility that this directive will transform into a certain kind of pressure for the privatization of water resources. I am particularly concerned that a small country like Slovenia will be subjected to pressure by multinational corporations interested in the administration and management of Slovenian water because we have relatively speaking a lot of possibilities for high-quality drinking water. Our national interest in water conservation as a key national strategic asset will be of secondary importance. The major weakness of the Directive is that it can be interpreted this way.