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Water Reuse - Background and policy context

Water is too precious to waste

Check out our new infographic with facts and figures on water reuse.


Why reuse treated wastewater?

Water over-abstraction is a major cause of water stress. Main pressures from water consumption are concentrated on irrigation and domestic demand, including tourism. The 2007 Communication on Water scarcity and Droughts made clear that water scarcity and drought events are likely to be more severe and more frequent in the future due to climate change and increasing population. Over the past thirty years, droughts have dramatically increased in number and intensity in the EU and at least 11% of the European population and 17% of its territory have been affected by water scarcity to date.

The potential role of treated wastewater reuse as an alternative source of water supply is now well acknowledged and embedded within international, European and national strategies.UN Sustainable Development Goal on Water (SDG 6) specifically targets a substantial increase in recycling and safe reuse globally by 2030. Water reuse is a top priority area in the Strategic Implementation Plan of the European Innovation Partnership on Water, and maximisation of water reuse is a specific objective in the Communication "Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources".

Reuse of treated wastewater can provide significant environmental, social and economic benefits. According to the Blueprint, water reuse can improve the status of the environment both quantitatively, alleviating pressure by substituting abstraction, and qualitatively, relieving pressure of discharge from UWWTP to sensitive areas. Moreover, when compared to alternative sources of water supply such as desalination or water transfer, water reuse often turns out to require lower investment costs and energy, also contributing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reuse of treated wastewater can be considered a reliable water supply, quite independent from seasonal drought and weather variability and able to cover peaks of water demand. This can be very beneficial to farming activities that can rely on reliable continuity of water supply during the irrigation period, consequently reducing the risk of crop failure and income losses. Appropriate consideration for nutrients in treated wastewater could also reduce the use of additional fertilisers resulting in savings for the environment, farmers and wastewater treatment .

Water reuse contributes to the broader water sector which is a key component of EU eco-industrial landscape. The world water market is growing rapidly, and it is estimated to reach 1 trillion € by 2020. For this reason water reuse also encompasses significant potential in terms of the creation of green jobs in the water-related industry, and it is estimated that a 1% increase in the rate of growth of the water industry in Europe could create up to 20.000 new jobs.

At present, about 1 billion cubic metres of treated urban wastewater is reused annually, which accounts for approximately 2.4% of the treated urban wastewater effluents and less than 0.5% of annual EU freshwater withdrawals. But the EU potential is much higher, estimated in the order of 6 billion cubic metressix times the current volume. Both southern Member States such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus and northern Member States like Belgium, Germany and the UK already have in place numerous initiatives regarding water reuse for irrigation, industrial uses and aquifer recharge. Cyprus and Malta already reuse more than 90% and 60% of their wastewater respectively, while Greece, Italy and Spain reuse between 5 and 12% of their effluents, clearly indicating a huge potential for further uptake.

A number of studies have been supported by the European Commission in recent years to assess the potential of EU action in this area:

EU policy development

Water reuse encounters numerous barriers in the EU, although this practice is commonly and successfully used in, for example, Israel, California, Australia, and Singapore. Limited awareness of potential benefits among stakeholders and the general public, and lack of a supportive and coherent framework for water reuse are 2 major barriers currently preventing a wider spreading of this practice in the EU. For these reasons the Commission is working on legislative or other instruments to boost water reuse when it is cost-efficient and safe for health and the environment.

The Communication "Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources" highlighted water reuse as a concrete and valid alternative supply option to address water scarcity issues. With maximisation of water reuse as a specific objective, the Commission identified the opportunity to develop a legislative instrument for water reuse.

To support this policy development, an impact assessment study was prepared and published in 2015. In line with Commission guidelines for the development of impact assessment studies, the report includes a description of the problem definition and of the baseline situation regarding water reuse in the EU, and elaborates on policy options to be developed in an initiative by the Commission. It also includes detailed annexes about the existing policy measures in Member States. Another support study is currently on-going in order to refine these initial findings.

To inform this impact assessment, the European Commission organised a Public Consultation on Policy Options to optimise Water Reuse in the EU in autumn 2014. The aim of the public consultation was to evaluate the most suitable EU-level instrument/s to foster water reuse, whilst ensuring the protection of environmental and human health, and the free trade of food products. The consultation gave both private citizens and stakeholders the opportunity to actively contribute to the design of this initiative. In addition to the on-line consultation, a stakeholders meeting was organised in December 2014 in Brussels. The public consultation led to a general agreement in support for the water reuse initiative, in particular concerning the development of EU-level common minimum quality requirements for reuse. The report on the public consultation includes the replies to the consultation itself and the feedback from the stakeholders meeting.

The Commission is also carrying out regular consultations with Member States and stakeholders in the framework of the Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. Proceedings of this activity, including presentations on Member State experiences with water reuse, are available on CIRCABC.

Published in April 2016, the Inception Impact Assessment on the initiative "Minimum quality requirements for reused water in the EU (new EU legislation)" sets out in greater detail the background, the policy objectives and options as well as their likely impacts.