EU Stakeholders discuss requirements for water reuse

irrigation of a fieldClick to enlarge
Treated wastewater can contain pathogens that may harm humans by contaminating irrigated vegetables.
Source: Monty Schumacher /

The use of treated wastewater, e.g. for agricultural irrigation, can alleviate pressures on water resources. At the same time it poses risks as treated wastewater can contain pathogens and chemicals. By May 2018 the European Commission wants to publish a regulatory proposal for requirements. UBA President Krautzberger and EU Parliamentarian Wölken invited for a discussion on 22 March in Brussels.

On this year’s World Water Day around 50 experts from EU institutions, EU member states and associations got together in the European Parliament to discuss the chances and risks of water reuse in the European Union. 

The two hosts welcomed the participants with the information that the EU commission will publish a regulatory proposal on EU minimum requirements for water reuse in agricultural irrigation by end of May 2018. Afterwards the European Parliament will have the opportunity to comment the legislative proposal. EU Parliamentarian Wölken thanked especially the colleagues of the European Parliament for their interest to inform themselves about water reuse already prior to the upcoming internal discussions. 

Maria Krautzberger, President of the German Environment Agency (UBA), emphasised that the use of treated wastewater should not become an EU-wide obligation. Due to the highly varying availability of water resources, water reuse is neither necessary nor beneficial in all member states. In Germany there is no demand to irrigate with treated wastewater. This is quite different in Mediterranean member states, which are the producers of many food items sold in Germany. Mrs Krautzberger referred to UBA’s recent Scientific Opinion Paper “Recommendations for deriving EU minimum quality requirements for water reuse” which also addresses the risks of water reuse. Conventionally treated wastewater still contains pathogens as viruses, and chemicals as pharmaceuticals. Those can imply potential hazards to humans and to the environment. Therefore UBA recommends clear and ambitious threshold values for the protection of human health and the environment. 

Mrs Doeser, as head of the Unit „Clean Water“ in the EU Commission responsible for the upcoming legislative proposal, welcomed the opportunity to discuss different aspects of water reuse with the participants. She asserted that the proposal will pay due attention to the existing legislation relevant to water reuse, as for example requirements set by the EU Water Framework Directive and Groundwater Directive, Food Safety Regulations as well as the awaited EU Strategy on Pharmaceuticals. Mrs Doeser emphasised that the proposal aims to optimise existing practices of water reuse and to enhance their sustainability.  

Manuela Helmecke (UBA) presented recommendations for the EU requirements on the basis of UBA’s scientific opinion paper. Uniform standards should ensure that a common level of protection is reached in all member states. In this regard one has to bear in mind that bacteria and viruses can cause diseases through direct contact, ingestion and inhalation while chemicals can cause harm by accumulating in plants and soils as well as by leaching to groundwater. Therefore an advanced wastewater treatment is indispensable. It also requires common EU requirements that are in line with the precautionary approach, e.g. for the risk assessment and further risk reduction measures.

Mrs Rebelo from the Portguese Environment Agency presented her experience from the practical implementation of water reuse. She explained that in Portugal quantitative and qualitative risk assessments are combined to assess the direct and indirect risks of water reuse for the environment and humans.  According to Mrs Rebelo, a multi barrier approach is most suitable for minimizing those risks. Examples of efficient barriers are ambitous quality standards, requiremens for water treatment and water application (e.g. the irrigation technology), access control and protection measures for the entvironment and human health. In Portugal it is not permitted to use treated wastewater for the irrigation of fruits and vegetables for raw consumption. 

Following the presentations the participants took the opportunity to ask the European Commission remaining questions and to provide constructive feedback for a practical legislation.