Waste water: A world under your feet

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

London's sewers have helped keep the city clean since the late 19th century. [Jon Doe/Flickr]

Removing waste water is a vital service which protects public health and the water environment. The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive has been one of the EU’s success stories of the last 25 years, writes Jean Pierre Silan.

Jean Pierre Silan is the co-chair of the EurEau committee on waste water. EurEau is the association of Europe’s drinking water and waste water service operators.

Under your feet is an extensive network of pipes and tunnels that make sure we stay healthy. This sewerage system network is an absolutely fundamental part of a modern society and a basic service we expect.

The EU has already legislated to make sure that sewerage is removed and treated properly. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) which has helped ensure tough standards are set and maintained for sanitation services across Europe.

All cities, towns and urban areas have a network of drains, manholes, pipes, sewers, tanks and conduits which gather and take waste water and rain water to a treatment facility. This provides a vital service which prevents flooding in your home and protects public health, rivers, streams and canals around urban areas.

The UWWTD came in to force 25 years ago, on 21 May 1991. Its objective is to protect the environment – and us – from the adverse effects of urban waste water discharges.

As with a lot of things, you don’t see the power and beauty of the UWWTD as it quietly works in the background of our lives, protecting us. The directive applies essentially to domestic waste water but also covers how some waste water from industrial sectors can be discharged in municipal sewers. This was a major contributor to environmental pollution at the time the directive was passed.

So to rehash and misquote a formula that is doing the rounds at the moment, “What has the UWWTD ever done for us?”

First of all, the general principle of the directive is to provide treatment of sewage and protect sensitive waters. The directive specifies sewage treatment deadlines that are linked to the size of the communities served by a sewerage network and the nature of the water receiving the treated effluent. This means that waste water has to be treated before it goes into water bodies and if the receiving area is environmentally sensitive, the water has to undergo additional treatment. It also ensures that monitoring and reporting is carried out at the European level to guarantee the quality of the treatment and public awareness.

The UWWTD, along with other pieces of EU water legislation, are a real success story. In practice, your local river, lake or beach is cleaner than it was 25 years ago. This is because much more waste water is now treated, and to a much higher standard, before being put back into rivers and the sea.

The UWWTD helps support the European economy through the large investments it has required, the number of jobs it has created and the better quality of life that it provides for citizens and workers. Water plant employees work tirelessly to ensure that the standards set 25 years ago are adhered to, protecting the environment and your health.

The European Commission will soon publish its timetable for the review of the UWWTD. It already publishes reports on the implementation of the UWWTD in the EU every three years.

We will work with the European Commission to create a review that continues to protect you, the user of domestic, industrial and urban sewage systems, and the environment so that we can continue to enjoy our cities and rural areas for years to come.

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