Safer drinking water for all Europeans


Environment for Europeans asked Matjaž Malgaj about the latest steps to improve Europe’s drinking water supply. He heads the DG Environment Unit that is responsible for the marine environment and water industry.

Why do EU drinking water rules need to be revised? 

Most Europeans are already enjoying tap water of the highest standard in the world. But our analysis has shown there are areas where we need improvement if we want this to remain the case. The very first European Citizens’ Initiative showed that citizens want better access to water services and more transparency.

Many more people will realise it is perfectly safe to drink tap water in Europe.

Matjaž Malgaj, Head of Unit, Marine Environment and Water Industry

That is why we decided to modernise the nearly 20-year-old Drinking Water Directive. We propose to update safety standards to deal with new and emerging pollutants. We also propose to give consumers much more information and oversight. All this furthers our drive towards a more circular economy in the hope that many more people will realise it is perfectly safe to drink tap water in Europe.

What benefits do the modernised rules bring for consumers? As a consumer, how can I be sure my tap water is healthy?

Updated standards cover substances that could become a problem in the future, such as endocrine disruptors. The new system will also allow for the better detection and further reduction of risks. This will progressively cover small suppliers, for which there is little information now. In addition, the new rules will ensure that authorities can deal better with public health risks, such as legionella.

Consumers will have more information on the quality of their tap water, and on how efficiently service providers supply it. This will empower them to supervise providers better. They will also have online access to information on precious nutrients, such as calcium or magnesium, and advice on how to lower consumption.

The European Citizens’ Initiative on the ‘Right2Water’, signed by 1.8 million people, wanted water to be recognised as a human right. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 aims for the supply of safe and affordable water and sanitation to all by 2030. Does this proposal satisfy this demand?

The right to access essential services of good quality, including water, is one of the principles of the new European Pillar of Social Rights. The proposal reflects this principle requiring Member States to improve access to water in general and to ensure access for vulnerable and marginalised groups.

The impact assessment accompanying the proposal found that the significant positive health benefits of safer drinking water supply will clearly offset the moderate additional costs for households. It also looked at affordability. Household spending on water services is expected to increase on EU average only slightly from 0.73 % to 0.76 - 0.77 % of average household income. Since Member States have a margin of discretion (e.g. for subsidies), actual costs would most likely be lower.

What do Member States have to do? Will there be additional costs for national and/or local governments?

The role of central and regional authorities is key to success, in particular how they apply the new safety concept, the so-called risk-based approach, on the ground. We expect that the initial stages will be more demanding in some countries since they require new ways of working to assess potential risks. But we are confident that in the medium term this approach will pay off and lead to substantially lower costs for public authorities.

Since water suppliers are often private companies, how can they be obliged to increase transparency surrounding their activities?

The public has the right of access to clear environmental information at national level. To avoid red tape the proposal distinguishes between information to be made available online, and specific data which providers will supply directly to consumers, such as volume consumed and details on tariffs.

The revised Directive sets out to update the list of parameters for drinking water quality, and adopt a risk-based approach. What does this mean and what are the benefits?

After a very thorough analysis we are proposing to add 18 new and emerging substances to the list of criteria for determining water safety. For example, for the first time, EU-wide rules will better protect EU citizens against viruses. It also includes emerging contaminants from industry, like perfluorinated compounds, and potentially endocrine disrupting substances, like bisphenol A. We have worked very closely with the World Health Organization in updating the list of parameters and quality standards. The proposal sets the rules on amounts of substances allowed in water, giving very clear guidance on the production of hygienically safe pipes and taps.

Bottled water consumption is growing. Single-use plastic bottles often end up as litter in our rivers and oceans. Will the revision help stem the tide of plastic waste?

The Commission is very serious about tackling the growing amount of plastic waste. We expect that actions to improve access to tap water coupled with more transparency on water quality will engender more confidence in tap water and reduce consumption of plastic. This goes hand in hand with other actions set out in the European Strategy for Plastics on 16 January 2018.

Microplastics are a growing threat to our planet and our health. Does the revised Directive address this issue?

We have taken a precautionary approach here with an obligation that hazard assessments should also check whether microplastics could pose a risk, We do not see conclusive evidence that there is a real risk at this stage, but we wanted to be on the safe side. If it is established through monitoring that microplastics pose a risk, water suppliers will have to act and make sure they don't pollute tap water.

Water, marine and coast