Reclaimed water has been reused for irrigation in water stressed countries for some time, both in Europe and elsewhere. Expected water shortages as a result of climate change and population growth call for solutions to increase the water supply, including unconventional sources of water. Water reuse is one of such solutions to relieve pressure on freshwater sources. The new European Water Reuse Regulation defines minimum requirements for reclaimed water for the first time, to ensure safe water reuse that protects people and the environment. It is expected to expand the reuse of treated wastewater in Europe while supporting the circular economy. We interviewed Ms Veronica Manfredi, Director for Quality of Life in the Environment Directorate-General to hear the European Commission’s view on how the new regulation will change the water reuse landscape in Europe.
Question: The Water Reuse Regulation will reinforce confidence among consumers in the internal market that foodstuff produced with reclaimed water can be trusted as all members abide by the same minimum parameters. What needs to be done to increase public acceptance and awareness of the benefits of water reuse?
Answer: I expect the public perception to increasingly shift between now and 2023, the year in which the Water Reuse Regulation will enter into force. The droughts and heatwaves we experience on an increasingly regular basis in the EU are playing a role in letting people realise that they need to use water more efficiently is a reality. Farmers, in particular, are in the front line when it comes to addressing water stress.
Water reuse is linked with the European Green Deal agenda, in particular with the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Farm to Fork Strategy
However, consumers may still have misgivings about foodstuff produced with reclaimed water. The Water Reuse Regulation acknowledges this and introduces provisions requiring Member States to organise awareness-raising campaigns and provide accurate and transparent information on water reuse to the public. The European Commission has also an important role to play to ensure that awareness is raised and public perception improved: after all, water reuse is tightly linked with the European Green Deal agenda, in particular the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Farm to Fork Strategy, as well as the Zero Pollution ambition for Europe, to be seen in strong interplay with our overarching Climate-Neutrality goal.
Our continuous efforts to stay abreast of the latest scientific and technological developments in this field can definitely contribute to gain the confidence of the consumers, reassured by the science-based approach.
We should learn from the experience of Member States that are already using reclaimed water, such as Spain, Cyprus and Malta to mention a few, as well as from our global partners with valuable experience in the area, for example, Singapore and Israel, where water reuse is practised on a large scale.
BSP unit in Algeria. Credit: LIFE13 ENV/FR/000711
Q: Do you think the new Regulation will serve as an incentive to invest in the implementation of water reuse technologies?
A: I certainly do. By harmonising standards, the Regulation will encourage the water reuse practice and facilitate its up-take, even in those Member States that do not currently practice it. It gives a strong signal: we need this water now and we will in the future.
The Regulation also responds to the need to further shift towards a circular economy that makes efficient use of resources. The current COVID crisis underlines more strongly than ever the need for safe access to water everywhere and in all circumstances. Better analysing waste-waters, and further treating them, also makes us collectively stronger: today, thanks to an EU-wide pioneer project coordinated by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, we are even able to establish the presence of the virus in wastewater and identify critical hot-spots, launch alerts and take the necessary measures.
We should learn from the experience of Member States that are already using reclaimed water, such as Spain, Cyprus, and Malta
The key message of better-valuing water and using it more efficiently thanks to latest technologies is fully in line also with the recent findings of the Evaluation of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, which have prompted the ongoing legislative review also of that Directive, intrinsically linked to the Water Reuse Regulation. I do believe that the EU water treatment sector will witness a boost in this decade, as our modernized EU legislative framework (including the just revised Drinking Water Directive) will require maximum efforts to enhance safe access to water and stimulate a more circular use of this finite resource, thus prompting innovation.
Of course, every water project needs to be specifically tailored to the local context where it is to take place. Managing risks to health and the environment will be key to the successful deployment of water reuse. In conjunction with technological efforts to enhance the safety and efficiency of EU drinking water supply, I do expect smart water technologies to play a crucial role in ensuring the safe and smooth running of the water reuse practice for agricultural irrigation purposes, so as to deliver real-time information and immediately spot any possible safety risk. Technology providers and water operators will thus have a major role to play, especially in the context of the EU’s post-COVID 19 recovery.
Let me stress here that the EU already provides concrete support for the development of innovative technologies in the water treatment sector: for example, through the LIFE programme, the EU has co-funded projects such as:
- LIFE Biosol: aimed at developing an ecological process, called “bio-solar purification”, for the treatment and reuse of urban waste-water and the recovery of organic waste.
- LIFE Bitmaps aimed at developing a new process for treating effluents from electronics and semiconductor manufacturing, to reduce pollution at source.
- LIFE Impetus: aimed at better tackling pharmaceutical compounds in urban wastewater.
Q: The Regulation is seen as an important milestone in the transition towards a circular economy. Do you think this might help water reuse projects access funding streams earmarked for promoting the circular economy strategy?
A: Water efficiency and water reuse are indeed an important part of the EU’s circular economy strategy. Correctly applying the new rules and pursuing efforts to re-use water also for purposes other than agricultural irrigation will remain important priorities for the Commission throughout this decade. The EU budget for 2021-2027 will be an opportunity to finance sustainable water management and the European Green Deal Investment Plan will mobilise EU funding, public and private investments for the “green and digital” transition. Properly designed water reuse projects should certainly be able to access appropriate funding streams. In addition, the Recovery Plan for Europe, set up to address the economic ravages of the COVID crisis, has included €750 billion via the Next Generation EU instrument, thus reinforcing the Cohesion Policy, the rural development and the research programmes. The agreement of the EU leaders on 21 July has paved the way to adopt this unprecedented EU budget. The European Council highlighted the potential of Next Generation EU and MFF funding to leverage private capital and called on all Member States to use their Recovery and Resilience Plans to boost greener and more circular investments too.
Q: Water availability issues are common in areas with little rainfall, where water reuse is already widespread in Europe, but also densely populated areas. Do you think the new Regulation will lead to increased uptake in areas of Europe where it is not currently contemplated?
A: The aim of the Regulation is to stimulate the uptake of water reuse across the EU and there is interest in the practice also in Member States that have so far been less prone to droughts. With climate change, the usual rainfall patterns are already changing. Even if, in some areas, the annual amount of rainfall might remain similar or even increase, we know we will be facing seasonal changes in the availability of water and we are already experiencing extremes, with very dry spells and then heavy rainfall causing flooding. Water reuse is a useful tool to address such extremes, within the integrated water management required by the EU Water Framework Directive. I trust we will eventually arrive at a situation in Europe where farmers will re-use water because it makes economic sense, and not only because other sources become scarce.
By harmonising standards, the Regulation will encourage the water reuse practice and facilitate its up-take: it gives a strong signal
Furthermore, water reuse has enormous potential for applications other than agricultural irrigation. In fact, the Water Reuse Regulation explicitly recalls the possibility for Member States to employ reclaimed water for other uses, such as in the industrial sector or for urban purposes. The Commission is already exploring such potential, notably through the new Circular Economy Action Plan, the Building Renovation wave and through the ongoing review of the Industrial Emissions Directive, for enhanced water efficiency in industrial processes.
Q: What do you expect to be the impact on research and innovation pertaining to water reuse technologies and managing the risks of reuse?
A: For water reuse to be successful, we need it to be safe and both environmentally and economically viable. Research and innovation are essential to guarantee both safety and viability. The provisions on risk management set out in the new Regulation rely on innovation to develop technologies enabling real-time monitoring, spotting malfunctions or irregularities early on. Research and innovation will also pave the way for energy-efficient and low-emission technologies.
The Horizon 2020 research programme has dedicated funds in the field of water technologies. For example the Work Programme 2018-2020 identified water as one of the priority areas: it focused on resource efficiency and made specific reference to water-smart technologies, to the climate-water-energy-food nexus, to innovative solutions in water management and treatment, through both digital and nature-based solutions.
In line with the European Green Deal ambitions, the Commission’s commitment to water innovation will continue, especially under the new EU Framework Programme Horizon Europe, running from 2021 to 2027. The “Orientations towards the first Strategic Plan for Horizon Europe” envisage further research on water, including on water reuse.
Q: Does the Regulation allow for updates to incorporate any future knowledge regarding risks posed by contaminants of emerging concern?
A: It will be possible to update the Regulation in light of new knowledge on contaminants of emerging concerns, but this will require the Commission to propose an amendment to be negotiated through the ordinary legislative procedure, which may take some time. The Commission had originally foreseen in its proposal the possibility of keeping the Regulation up to date through a delegation of powers, but the co-legislators decided against this. That said, the Commission will keep abreast of developments and swiftly act, if needs emerge. At the same time, the risk management provisions of the Regulation allow the national authorities to set additional safety requirements, enabling them to incorporate the latest knowledge to more swiftly tackle local concerns, if and where needed.
I expect smart water technologies to play a crucial role in ensuring the safe and smooth running of water reuse for irrigation
Q: To expand this practice in Member States, the water sector will need qualified professionals. To what extent do you think expanding water reuse will support the creation of green jobs?
A: I do believe that an expansion of water reuse will let new professional figures emerge, not only in the reclamation plants themselves but also in the broader water reuse chain. I am thinking for example of advisory services to farmers, of water distributors, managers of urban greening projects…
This need for new professional figures is strongly supported by the recently published European Skills Agenda, a five-year plan to help individuals and businesses embrace the twin green and digital transition, key in the post-COVID recovery for Europe.
Q: The new Regulation aims to stimulate and facilitate water reuse for agricultural irrigation. Do you see a future for potable water reuse in the EU?
A: Treating wastewater to drinking water standards is possible and is already done in other parts of the world –Singapore for example. It is early to say whether we will, one day, re-use water also for drinking purposes in the EU. For the time being, we focus efforts on keeping EU water law in line with latest scientific knowledge and exploring the use of reclaimed water in other sectors, such as in industry or for the irrigation of urban green areas. The new Drinking Water Directive will enter into force later this year and the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive is being reviewed. The circumstances - and perceptions – on water reuse might evolve quicker than one may think. At this stage, securing a good uptake of the new Water Reuse Regulation and promoting a wider agenda of water efficiency also for industries and households will already do wonders, I believe.
Efforts to re-use water also for purposes other than irrigation will remain important priorities for the Commission this decade
Q: Other regions of the world have been exploring the potential of water reuse to address water scarcity for years. Do you think the EU can lead in this field?
A: It is true that, as the EU, we are not first movers when it comes to water reuse - although some of our Member States have been practising it for years already, and with excellent results. There are third countries from which we can learn a lot. Yet, we have some major industrial champions in this field and the need for water technologies is growing. So yes, in my opinion, EU industry and technology providers can play a leading role in this area.
Q: What do you think will be the role of water reuse in Europe as an alternative water supply option to address water scarcity in comparison with other options such as desalination or increasing water use efficiency?
A: These options and technologies are all useful tools to address water scarcity. No single solution is a silver bullet. Water reuse is, for example, less energy-intensive then desalinisation. However, there may be sites where water reuse is not a possibility and desalination may come to play a role. All in all, I do see a very bright future for re-using water – in agriculture, in industry, in domestic appliances, inspired by what our ancestors used to do for millennia before us. Only if this century’s mankind rises to the challenge of reusing water safely and sustainably, helped by better science and technology, will we manage to face the climate change impacts and reduce them – eventually living within the boundaries of our planet, without over-shooting them.