Although freshwater is relatively abundant in the European Union, many areas, especially in the Mediterranean, still suffer from water shortages, resulting in environmental and economic implications. Water scarcity created by population growth and urbanization has particularly affected highly populated areas in recent years. The overexploitation of water resources, for irrigation purposes but also industrial use and urban development, is one of the main threats to the EU's water environment, while the availability of quality water is a critical condition for the development of economic sectors. Not addressing these imminent challenges can have a lasting economic impact on the continent. Increasing numbers of droughts in Europe can lead to economic losses as well as a potential decline in investment in the affected regions.
A partial solution to this problem can be found in an improved water reuse system. Treated wastewater from urban wastewater treatment plants can be a viable alternative water supply for various purposes, of which agricultural irrigation has the highest potential for an increased uptake of water reuse and a contribution to the alleviation of water scarcity in Europe. Agricultural irrigation is by far the largest user of recycled water worldwide, and a significant share of the total freshwater abstracted in Europe, accounting for about a quarter of the amount. Abstraction for irrigation accounts for about 60% of total freshwater abstraction in southern and south-eastern Europe, and up to 80% in certain river basin districts. Nevertheless, there is currently no obligation to control the quality of water used for irrigation, and during the drier seasons of the year, significant amounts of sewage from water treatment plants may be present in rivers.
To limit this situation, in May 2018 the European Commission put forward a legislative proposal for a regulation facilitating the use of treated urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation. New rules, adopted by the European Parliament and the Council on 25 May 2020, establish harmonized minimum requirements for reclaimed water to be met by the Member States. The Regulation sets obligations for operators of reclamation plants, which include complying with minimum requirements of water quality, according to the four water quality classes based on target crops, microbiological factors, and physicochemical parameters. Moreover, these obligations include establishing a risk management plan, in consultation with the relevant actors, such as the suppliers of wastewater, to address potential additional hazards.
The Regulation introduces minimum requirements on water quality monitoring, guidelines for the aforementioned risk management and standardized procedures to ensure transparency.The production and supply of reclaimed water will be subject to permits issued by the competent authorities of the Member States. Qualified bodies will be able to impose additional requirements, based on the risk management plan submitted by the reclamation plant operator or on the need to mitigate unacceptable risks to health or the environment. The proposal also requires the competent authorities to check compliance of the reclaimed water with the conditions set out in the permit. Furthermore, as part of the evaluation of the Regulation, the European Commission will assess the feasibility of extending the scope of the Regulation to reclaimed water intended for further specific uses, including reuse for industrial purposes.
Currently, the practice of water reuse is established in only a few Member States and it is deployed much below its potential. In terms of investment opportunities, water reuse projects have limited economic attractiveness and are further aggravated by the unclear regulatory framework applying to them. The newly agreed rules will possibly stimulate the water reuse sector and provide a certain amount of clarity concerning water reuse requirements. According to the European Commission, the new Regulation could increase water reuse from 1.7 billion m³ to 6.6 billion m³ per year.
The Regulation on the minimum requirements for water reuse is due to be published in the Official Journal of the European Union and will enter into force 20 days after publication. It will apply in three years after coming into force.
SOURCE: Zbigniew Kozłowski, partner at global legal business, DWF