After four decades of EU water policy, where are we now?

By Karmenu VELLA, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

Forty years of EU water policies have produced some excellent results. We have helped deliver sufficient quantities of clean water to 500 million citizens.

More waste-water is now collected and cleaned than at any period in human history, and we have made good headway in reducing risks from flooding.

We can swim safely in the vast majority of lakes and the sea, and we can drink water from the tap almost wherever we are in the European Union.

EU policies and legislation have driven the development of a powerful EU water industry, and as a result, half of the top 15 worldwide water companies come from Europe.

So the glass is more than half-full. We have a better understanding than ever of the quality of EU waters, and of the measures we need to take to prevent deterioration.

The management of water has become more integrated, and a far greater sum of knowledge is available. The management of risks to prevent floods has also advanced.

There is noteworthy progress in river con- tinuity, with major improvements on rivers like the Rhine and the Danube for migrating fish.

Efforts to save the sturgeon in the Danube and the salmon in the Rhine flagship species and indicators of good water status  demonstrate how combining political, legal and financial means, including EU funds, at all levels and across borders can yield far-reaching results in terms of restoring habitats and migration routes.

Countries that once lagged behind are now collecting and treating their urban waste-water, thanks in large part to EU Cohesion Funds.

The challenges are still significant. Take an area like the Mediterranean.

The basin is home to 60% of the world’s ‘water-poor’ population, and 20 million people are deprived of sustainable access to improved sources of water.

Far too much of Europe’s tap water is lost or wasted, with an average leakage rate of 23% in the EU.

In some Member States, the leakage rate is up to 60%. Agriculture  the basis of life, one of the cornerstones of civilisation  continues to be a huge source of pollutants, with nitrates in particular being the predominant source of groundwater pollution, causing one fifth of the ground waters in Europe to fail good status.

New pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and micro plastics should receive more attention in the coming years.

In some places we have too little water to serve the needs of nature and the economy. In other places there is too much, and floods threaten properties or lives.

TO help, the European Commission is revisiting the EU legislative framework for water.

We recently came forward with a proposal to revise the Drinking Water Directive with standards that are probably the most protective anywhere in the world today.

The proposal also includes obligations to provide access to clean water for the most vulnerable sections of the population, which should improve the situation of some 2 million people in the EU, and is an important step towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6.

We are also acting on water scarcity. At least 11% of EU citizens live in hotspots of water scarcity, with a particular concentration on islands and in the Mediterranean.

Southern EU countries already reuse between 5 to 12 % of their waste-water effluent, but the potential for further uptake is huge.

Agriculture uses more than 50% of Europe’s available freshwater throughout the year, and that needs to change.

This is why, in May, we came forward with a proposal on water reuse for agricultural purposes to address water scarcity.

No Member State can manage the resource on its own, and cooperation is a vital element on the road to long-term sustainability.

The Commission is now working on an assessment of the latest of River Basin Management Plans, and I am confident that they will reveal Member States working together more effec- tively than ever before.

In that same spirit, in April 2017, the Union for the Mediterranean Ministers agreed to work together towards a common regional water policy in the form of the Union for the Mediterranean Water Agenda, and as a result, experts from all 43 Union for the Mediter- ranean countries are working on the Agenda.

Another example of cooperation, that helps to ensure water quality, is the shared efforts of implementing the Land-Based Sources of Pollution Protocol of the Barcelona Convention.

The investment costs look steep, but as the OECD reminds us, we can calculate the benefits in the billions.

The funds can come from private sources as well as public ones, from national sources and from the EU.

Support is already there in the EU budget for a huge variety of water projects.

We can draw on the Common Agricultural Policy, on Horizon 2020, the LIFE programme, regional funds, and on the InvestEU fund.

The European Investment Bank is also on board.

Achieving good ecological status for all of Europe’s freshwater bodies groundwater, lakes, rivers, coastal and transitional waters is a mammoth task.

But it’s the goal that guides our efforts, and the goal that we are determined to pursue.