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Water reuse

Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse

The Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation entered into force in June 2020. The new rules will apply from 26 June 2023 and are expected to encourage and facilitate water reuse in the EU.

The text of the Water Reuse Regulation can be found here.

The Regulation sets out:

  • Harmonised minimum water quality requirements for the safe reuse of treated urban wastewaters in agricultural irrigation;
  • Harmonised minimum monitoring requirements, notably the frequency of monitoring for each quality parameter, and validation monitoring requirements;
  • Risk management provisions to assess and address potential additional health risks and possible environmental risks;
  • Permitting requirements;
  • Provisions on transparency, whereby key information on every water reuse project is made available to the public.

The new rules fit in the context of the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan , which includes the implementation of the new Regulation amongst Europe’s priorities for the circular economy. The Action Plan also announces that the Commission will facilitate water reuse and efficiency in other sectors, including in industrial processes.

The Commission is preparing the tools to support the full application of the rules, in cooperation with Member States and stakeholders.

Guidelines to support the application of the Water Reuse Regulation

The European Commission has prepared, in consultation with Member States and stakeholders, guidelines to help apply the Water Reuse Regulation. The recently adopted Commission Notice provides guidance on the general and administrative obligations set out by the Regulation, its scope of application, and its technical aspects, such as risk management and validation monitoring.

The Guidelines can be found here.

Legislative process

Water reuse is commonly and successfully practiced in several EU Member States, as well as in, for example, Israel, California, Australia, and Singapore. However, this practice is so far deployed below its potential in the EU. Limited awareness of potential benefits among stakeholders and the general public, and lack of a supportive and coherent framework for water reuse were identified as two major barriers preventing a wider spreading of this practice in the EU.

For these reasons, the Commission proposed in 2018 a Regulation to boost water reuse when it is cost-efficient and safe for health and the environment. Key documents:

Water is too precious to waste

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

Policy background - 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: