EU must do more to safeguard surface water

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Surface water accounts for 40% of the potable freshwater in the EU. It is more susceptible to pollutants than groundwater. [RAWDONFOX/Flickr]

EU lawmakers should do more to protect surface water sources from contamination. This is vital for ensuring a supply of clean and safe drinking water for us now and in the future, write Arjen Frentz and Anders Finnson.

Arjen Frentz is chair of the EurEau Committee on Drinking Water and Anders Finnson is chair of the EurEau Joint Working Group on the Water Framework Directive.

Water operators strive to provide this much-needed protection, but we urgently need robust EU legislation to preserve water sources and ensure the effective implementation of the Water Framework Directive. We want immediate preventative action instead of costly treatments to avoid the further deterioration of water sources.

Water is a basic human right and is essential for life and dignity. Water operators are responsible for supplying safe, healthy and clean water, ensuring the quality of the water in taps and in rivers.

Our work is supported by the Water Framework Directive, which establishes a legal framework to protect and to restore clean water across Europe. This vital European legislation will be reviewed in 2019, which gives lawmakers the perfect opportunity to safeguard our drinking water supply.

Representing 40% of the freshwater abstracted for drinking water in the European Union, surface water is at the core of the issue of water protection. Furthermore, surface water is more exposed to degradation than groundwater. In Europe, the soil acts like filter and groundwater requires little or no treatment. Surface water on the other hand, is more exposed to pollutants from households, industry and agriculture, meaning that it usually has to undergo more intensive treatment.

As drinking water treatment depends on water quality, the most reliable and cost effective method of delivering safe and clean water is to keep pollutants out of surface water. We insist on the importance of preventative protection rather than treatment.

The ‘precautionary principle’ should prevail in terms of contamination prevention of surface water. End of pipe treatment in waste water treatment plants is not sustainable and should be the last option. Therefore, a source control approach is the best means of keeping pollutants out of the water cycle and ensuring the system is sustainable for future generations.

Thanks to the measures already put in place by the Water Framework Directive, the quality of European river basin and water resources has greatly improved. But weaknesses have been identified and the commission must make the indispensable and integral improvements to protect drinking water sources.

Therefore, parties affecting water quality should bear the relative cost. The EU urgently needs to implement the precautionary, the polluter pays and user pays principles.

Legislation on water has to be linked with other policies such as the CAP and chemicals legislation as well. These two sectors constitute the main source of water pollution. A cross-cutting approach is essential to guarantee a safe environment and water cycle.

Keeping pollutants out of the water cycle is a challenge. Further tough EU action can be taken in the approval, use and disposal of substances with the aim of keeping hazardous substances out of the water cycle at the source and/or replacing them with alternative non-hazardous substances, e.g. degradable substances.

Potential hazardous impacts of harmful and persistent substances on drinking water quality should be taken into account as a criterion in the tests carried out for the approval, authorisation and registration of chemical substances.

In the interests of sustainability, strong EU strategies for the protection of water bodies should include:

  • improving the EU approval, authorisation and registration of chemical substances by adding adequate drinking water related criteria;
  • monitoring for pollution and identifying the pathways by which pollutants enter the water bodies;
  • measures to prevent the use of particular substances;
  • measures to reduce pollution at the source.

Action plans with tangible measures should be established by member states in order to prevent the further deterioration of water sources and to remediate existing surface water pollution, limiting future threats.

The future of water quality will also depend on the European Commission’s capacity to better coordinate European policies such as the Drinking Water Directive or the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Industry and agriculture have an important responsibility in preventing water contamination and need the protective legislation already in place to be enforced.

Water operators have the health of European citizens and environmental care in their hands. Such a mission requires an effective management tool. We all – collectively – have to work to produce a reform that goes beyond ‘fit-for-purpose’. The system’s sustainability and consumers’ confidence will depend on a strong Water Framework Directive review.

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