SDG 6 - Clean water and sanitation
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Data extracted in May 2019.
Planned article update: June 2020.
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 a part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2019 edition’. This report is the third 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 to improve water quality and water-use efficiency and to encourage 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 sanitation, water quality and water use efficiency. As Table 1 shows, the EU has made significant progress on sanitation and water quality over the past few years. Progress on water use efficiency cannot yet be measured due to the lack of aggregated EU-level data.
Provision of drinking water and adequate treatment of sewage are matters 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 have access to basic sanitation and are connected to secondary wastewater treatment Overall, connection rates and the quality of water services in the EU were already high more than ten years ago, and have continued to improve. The share of the population that have neither a bath, shower, nor indoor flushing toilet in their household decreased from 3.2 % in 2007 to 1.8 % in 2017. 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
Almost every household had basic sanitary facilities in the majority of EU Member States in 2017. However, the share of the population living in housholds without access to basic sanitary appliances such as a bath, shower and a flushing toilet varied greatly between countries, ranging from 27.2 % to 0 %. In general, most countries reported shares of below 1 %, which indicates that the EU aggregated data are strongly influenced by only a few countries. In 2017, Romania reported more than a quarter of the population (27.2 %) did not yet have access to sanitary facilities within their housholds. Another three countries from eastern and southern Europe reported that around 10 % of ther population lacked such access.
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, had much lower levels of access to a bath, shower or toilet in their households. In 2017, 6.1 % of poor people in the EU reported being affected by this situation compared to only 1.2 % of those living above the poverty threshold . The share of poor people without access to basic sanitation facilities was particularly high in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia, with 58.1 % of Romanians who lived below the poverty threshold reporting they lacked access to sanitation in 2017. Notably, in Romania also 17.7 % of the richer population lacked access in 2017.
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. These countries, due to their earlier EU membership, had a head start on implementing the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (and its successor, the Water Framework Directive). Nine of the 10 countries reporting that more than 90 % of their population were connected to secondary or higher wastewater treatment belonged to this group. Most of the lowest-scoring countries were in the Mediterranean and Black Sea region.
It is important to 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 reach 100 % in all countries.
Protecting water bodies from pollution and deterioration of water resources has long been a focus of EU environmental policy. Diffuse pollution by agriculture, accidental spills of harmful substances and discharge of insufficiently treated domestic and industrial wastewater, as well as atmospheric deposition of pollutants such as mercury, can threaten human and environmental health. These pressures, along with changes to the structure and flow of water bodies, pose a barrier to sustainable development. Water quality monitoring distinguishes between chemical pollution and pollution by nutrients and pathogens. In this report, water quality is monitored through four indicators looking at nutrients in rivers and in groundwater and at bathing water quality. All these indicators show favourable trends for the EU over the past few years.
Improved wastewater treatment leading to declining BOD values in European rivers
As a direct result of improved wastewater treatment in the EU, 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 miligram per litre (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 from 2.95 mg/L in 2000 to 2.02 mg/L in 2015. The decrease has, however, slowed in recent years, which might be due to secondary treatment already being widely implemented in wastewater treatment plants.
Eutrophication is still a major issue for Europe’s aquatic environment
The most recent assessment of European waters published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) concludes that chemical pollution impacts most EU surface water bodies (49 %), followed by changes to the river structure and flow (40 %) and nutrient pollution (28 %). In some regions, nutrient concentrations in rivers are still high enough to even cause eutrophication in coastal waters. This shows that although eutrophication has fallen 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 inputs of the nutrients nitrate/ammonia (N) and phosphorous (P) into water bodies and can lead to algae blooms 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 are agricultural practices involing the application of fertilisers and animal waste, as well as poorly treated wastewater from industry, such as food, beverages, pulp and paper production .
Nitrates, among other chemicals, can infiltrate and contaminate groundwater bodies. They are the most common pollutants causing poor chemical status of groundwater in the EU. In the second Water Framework Directive reporting cycle, nitrates caused poor chemical status in 18 % of groundwater body area across 24 Member States . 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 mg/L. Between 2000 and 2015, nitrate concentrations in groundwater remained below 20 mg/L at EU level, reaching 18.3 mg/L in 2015. However, over the period 2012 to 2015, 13.2 % of groundwater stations were considered polluted under the Nitrates Directive (exceeding 50 mg/L) . Moreover, there are still regions with very intensive agriculture where nitrates concentrations exceed safe levels and 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 the most with high nitrates levels in groundwater.
Water quality in European rivers improved significantly between 2000 and 2015. Average phosphate concentrations in European rivers fell from 0.097 mg/L in 2000 to a low of 0.060 mg/L in 2015. This overall positive trend is to some extent the 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.
Vast majority of inland and coastal bathing waters show ‘excellent’ bathing water quality
Pure, clean water is not only vital to human health but also for people’s well-being. Overall, the share of inland water 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 water bathing sites showed excellent bathing water quality in 2017. Wastewater pollution and less dilution of water discharges are the main reasons why inland water bathing sites are less likely to have excellent water quality than costal bathing sites.
Water use efficiency
To manage water resources sustainably, the quantity of water used needs to be considered alongside its quality. Therefore, SDG 6 also calls for a focus on water use efficiency, with the aim of improving it across all sectors by 2030, in order to use freshwater sustainably and reduce water scarcity. The EU aims to increase the efficiency and sustainability of water resources that are monitored by the water exploitation index.
Water stress is low in most EU countries, but still high in a few
When considered over a year, water stress in most Member States is still rare. However, 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 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 in electricity generation, to a large extent in nuclear reactors . Cooling water is typically redirected to rivers after use, but such return flows are not captured by the WEI indicator. Another reason for the relatively high share of abstracted water in Belgium could be that the country has a relatively small amount of available renewable freshwater  in general.
To overcome the shortcomings of the WEI indicator, the water exploitation index plus (WEI+) was developed. It includes return flows and is therefore a more adequate reflection of net consumption . In 2018, the EEA published an assessment of European river basin districts for the period 1990 to 2015. Over the 15-year period from 2000 to 2015, an average of 14 % of the total EU territory was affected by water scarcity, with the highest values observed in 2000 (21 %) and 2015 (20 %). In 2015, a year with relatively high actual evapotranspiration and low precipitation levels, the share of the population exposed to water scarcity was around 30 %. Most of these people were living in densely populated cities, on small Mediterranean islands and in agricultural areas of southern Europe .
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 the environment and plays a crucial role in providing climate-related ecosystem services. The most important pressures on Europe's water resources are pollution, for example from agriculture, as well as municipal and industrial discharges and wastewater and hydrological or physical alterations of water bodies. Also, over-abstraction can be a severe issue in southern Europe, in particular during the summer months and in densely populated areas. In the past 30 years, the European Commission has put considerable effort into 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 - 2019 edition’.
Further reading on clean water and sanitation
- EEA (2017), Emissions of pollutants to Europe’s waters — sources, pathways and trends, ETC/ICM Technical Report 3/2017, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.
- Source: Eurostat (ilc_mdho05).
- European Environment Agency (2017), Emissions of pollutants to Europe’s waters — sources, pathways and trends, ETC/ICM report, p. 17.
- 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.
- Source: Eurostat (env_wat_abs).
- Share of 51 % on overall electricity production in 2016, World Nuclear Association (2018), Nuclear Power in Belgium.
- Eurostat (2017), [Water_statistics|Statistics Explained: Water statistics].
- European Environment Agency (2017), Water exploitation index plus (WEI+) for river basin districts (1990–2015).
- European Environment Agency (2018), Use of freshwater resources (CSI 018), Indicator assessment. Accessed 22 January 2019; and European Environment Agency (2018), Environmental indicator report 2018, EEA Report No 19/2018.