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Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive - Review

The European Commission has launched the impact assessment for the potential revision of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive by publishing its roadmap on 21/07. The revision of the Directive is planned to address those areas of improvement that were identified in the evaluation (see below) and to align the directive with the new strategic ambitions of the Von der Leyen Commission outlined in the European Green Deal.

The revision will be based on an impact assessment conducted according to the Better Regulation Guidelines. The impact assessment is the European Commission’s way of assessing different policy options that could remedy the problems and make the directive fit for the future.

To this end, the Commission will also engage with the stakeholder community, as laid down in its Consultation Strategy. Further information will follow in due time.

The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive Evaluation

The European Commission has evaluated the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive to see whether the existing rules have reached their objectives, and whether they still serve their purpose. The assessment confirms that the Directive has proved very effective overall when fully implemented. The reduction of organic matter and other pollution in treated waste water has improved water quality throughout the European Union. Though implementing the Directive has been expensive, benefits clearly outweigh costs. Moreover, implementing the Directive remains crucial to meeting the objectives of other EU legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

The Commission’s Evaluation involved a thorough modelling exercise conducted by the Joint Research Centre, which helped identify the main outstanding issues (see the bar chart below):

  • Some EU countries are lagging behind with implementing the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and need to step up their efforts. Implementation is supported through substantial EU funding and compliance promotion activities. Implementation was also driven, where needed, through infringement.
  • Storm water overflows place significant pressure on surface water bodies. With more heavy rainfall events expected in the future, they will be an increasingly important source of pollution.
  • Individual and other appropriate systems that can be substituted for centralised collection systems are a problem if badly managed and unmonitored. However, they may sometimes offer a useful cost-effective alternative.
  • Small agglomerations or non-connected dwellings place significant pressures on 11% of the EU’s water surface bodies. The Directive does not cover this issue.

remainin loads
Remaining loads that can be avoided (SD=agglomerations <2 000 p.e., CSO=combined sewer overflows, IAS=individual or other appropriate systems); p.e. = population equivalent. Coliforms are bacteria that can cause diseases. By way of comparison, the total urban waste water generated is currently about 612 million p.e. Source: Joint research centre (2019).

In addition to these shortcomings, the Directive is too old to deal adequately with new concerns, such as the pollution of water bodies by pharmaceutical residues and microplastics in the waste water system. This issue has already been raised in the Strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment and the Plastics strategy. The analysis also shows that the waste water sector could do more to help meet EU-wide climate and energy targets. Lastly, the Directive’s requirements on reporting and public information are rather old-fashioned. Digital technology can offer better and more efficient means of communication. 

The Evaluation followed the principles of the Better Regulation Guidelines for Fitness Checks and Evaluations. It was conducted in parallel with the Fitness Check of the Water Framework Directive, its daughter directives and the Floods Directive. The comprehensive literature review on which the Evaluation is based included European Court of Auditor reports, implementation reports, the European Environment Agency’s work, scientific studies and other literature.

Stakeholders were also closely involved throughout, with a 14-week public consultation, four expert workshops and a stakeholder conference (see documents). The Joint Research Centre also modelled the effects of the Directive. In parallel, investment needs and financing strategies for the EU water supply and waste water sector were analysed in cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (see website).

Key documents

More information