Alleviating Water Scarcity Across the EU: The Contribution of the European Union’s Proposal for a Regulation on Water Reuse in the Agricultural Sector


The European Union (EU) is facing an overwhelming water shortage. One third of EU territory is already experiencing water stress, while the growing needs of populations and the impact of climate change (among other factors) will make the availability of water of sufficient quantity and quality even more of a challenge in Europe in the future. This will pose threats to agriculture, the environment, and drinking water (see here and here).

The EU legislator has realised this and has begun to take action, including a proposal for an EU-wide Regulation to stimulate water reuse in the Member States to alleviate water scarcity. The main idea is that treated waste water from other sectors can function as a reliable alternative water supply for agricultural irrigation. The legislative process started with the Commission proposal in May 2018. Latest developments include the provisional agreement of the Council and the European Parliament on 2 December 2019 and the acceptance of the agreement by the Committee of Permanent Representatives at its meeting on 18 December 2019. With that, the legislative trilogue has been completed, and the legislative process has entered the stage of the second reading. The Regulation is expected to be formally adopted in 2020.

The reuse of water is nothing novel; it is already allowed in various countries around Europe and has already been provided for in the Water Framework Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, which in fact already required treated waste water to be reused whenever appropriate. The essential ingredient missing in the framework of the European level were more specified conditions for the quality of the provided water, which have now been incorporated into this EU Regulation.

In this blog, we will describe and review the content of the current Regulation proposal. To sketch the broader picture, we will first set out the scope of the water scarcity issue, its causes and its expected consequences. Subsequently, the content of the Regulation provisions and the consequences for the various stakeholders will be explained, including directly applicable standards for the suppliers of the treated waste water and the introduction of a mandatory permit scheme in the Member States. We conclude by analysing the Regulation and raising a few potential concerns.

 Scope of the problem and its consequences

 Although the public across the EU may not be fully aware, the fact is that we are facing a water crisis. The signs are impossible to ignore; even in the Netherlands, famous for its rainfall, the first periods of water scarcity have occurred. During the arid summer of 2018, there was insufficient water to supply all sectors, and the government had to determine the distribution of the available water. Consequently, a water consumption hierarchy was put in place. The water used for irrigation by farmers is placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, and therefore irrigation was not allowed. As a result, many farmers in the western part of the country experienced problems caused by salinisation, and their harvests were lost (see here for a further explanation).

In the future, the effects of water scarcity and salinisation in the Netherlands will inevitably increase. Firstly, climate predictions feature more excessive precipitation during certain parts of the year, as well as droughts and shortages of water during other parts of the year. In combination with other consequences of climate change – soil subsidence, rising sea levels, and a general shortage of fresh water ­– the levels of salt concentration in the Dutch soil will increase. Expectations are that the drinking water supply in the Netherlands will be under demanding pressure in densely populated areas around 2030. Additionally, it is expected that part of the land will no longer be suitable for food production.

While this is not a bright future, the Netherlands is arguably in a more fortunate position than certain other EU Member States, due to its climate and its geographical scope and location, as well as its wealth. These consequences for European countries mean that increasing political attention for the problem of water scarcity, especially at EU level, is to be welcomed.

Content of the EU Regulation and consequences for various stakeholders

The EU Proposal addresses the issue of water shortages throughout the European Union resulting from climate change, including ground water salinisation. The Regulation contains the following key elements. Firstly, the subject matter and purpose are set out in general in Article 1 of the Proposal, and the details are further elaborated on in the following articles. The Regulation aims to mitigate the problem of water scarcity by stimulating and facilitating water reuse in the agricultural sector, in a way which is trustworthy and safe and therefore protects public health and the environment. As mentioned, the idea is that treated waste water from other sectors (termed ‘reclaimed’ water) can function as a reliable alternative water supply in the agricultural irrigation. As described in Article 2 of the Proposal and is specified in Section 1 of its Annex I, the scope of the Regulation is limited to agricultural irrigation; however, the Member States are free to broaden the scope and also apply it to industrial and environmental purposes, for example. In contrast, the Member States may also limit the scope, by deciding that it is not appropriate to reuse water for agricultural irrigation in one or more of its river basin districts or parts thereof, but these limitations should be notified and justified to the European Commission. Relevant criteria include the geographic and climatic conditions of the area, the pressures on and the status of other water resources, and the surface water bodies in which treated urban waste water is discharged, as well as the environmental and resource costs of reclaimed water and other water resources.

Article 4 is directed at the operators of the reclamation facility and contains obligations concerning the quality of reclaimed water, and the monitoring of the water quality. The minimum requirements are included in section 2 of Annex I (these concern, for example, E.coli, BOD5, TSS and Turbidity). It is prescribed how often the quality requirements have to be checked, for example continuously, once a week, twice a month. Moreover, obligations can follow from the mandatory permit which has to be introduced according to Article 6. The permit scheme will entail that providers of reclaimed water must obtain a permit in order to commence operative business. Correspondingly, the supply of reclaimed water is conditional upon the granting of a permit by the competent authorities of the respective Member State. Moreover, the reclamation facility operator must also developed a Water Reuse Risk Management Plan, as established in Article 5. This must include possible risks, measures to prevent risks from occurring, and additional barriers in the water reuse system. This obligation also applies to other responsible parties and end-users, as appropriate. As follows from Article 5 to 7, the competent authorities in the Member States are responsible for granting the permit, reviewing compliance of the reclaimed water with the conditions set out in the Regulation and permit and the obligation to establish Water Reuse Risk Management Plan. Moreover, on basis of Article 15, the Member States shall introduce penalties for infringements of this Regulation.

Furthermore, the Regulation contains provisions concerning cooperation between the competent authorities from the Member States, as well as the Member States’ obligations to provide the general public and the European Commission with information on the implementation and compliance of the relevant water reuse system (Articles 9, 10 and 11). Finally, Articles 12-14 and Article 16 contains provisions regarding the moment of entry into force of the Regulation, evaluation and review of the Regulation, and the possibilities for the Commission to delegate its competences.

As mentioned, the reuse of water is nothing novel and already allowed under the Water Framework Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Nevertheless, the Regulation was deemed necessary to promote water reuse, principally due to the missing European quality requirements and the fact the EU Member States’ legal frameworks deviate substantially in how they regulate water reuse, if it is regulated at all.

Analysis and concerns

In general, we see the EU Regulation as a welcome development. First of all, with the facing the water crisis, one could say that all political attention for the problem of water scarcity is to be welcomed. Secondly, the Regulation recognises an important problem; while a significant part of all fresh water around the world is used for agricultural irrigation to provide food, this sector is not high on the priority list in the event of droughts, and therefore is not guaranteed sufficient usable water of good quality (see also here and here). The use of reclaimed water of good quality therefore provides a decent solution. Additionally, reducing the agricultural sector’s use of fresh water may be beneficial for society in general; the water saved could then be used for other purposes, for example drinking water. Therefore, the proposal on water reuse will contribute to alleviating water scarcity across the EU.

As with all pieces of legislation, the Regulation also knows certain limitations. From the beginning of the original proposal in 2018, the European Commission emphasised that it favoured water reuse ahead of alternative methods, such as desalinisation of water or rainwater harvesting. Thereby, the Commission, in Annex 1A of its Impact Assessment, mentioned the lower environmental impact of water reuse compared to (for example) desalinisation, and the lower costs compared to water transfer, which would require most Member States to engage in costly infrastructure improvements. Additionally, the current version of the Regulation emphasises that reuse of appropriately treated waste water is considered to have a lower environmental impact than the alternative of water transfers or desalination. Although it is fair for the European legislator to elect to focus on one method, this does not automatically mean we can stop exploring alternative methods.

Applying water reuse in the agriculture sector will not fully alleviate the imminent water crisis. The Impact Assessment estimates that the Regulation could increase water reuse in agricultural irrigation from 1.7 billion m3 to 6.6 billion m3 per year, thereby reducing water stress by 5%. As the European legislator also recognised, this is not sufficient to completely eliminate water stress and therefore additional measures can and must be taken. Firstly, storage and reuse of rainwater on an individual scale are promising methods, which deserve further exploration (see here). In several European countries, such as Belgium, this is already applied. In Flanders, rainwater collection is mandatory for owners of new-build buildings. For single-family homes, the volume of the collection well must be at least 5,000 litres. For other buildings with a roof surface area greater than 100m², the rule applies that the volume of the rainwater system must be 50 litres per square meter of roof surface area, with a maximum of 10,000 litres. According to the statistics, this use of rainwater results in a saving of around 10% of fresh water consumption. Entrepreneurs from several other countries (including the Netherlands) from the agricultural and horticultural sectors are exploring how large underground water storage basins can be realised, to store rain water for periods of droughts, and to become more self-sufficient (see for examples here, here and here).

Moreover, other initiatives focus on adapting to the fresh water scarcity problem, instead of mitigating it. One of these measures is the testing and development of vegetation with higher salt tolerance, which would require less fresh water to cultivate (see here and here for several examples). The Regulation and subsequent national legislation could hinder such initiatives. In addition, the fact that the agriculture sector will be provided with water which complies with minimum requirements should not lead to the obligation for the farmers to only use water with these characteristics. If Member States were to introduce a prohibition on farmers irrigating or using water with, for example, higher salt concentrations, we would view that as a negative and counterproductive step (see also here). Luckily, the Regulation does not seem to include such an obligation and even contains an exemption for research or pilot projects (see Article 2). It is however important that Member States do not introduce such measures voluntarily, even with the best intentions. As seen in other countries and regions, such as Bonaire, this kind of measures hinder efforts to adapt to climate change and alleviate water scarcity. On Bonaire, the regional government introduced minimum quality requirements for treated waste water, including that the chloride concentration in irrigation water must not exceed 250 mg per liter. Farmers are also bound by these rules, which prevents them from experimenting with salt-tolerant vegetation; Therefore, it prevents to actually adapt to the current and coming water scarcity problem (see here and here).

From the considerations above, the EU proposal appears to be a step in the right direction. As with all legislation, we should be aware of its consequences and make sure that it does not work in a counterproductive way, or exclude other alternatives. The fact is that water scarcity is a large problem requiring action and serious measures. We are curious to see which next steps the European Union and its Member States will take.