A national action plan for sewage could save billions of kroner for citizens

Picture of a wastewater site. Retrieved from Vannfakta.

This article is written in Norwegian by Helge Eide, Director for Society, Welfare and Democracy in KS, and Thomas Breen, Director of Norsk Vann. This is first published in Kommunal Rapport 19.12.2022

According to KS (Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities) and Norsk Vann (Norwegian Water), a nationwide sewage action plan allows municipalities to make wise environmental investments while ensuring economic and social sustainability.

Municipalities are responsible for safe drinking water and efficient wastewater treatment

Norwegian municipalities must build and upgrade sewage treatment plants to achieve good environmental conditions in waterways and fjords, which is an expensive and time-consuming task. Coordination in the public sector and a national approach to the large investment requirement can significantly reduce the increase in fees for residents when compared to municipalities acting alone.

Municipalities are responsible for making sure that citizens have access to clean drinking water and that waste water is handled correctly. Failure of the water and sewage systems will have a significant impact on society's ability to maintain a number of vital activities, including food production, fire protection, health, the environment, and social safety.

According to Norsk Vann, municipalities must invest more than  360 billion NOK over the next 20 years to secure these socially critical services. The investments are necessary to adapt sewage systems, infrastructure, and wastewater treatment methods to climate change, population increase, and stricter authority requirements with tight deadlines. Furthermore, municipalities are increasingly in need of replacing old pipes and cables. When the European Commission's new draught sewage directive is finally adopted, it will almost certainly increase the need for investment.

The requirement for collaboration between municipalities and a national action plan 

Scarce expertise and capacity resources in the municipal sector, state authorities, and the private supplier market create major challenges for this critical work. This necessitates coordination so that the most important measures with the greatest impact can be prioritised. This must happen at the national level and cannot be handled by a single municipality.

The cost of the facilities will be more expensive if the municipalities are forced to compete for the few available professional resources. Several municipalities will not receive the necessary assistance, and thus will not meet the deadlines set for satisfying important environmental requirements. Municipalities that do not meet the requirements face penalties from the state, including the suspension of new residential development and the establishment of businesses. The combination of time constraints and market failure raises the possibility of costly misinvestments with citizens' money.

The State Administration must make arrangements for municipalities that share the same vulnerable water environment to collaborate on finding sustainable solutions. This calls on municipalities in bigger regions to consider new environmental criteria and deadlines in their overall planning, and for the State Administrator to think holistically when granting and monitoring emission permits.

Greater cross-municipal task-oriented cooperation paves the way for innovation in planning and procurement, facilitates the development of larger competence environments, and makes it easier to find standardised solutions to common challenges and tasks. These factors make operating the facilities simpler and less vulnerable. In particular, the government must ensure that the Norwegian Environment Agency and State Administrators have the necessary skills and capabilities to ensure crucial regulatory clarifications, provide good guidance, process cases quickly, and do other follow-ups of the municipalities. At the same time, it should also be of interest to national authorities that the investments in water and sewage are as profitable as possible from a socio-economic perspective, and create the greatest possible benefit for society and users. The magnitude of the investment required, the importance of reliable water and sewage services, and the complexities of the challenges make this a national concern.

KS and Norsk Vann recommend that the State Administration develop a national sewage action plan. Such a plan will be a good tool for ensuring implementation influence if it is based on a common knowledge base with analyses of vulnerable water environments, adapted requirements for treatment solutions, and coordinated deadlines. The goal is to allow municipalities to make good environmental investments while also ensuring the economic and social sustainability of the citizens who pay the bill. In this way, the government can contribute to real cost savings in the billions of kroner without having to spend large sums of money.

A picture of a wastewater site is retrieved from Vannfakta.

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