The drinking water in Norway is generally of high quality. Still, waterborne disease outbreaks affecting thousands of people occur regularly, e.g. Giardiasis in Bergen in 2004 and Cryptosporidiosis in Askøy in 2019. These incidents point to challenges in the W&S sector that are growing more serious. The W&S sector is characterized substantial maintenance backlog that leads to higher leakage rates than in comparable countries, and a large share of the water supply comes from open water sources. Open water sources and holes in the water pipes increase the risk of polluted drinking water and disease outbreaks. Moreover, surface water and leakages may lead to landslides.
This project will study the Norwegian water and sewage (W&S) sector, which is a municipal responsibility financed mainly by user charges. The maintenance backlog is estimated to be nearly NOK 400 billion, whereas the water leakage rate is around 30 percent. The low investment rate in the W&S sector is not a new phenomenon, and engineers have emphasized the challenges for decades. However, in most municipalities no political actions have been taken. More visible challenges in welfare services like education, child-care, and care for the elderly tend to receive higher political priority. The project is inter-disciplinary with a broad social science perspective emphasizing the political decision-making process. In addition, the WaSH project will (i) investigate whether fragmented responsibilities at the central government level exaggerate the failures at the municipal level, (ii) identify possible adverse implications for public health of polluted drinking water, and (iii) explore alternatives to the present organization and financing of the W&S sector.
This project addresses the causes of the growing maintenance backlog of the water and sewage sector, with special focus on the municipal and central government decision-making processes. The project will also explore the societal health costs of underinvestment in water supply systems, and shed light on alternative financing and organizing strategies. The project group is inter-disciplinary and consists of researchers within the area of economics, political science, sociology and safety science. The composition of researchers allows for a broad social science perspective using a mixed-method approach with case interviews, document studies, surveys and econometric analyses. We have structured the project into five inter-related work packages.
The first three work-packages (WP1-WP3) is designed to answer the same research questions with a mixed-method approach. The objective of WP1 is to understand the challenges in the sector as understood by municipal employees and politicians through case interviews. We will also investigate whether fragmented responsibilities at the central government exaggerates the problems at the municipal level. WP2 will build on the acquired knowledge from WP1 to design a relevant and accurate survey, which will be sent to all Norwegian municipalities. In WP3 we will apply econometric analyses on data related to municipal water and sewage standards. WP4 addresses the societal costs that come from underinvestment, and sheds light on which types of upgrades can be prioritized to most efficiently reduce sick leave and health costs. WP5 provides suggestions on new financing and organizing strategies in the water and sewage sector, on the basis of theoretical models and knowledge acquired in the other work packages.