Fernando Morcillo is a civil engineer with a degree in environmental engineering and postgraduate studies in business economics. Throughout his professional life he has worked in the private and public sector, in industrial and urban matters.
He was captivated by service engineering and worked at Canal de Isabel II developing installations, works, operating systems, etc. He was also involved for ten years with The World's Water and since 2014 he has served as chairman of the Spanish Association of Water Supply and Sanitation (AEAS)The Spanish Water Association, a professional grouping of reference in the urban water sector in Spain.
AEAS is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What is the role of AEAS?
In 1973 as a non-profit professional association for the promotion and development of scientific, technical, administrative and legal aspects of urban water supply and sanitation services.
AEAS It encompasses managing entities - municipal services and public, private and mixed entities - as well as water-related technology companies, public bodies and individual experts.
Therefore, it could be said that we are a forum for technical meetings and the exchange of experiences, that we try to defend the values of efficiency of services and to improve the service to citizens. That is what is written in our statutes and in our founding charter.
Digitalisation is a term that is now on everyone's lips. What does it mean for AEAS?
The specific conditions of our sector, which is highly deployed throughout the territory and with numerous infrastructures located far from urban centres, have always required elementary communications awareness, not only in terms of remote control, signal reception and management, but also remote control, because it was necessary to act on systems established many kilometres away. This, which today seems very elementary, at the time, saved a great deal of costs for citizens and taxpayers.
Companies are entities that handle an infinite amount of data, because practically all citizens are water users. In fact, at the moment in Spain, we have almost half a meter per person, some 20 million meters, which generates a large volume of information. All of this has generated the imperative need for asset management itself to know where the connection nodes are, where the pumps are, where the tanks are, etc. This also conditioned and favoured the need to always focus on the deployment and management of information.
Today it is what we call digital twins, but in the past it was known as a simulation model. It is something that has been evolving, firstly, in large cities, but it has already happened in many towns in Spain, in other words, we can already see that it is a necessity to manage the data to provide the best solution.
In fact, there are two stages. The first, in the 1960s, with the deployment of civil infrastructure, which began to become industrial units, such as drinking water treatment plants (DWTPs), where drinking water is "manufactured" from natural water through highly industrial processes such as filtration or chlorination. The second, in the 1980s, began to do the same with wastewater plants.
Therefore, we have a lot of infrastructure deployed in the territory, we could say, low-volume hydraulic infrastructure and also industrial plants that have become productive units that have to be exploited and maintained as an industry.
And right now, how would you rate the current state of digitisation of supply and sanitation networks?
The problem we have in our country is the extreme heterogeneity that exists between the big leaders in the sector and those towns with less technological capacity, which are still, on the other hand, in many cases, the responsibility and are under the direct management of local councils, which is a problem because it requires a high level of specialisation and, on occasions, they do not have the capacity to do so.
The leaders are very well positioned because, since the 1990s, our industry has gone abroad with a lot of power and strength. We have a very long history in this area and, therefore, a very large capacity. For example, in desalination. If you look at the Spanish industry, you say: we don't manufacture anything that is necessary to make a desalination plant. We don't make membranes, we don't make pressure pumps, we don't make energy recovery systems, but we know how to integrate them and we know how to provide a solution by buying the best because we guarantee the operation of these plants. We are magnificent integrators with solutions oriented towards what the client wants, which in the end is to have water for human consumption and, of course, for irrigation. We have very cutting-edge organisations that have experienced global development.
The Spanish sector is prepared for these technological leaps. We know how to provide solutions.
This is not to say that there is not a big gap between leaders and small businesses, especially when they are not clustered. Clusters of municipalities are important in order to achieve economies of scale that allow them to be more efficient and technologically capable to deal with this great revolution that is taking place.
"Robotic systems are key in the sewerage network for preparation, monitoring and observation, but also for irrigation to avoid possible water leakage over long distances.
The rural world, which has a much smaller population and fewer resources, is more dispersed in the population centres and this is the main challenge we have to face. How can we do it? What strategies do you think are possible to solve this gap?
Basically, the way to do this is through the concentration or integration of municipalities into different systems. These can be associations of municipalities, provincial companies, regional councils, etc. All of this brings great advantages when it comes to distributing the efforts of citizens because, logically, the service in a small municipality is more expensive than in a large capital city, be it in terms of customers, cubic metres served or any other ratio. Therefore, it is only by grouping together that it can be efficient and equalise conditions in terms of cost and technology, thanks to the critical size that facilities and services should have.
And that critical size can you size it up?
We believe that there are very good experiences above one hundred thousand or one hundred and fifty thousand. It is not defined, perhaps somewhere there may be an entity that is efficient with fifty thousand, due to the conditions of the environment and the economic situation.
There are always exceptions, but on that border there would be an ideal entity, although if it can be done by nucleating us with a large city as a large conurbation, so much the better. This is the example of the Community of Madrid, which provides services to very small municipalities in the mountains. This allows for economies of scale and economic adjustments, but also for the provision of quality service, comfort and safety, much better than if it were done by individualised nuclei.
Nor should we lose sight of the solution offered by private companies. This often does not require the grouping of municipalities to be convex, i.e. it does not require the municipalities to belong to the same territory, administration, region or autonomy, but rather, thanks to new technologies, it allows economies of scale to be achieved with isolated municipalities, but with a certain population. These are integrated operation solutions that do not have to do with regional, administrative or territorial connection and that, in the end, have an ideal size to provide adequate technological solutions.
In the phases of digitalisation of the water sector, have they been determined by necessity or by the rapid incorporation of technological advances? In other words, has the distribution and sanitation sector been able to integrate technology quickly?
Since there is no competitive market around them, but rather a competition for prestige, it has advanced more slowly than other sectors. And, in short, many technologies are imported from other sectors, they are developed in other sectors that are more advanced for reasons of competitiveness, but they reach water, albeit cautiously. We could be more developed, no doubt.
I would like to give an example of what we identify in the curve we have of non-revenue water, with which we are measuring the functioning of the networks. In the 1990s we had between 33 and 35% of unregistered water - the sum of losses, plus fraud, metering errors, etc. -. Today, we are at 23.5%, but in 2008 we had reached 22%. However, the lack of investment after the crisis of those years, which has deeply affected the water sector, because we are investing four or five times less than what was invested in those years before 2008, caused this ratio to rise.
In 2012, the digital technology of leakage control starts to generalise a little bit and from then on we have maintained the conditions. Obviously, the scenario will not improve as long as we do not renew infrastructure, which is the basis, but digitalisation in this field offers a very rapid diagnostic capacity, which allows you to speed up decision-making and favours active action, either preventively in the event of an incident or correctively.
All the current technology implemented in the water networks is making it possible to maintain a status that is not the best, but which has prevented a return to values above 30%. The 23.5% that we have today in our national study for the year 2022 is an average and, like all averages, we must be careful with it. There are systems in Spain that have an unregistered water index of 60%, while the large cities are close to 10, even below that value. In other words, there is a tremendous dispersion of results, of losses in the networks due to their malfunctioning.
In all this process of continuous improvement, do you think that PERTE will solve the current problems or will it be a push that, if not maintained, will bring us back to the starting point?
At this time, when we are experiencing a very powerful evolution of European legislation on water, I believe that this is going to continue, because Europe is much more stable than we are in its decisions on regulatory rules and the monitoring of these rules.
In January, Royal Decree 3/2023 was published, which is the transposition of the Drinking Water Directive, a European directive from two years ago, which transposes an obligation to report on the efficiency conditions of our networks by 2026, although the parameters have yet to be defined.
In addition to the reporting of all countries, there will be delegated acts to set targets in each country that will impose an obligation on practically all municipalities of a certain size. So we will evolve a lot in that sense and it will require the provision of digitisation mechanisms.
The PERTE has come at an ideal time for this because it identifies certain conditions required by Europe. In addition, we have in the pipeline the draft of the Waste Water Directive, which will also take a couple of years to arrive, which is setting some fundamental conditions linked to the sewage networks, such as the control of overflows of untreated water.
This is going to generate very powerful requirements for something that nobody looks at today, which are the sewerage networks and which, thanks to civil engineering, have a lot of inertia and do not require much to function. Furthermore, our greatest public assets in the urban water cycle are in the sewerage networks. On the other hand, they are very old and deteriorated, with serious problems, let's say of functioning, but they provide their service after many years.
"Digitalisation in the field of leakage monitoring offers a very fast diagnostic capability, which speeds up decision making and promotes proactive action".
The European Reuse Regulation has also been approved, which is exclusively for irrigation, water for agricultural irrigation. Europe has reached a common conclusion on how this should be done and, as a result, this regulation has arisen and we have to comply with it. This is also going to condition us and requires the deployment of digitalisation for compliance.
In recent years there has been a major transformation in terms of sensorisation and quality. Today we have sensorisation of many physical parameters such as pressure, humidity or temperature, but quality is going to end up imposing itself because today the networks can be very sensitive to quality incidents and it is essential to ensure the quality of the service for citizens. Water is one of the most controlled ingestion elements, but even so, given the distribution system, the network will have to be plagued in the coming years with quality mechanisms, devices and sensors. We will have to look for those that provide an explanation of a possible incidence or deterioration of water quality.
And then, on the other hand, in a country like ours, which is very dry, with a heterogeneous distribution of water, a fundamental element is the administration of water itself. We still have a somewhat nineteenth-century administration. In the 1980s there was a very large deployment of river control, water extraction and quality systems, which were intended to be very powerful but which are now obsolete and outside the typical parameters that digitalisation requires today, in terms of sensorisation, communications, data integration and analysis.
In relation to digitalisation, it is no longer enough to just have a panel and a SCADA where they notify an alert or a fault. There are now artificial intelligence or robotic systems that allow decisions to be made online and almost in real time. Robotic systems are key in the sewerage network for preparation, monitoring and observation, but also for irrigation to avoid possible water leaks over long distances, for example, drones help to monitor very long lengths of pipes and detect with cameras humidities that should not be present at certain points.
Finally, let's talk about the role of cybersecurity in the digitisation of the full water cycle, what is your vision?
Personally, I am very concerned about the issue of cybersecurity, and we have taken this up with the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge. The fundamental foundations of computer and electronic security must be laid from the outset, otherwise it will be all patches and bad solutions. It is necessary to start by having a clear vision of being as secure as possible because there is a lot of data and if it is manipulated it can lead to very wrong diagnoses. Therefore, we must take this into account and include it in the cost items, in the specialisation and in the subsequent development to avoid making mistakes.