SDG 6 - Clean water and sanitation
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Data extracted in August 2018
Planned article update: September 2019
This article provides an overview of statistical data on SDG 6 ‘Clean water and sanitation’ in the European Union (EU). It is based on the set of EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an EU context.
This article is part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2018 edition’. This report is the second edition of Eurostat’s series of monitoring reports on sustainable development, which provide a quantitative assessment of progress of the EU towards the SDGs in an EU context.
Goal 6 calls for ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, and ending open defecation. It also aims at improving water quality and water-use efficiency and encouraging sustainable abstractions and supply of freshwater.
Clean water and sanitation in the EU: overview and key trends
Monitoring SDG 6 in an EU context focuses on the topics sanitation, water quality and water use efficiency. As Table 1 shows, the EU has achieved significant progress in the areas of sanitation and water quality over the past few years, with the exception of a recent increase in phosphate concentrations in European rivers. The progress in water use efficiency cannot yet be measured due to the lack of aggregated EU-level data.
The provision of drinking water and the adequate treatment of sewage is a matter of public and environmental health. As a vital resource, water is considered a public good in the EU. Thus, drinking water and sanitation services have been high on the political agenda of the EU and its Member States during the past decades. As a result, water utilities are subject to strict regulation regarding the quality and efficiency of services. The indicators chosen to monitor sanitation are the share of the population having neither a bath, nor a shower, nor indoor flushing toilet in their household and the share of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment.
The vast majority of EU citizens has access to basic sanitation and is connected to secondary wastewater treatment
Overall, provision of water services in the EU was already of good quality and connection rates were high more than ten years ago, and have continued to improve. The share of the population having neither a bath, nor a shower, nor indoor flushing toilet in their household decreased from 3.7 % in 2005 to 1.9 % in 2016. Data also show that between 2010 and 2015, the amount of people connected to secondary wastewater treatment increased.
Conventional primary wastewater treatment consists of basic physical processes, such as filtration and sedimentation, and mainly aims to remove suspended solids. Biological oxygen demand (BOD), which is a proxy for organic water pollution, is only reduced by 20–30 % by primary treatment processes. In contrast, secondary treatment processes, which are typically applied after primary treatment, reduce BOD by at least 70 % through biological or chemical processes.
Growth in the share of people connected to secondary treatment indicates that the implementation of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive , which started in the 1990s, has made an important contribution to reducing pollution and improving water quality in Europe’s rivers.
Differences between Member States exist with regards to levels of access to water services and sanitation
In 2016, in the majority of EU Member States almost every household had basic sanitary facilities. However, the share of the population without access to basic sanitary appliances such as a bath or shower and a flushing toilet varied strongly between countries, ranging from 30.0 % to 0 %, with the north- and central-western EU Member States tending to show the lowest values. In general, the majority of countries reported shares of below 1 %, which indicates the EU aggregated data are strongly influenced by only a few countries. Some, mostly eastern European, countries still face considerable problems: in 2016, four countries from eastern Europe reported more than 10 % of their population lacked such access. The situation was worst in Romania, where almost one-third of the population (30.0 %) was affected.
It is important to stress, however, that access to basic sanitary facilities is strongly inter-linked with poverty. Poor people, with an income below 60 % of the median equivalised disposable income, and thus considered to be at risk of poverty, were much more affected by a lack of access to a bath, shower or toilet in their household. In 2016, 5.8 % of poor people reported being affected by this situation compared to only 1.1 % of those living above the poverty threshold . The share of poor people without access to basic sanitation facilities was particularly high in Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria, with more than 60 % of Romanians who lived below the poverty threshold reporting a lacking access to sanitation in 2016. Notably, in Romania almost 20 % of the richer population was affected by this situation in 2016.
Similar to basic sanitary facilities, the share of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment was highest in the ‘old’ EU-15 Member States, which due to their earlier membership had a head start on implementing the Water Framework Directive. Here, most of the lowest-scoring countries are in the Mediterranean and Black Sea region.
Note that for countries with a low population density, it may be unrealistic to implement comprehensive secondary treatment, especially in remote areas. In line with this understanding, the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive only obliges agglomerations with more than 2 000 person equivalents to introduce a secondary treatment level. However, even in the absence of secondary treatment, such smaller agglomerations are still encouraged to find alternative solutions to reach the same level of protection for waterbodies. Thus, the share of the population connected to secondary treatment is not expected to eventually reach 100 % in all countries.
Protecting water from pollution and deterioration of water resources has long been a focus of EU environmental policy. Intensification of agriculture, the accidental spill of harmful substances and the discharge of insufficiently treated domestic and industrial wastewater can pose a threat to human and environmental health. Along with changes to the hydromorphology of water bodies, it is also a barrier to sustainable development. Water quality is monitored through four indicators looking at pollutants in rivers and in groundwater as well as at bathing water quality. Most of these indicators show clearly favourable trends for the EU over the past few years, with the exception of recently rising phosphate concentrations in European rivers.
Declining trend of BOD values in European rivers due to improved wastewater treatment
As a direct result of improved wastewater treatment in the EU, the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in European rivers is decreasing. BOD is a proxy for the amount of organic water pollution. It is measured by the amount of oxygen that microorganisms consume while digesting the organic material in a water sample in the dark over five days of incubation at 20 °C. In nature, BOD values have been shown to range from less than 1 mg/L in very clean rivers to more than 15 mg/L in heavily polluted rivers. Typically, BOD is a function of municipal wastewater discharged into watercourses, but BOD levels can also be elevated by industrial or agricultural effluents. Very high BOD concentrations can lead to a deoxygenation of water with severe consequences for fish and invertebrates and the aquatic ecosystem as a whole.
As the data show, BOD in European rivers has declined on average by 2.6 % per year from 2000 (2.81 mg/L) to 2014 (1.94 mg/L) and by 1.9 % annually from 2009 (2.14 mg/L) to 2014, indicating that the decrease is slowing. This can possibly be attributed to the already widespread implementation of secondary treatment level in wastewater treatment plants.
Eutrophication is still a major issue for Europe’s aquatic environment
The newest assessment of European waters published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) concludes that while chemical pollution affects the most EU surface water bodies (49 %), nutrient pollution is also impacting 28 % of the EU's surface water bodies . In some regions, concentrations in rivers are still high enough to even cause eutrophication in coastal waters. This shows that although eutrophication has decreased since the 1990s, it remains one of the major threats to many surface water bodies achieving good water quality. Eutrophication describes a process caused by input of the nutrients nitrate/ammonia (N) and phosphorous (P) into water bodies and can lead to algae bloom and oxygen depletion of surface waters. With increased nutrient levels, communities of water organisms change as organisms that occur in oligotrophic (nutrient poor) waters are replaced by more eutrophic species.
The main sources of nutrient inputs can be attributed to agricultural practices through the application of mineral and organic fertilisers as well as insufficiently treated wastewater from industry, such as food, beverages, pulp and paper production .
Nitrates, among other chemicals, can infiltrate and potentially contaminate groundwater bodies. They are the most common pollutants causing poor chemical status of groundwater in the EU. In the second reporting cycle of the Water Framework Directive, nitrates caused poor chemical status in 18 % of groundwater body area, and 24 Member States were reportedly affected by this problem . This is particulary problematic because groundwater, in addition to surface water, is an important source of drinking water in Europe. On average, nitrate concentrations in European groundwater bodies are within the EU drinking water standard of 50 milligrams per litre. Between 2000 and 2012, nitrate concentrations in groundwater mostly remained below 20 mg/L, reaching 19.1 mg/L in 2012. However, over the period 2012 to 2015, 13.2 % of groundwater stations were considered polluted under the Nitrates Directive (exceeding 50 mg nitrates per lite)  and there are still regions with very intensive agriculture where nitrates concentrations exceed safe levels and thus further groundwater treatment is needed to protect human health.
The application of mineral and organic fertilisers in agricultural production is closely linked with ammonia emissions. It is a common by-product of animal waste, slurry or incomplete fertiliser uptake. Countries with the highest ammonia emissions per hectare of utilised agricultural area in Europe, such as Malta, Cyprus, Spain, Belgium or Luxembourg, are also struggling most with high nitrates levels in groundwater.
In contrast to the long-term trend for groundwater, water quality in European rivers has increased significantly between 2000 and 2014. Average concentrations of phosphate in European rivers show a downwards trend and have reached a low of 0.059 mg phosphate per litre in 2011. This overall positive trend is to some extent a result of the implementation of measures under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive over the past two and a half decades and especially the introduction of phosphate-free detergents. However, a slight increase can be observed since 2011, reaching 0.068 mg phosphate per litre in 2014.
Vast majority of fresh and coastal marine bathing waters show ‘excellent’ bathing water quality
Pure, clean water is not only vital to human health but also for people’s well-being. Overal, the share of inland freshwater bathing sites with excellent water quality in the EU has been growing since 2011. According to the latest Report on European Bathing Water Quality , 86.3 % of all coastal bathing sites and 82.1 % of inland bathing sites showed excellent bathing water quality in 2017. Wastewater pollution and less dilution of water discharges are the main reasons why the share of inland bathing sites with excellent water quality is still lower than for marine bathing sites.
Water Use efficiency
To manage water resources sustainably, the quantity of water use must be considered in addition to its quality. Therefore, SDG 6 also calls for a focus on water use efficiency, with an aim of increasing it by 2030 across all sectors in order to use freshwater sustainably and thus to decrease water scarcity. The EU aims to increase resource efficiency and the sustainable use of water resources that can be described by the water exploitation index.
Water stress is low in most EU countries, but still high in a few
When considered over the period of a year, water stress in most Member States is still rare. However, the water exploitation index (WEI) values for Cyprus and Malta were above the severe water scarcity threshold of 40 % in 2015 and have been worsening since 2000. A further two countries were above the 20 % threshold: Belgium and Spain. Apart from Belgium, all of these countries are located in the water scarce Mediterranean region.
Water scarcity in Belgium can be explained by the fact that about two-thirds (68 % in 2009 ) of the water abstracted is used for cooling purposes in electricity generation, to a large extent in nuclear reactors . Because the country has a relatively small amount of available renewable freshwater , the share of abstracted water appears disproportionately high. While the cooling water is redirected to rivers after use (returns) in some countries, a shortcoming of the WEI indicator is that it sums up all abstracted water shares without this distinction. A better indication of actual water exploitation, which overcomes the first shortcoming, would be the water exploitation index plus (WEI+), which the EEA assessed for the period 2002 to 2014 for European river basins but not yet for Member States or at EU level. The WEI+ includes return flows and therefore is a better reflection of net consumption .
Access to water is a basic human need. The provision of drinking water and sanitation services is a matter of public and environmental health in the EU. Clean water in sufficient quantity is also of paramount importance for agriculture, industry and environment and plays a crucial role in providing climate related ecosystem services. The most important pressure on Europe's water resources is pollution from agriculture and municipal wastewater, as well as over-abstraction, which can become a severe issue in southern Europe during the summer months. In the past 30 years, the European Commission has put considerable effort in devising policies that address these challenges and aim to protect the quality of Europe’s water resources and to ensure their sustainable and efficient use.
More detailed information on EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as indicator relevance, definitions, methodological notes, background and potential linkages, can be found in the introduction of the publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2018 edition’.
- Council of the European Communities (1991), Council Directive 91/271/EEC 21 of May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment.
- Source: Eurostat (online data code: (ilc_mdho05)).
- European Environment Agency (2018), European waters — Assessment of status and pressures 2018, EEA Report No 7/2018, p. 63.
- European Environment Agency (2017), Emissions of pollutants to Europe’s waters — sources, pathways and trends, ETC/ICM report, pp. 94.
- European Environment Agency (2018), European waters — Assessment of status and pressures 2018, EEA Report No 7/2018, p. 52.
- European Commission (2018), The Nitrates Directive: Reports from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on implementation of the Nitrates Directive (Article 11 reports), p. 5.
- European Environment Agency (2018), European Bathing Water Quality in 2017, EEA Report No. 2/2018.
- Source: Eurostat (online data code: (env_wat_abs)).
- Share of 37 % on overall energy production in 2015, World Nuclear Association (2018), Nuclear Power in Belgium.
- Eurostat (2017), Statistics Explained, Water statistics.
- European Environment Agency (2017), Water exploitation index plus (WEI+) for river basin districts (2002–2014).