The European Council has given its blessing to move forward water reuse yet member states will still have the power to decide the level to which it's implemented.
Safe minimum standards will speed up water reuse for agriculture
Treating and reusing municipal wastewater for agricultural irrigation makes environmental and economic sense yet the adoption and push across Europe has been somewhat lacklustre over the years.
By cleaning up and reusing, will be enough to ensure water is available for irrigation during heatwaves and severe droughts, according to the council.
Such a development has proved timely: much of Western Europe has been hit by sweltering heatwaves in recent weeks, with temperatures rising above 43C. A total of 40 of Spain’s 50 regions have been placed under weather alerts.
However, the development will not strictly mandate water reuse across the continent but will instead ensure minimum requirements are in place.
Under the regulation, Member States will still decide on whether or not they use reclaimed water for irrigation given that “geographic and climatic conditions vary greatly across member states”.
Patchy progress to date
The extent to which reclaimed water is used for agricultural irrigation, either for small areas or across the entire country, will fall to member states.
Furthermore, existing EU rules on the “hygiene of foodstuffs continue to apply and are fully respected”, the council said.
Water reuse for irrigation purposes has been patchy to date across the continent. Some EU countries have had a more success in reusing water from municipal to agricultural whereas for others it’s still in its infancy.
Estimates from the Commission show that water reuse for agricultural irrigation could jump from 1.7 billion m³ to 6.6 billion m³ per year, in the process reducing water stress by 5 per cent.
Currently, agriculture accounts for about half of the water use across the continent according to data from the European Environment Agency.
Background and next steps
It was at the end of May last year when the European Commission adopted the proposal for a regulation on the minimum requirements for water reuse.
This was part of a wider ambitions on the 2015 circular economy action plan, which including actions to help “facilitate water reuse, including a legislative proposal on minimum requirements for reused water”.
Then on 12 February 2019, the European Parliament adopted its position on the proposal. This falls in line with the 7th Environmental Action Programme, as well as the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.
In particular, plans to increase European levels of water reuse fall within the following target: “By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.”
Despite the push from the EU, various challenges will continue to exist in a widespread roll-out of water reuse. These include affordability, resulting from a high cost of advanced water treatment and required infrastructure. Furthermore, public acceptability continues to be a challenge but this is more in regards to reuse for drinking purposes.
“Water is a precious resource,” said Ioan Deneș, Minister of Waters and Forests. “It makes sense to set harmonised minimum standards for reclaimed water quality and compliance monitoring so that our farmers can use reclaimed water. Part of this is about learning from the experience of some member states which have been successfully reusing water for decades.”