Expert: Medicines pollute world waters

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This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

Europe's freshwaters are increasingly filled with pharmaceutical residues and other micro-pollutants, which are potentially harmful to human health and the environment, warns Friedrich Barth from the European Water Partnership (EWP), a research group.

Friedrich Barth is vice-chairman of the European Water Partnership (EWP), a membership-based association which initiates and coordinates concrete actions to achieve the Water Vision for Europe.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Frédéric Simon and Outi Alapekkala.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Some key elements of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) are coming into force this year, such as its pricing policy. What's your general feeling as to how the WFD is being implemented so far and do you believe it is already starting to show results?

The first thing to say is that this is really a milestone piece of legislation. It takes a holistic view on water management in river basins – it looks at quality, quantity, ground and surface water – before there was really a piecemeal approach.

All member states must submit their river basin management plans this year, which many have done, and others not. In Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Slovenia, Greece and Cyprus, consultations have not yet started or are ongoing.  

But it is one thing to submit a plan; however, the Commission still needs to examine their contents and to see whether they are in compliance.

You can say that the WFD has at least triggered a process in most member states. There is certainly greater cooperation amongst member states on water. Some of them have also had very nice public participation processes, which beforehand was not the case. Water management was usually something done behind closed doors with a couple of engineers deciding on a technology fix.

Traditional areas of cooperation, such as with the Rhine and Danube rivers, have even been strengthened.

Are the 'macro-regions' that the Commission is trying to promote integrated?

The Water Framework Directive has one very particular feature that other pieces of legislation don't: it makes regions work together across borders. Countries must cooperate on the ground and this is promoting regional integration.

There is always room for improvement but this is really promoting regional integration in Europe.

In which regions is this working well in particular?

The Danube and Rhine river basin show very good cooperation. These countries really work in a very positive way together. Twenty years ago no information was flowing between the Danube countries, only water. They didn't even inform each other on accidents before – I remember them being caught by surprise on oil spills in the early 1990s, for example.

What is your assessment of the pricing policies which have to be put in place? Is that something you support?

The article on pricing was one of the most controversial aspects of the legislation. Full cost recovery is not mandatory in the legislation; it is a principle that must be followed. So we did not manage to negotiate a mandatory tool. We supported full cost recovery as a mandatory part of the directive. This could sometimes mean higher water prices for consumers, but not everywhere.

In my personal view, water is in many areas in Europe far too cheap, it does not cover the costs. And the European Investment Bank tells us that a lot of water suppliers are de facto bankrupt because the pricing policies are not sustainable in terms of refinancing the infrastructure and operational costs. It is a very diverse picture in different member states.

But it is considered as a public service, and is therefore subsidised by the state.

Yes, that's what everybody did for the infrastructure of course. Infrastructure was always heavily subsidised, because you cannot finance it at the beginning in full via the price. But you could go to full cost recovery after some time.

It is considered as a public service but at the end of the day the taxpayer always has to pay for it, whether you pay via the price of water or through a normal tax. It is much better to pay through the water price, as then you get sustainable services, because water operators have a sustainable finance policy and the service could be better.

I think that European citizens would accept higher prices if they got really good service. One problem is that even if some suppliers supply very good services – because tap water is often better monitored than bottled water – it is not well communicated. The communication is in most cases very bad. But you see that people would be willing to pay more for a really good service – they currently pay 1,000 times more for bottled water…

I use 180 litres per day for four people in my household. The average in Germany is 120, whilst in the Mediterranean it is around 350. We can therefore reduce consumption a lot and be much more efficient with it. With the WFD we have increased the transparency over what the costs of the water supply are and where the money paid for drinking and waste water goes.

There is still a major difference between what is considered to be a public service, such as drinking water, and other uses by different economic sectors. What about pricing water pollution from river traffic, for example, or water use in agriculture?

We are not at a very advanced stage with this at the moment, because these are environmental services – water providing an eco-system service. Of course you could argue that as you are using the river, you need to pay for it, in a way, but we need to improve our knowledge and approaches to determine the right price.

What about the energy sector? Nuclear power needs to extract water for cooling.

In a lot of member states they don't have to pay for the water they extract for cooling because they put it back into the river. Normally, there should be regulation to ensure that there are no negative ecological impacts. In this case you could argue that you do not need to pay for the water as such.

What about building dams and dykes?

These also make use of the water bodies and are areas where we can still improve our policies. But let's start with the more obvious areas – we have a lot of rotten infrastructure whereby water leaks into the ground, both drinking and waste water. The refinancing of the infrastructure is one of the big challenges in Europe.

Can you provide examples of how this is being done?

Leakage rates in Germany, for example, are very low, whereas in some areas of Southern and Eastern Europe they are pretty high. Some cities have up to 70% leakage rates – that is unacceptable. London also still has very high leakage rates – more than 30%.

Can you give any good examples of financing the infrastructure?

Good examples are of course where you have pricing policies that take this into account – the long-term refinancing of the infrastructure, because very often you just take into account the service at the moment. And that is of course the danger at the moment, because cities and communes in Europe are all under stress because of the financial crisis, and if on top of that you don't have a sustainable pricing policy, then you are running into trouble. 

Can you single out any countries that are doing well or taking into account refinancing of infrastructure in pricing policies?

It is very difficult to say. Unsustainability is a very common problem in Europe.

On water efficiency, are there other areas of concern other than leakage?

Use in agriculture represents a 'low-hanging fruit' in the sense that we could use much better technologies. In many places we still have old technologies and we usually just flood the fields instead of using drip irrigation methods. These systems are more expensive, but if you have the right price for water, then farmers would immediately have the incentive to invest in it. But as long as water is cheap, farmers don't have any incentive to do so.

Another problem is that we have a lot of illegal abstractions. We have situations whereby farmers are emptying their wells without knowing whether their water use is sustainable. Even in Belgium many farmers are directly pumping up groundwater, which is very slowly recharged. They have an abstraction licence for the individual well but the overall abstraction is too high for the ground water body.

Water efficiency is therefore not enough – you need to look at water sustainability. While farmers can use water efficiently, they can still be unsustainable.

Perhaps we need some kind of alert system to avoid draining resources without actually noticing.

Exactly. Monitoring by groundwater bodies is necessary and is now compulsory.

Are public authorities failing to monitor sustainability?

They did not have a holistic view on this. And this is also old practice – looking at the authorisations individually. You may well have five industrial plants that want to abstract water from a river basin and they are individually compliant, but in sum it can be too much for the river basin. And this is the new thing of the WFD: that the authorities check and regulate the effects on the entire basin.

I think that in some member states there is a lack of administrative capacity to monitor this, which is of course a bit worrying. Some older member states, such as Germany, are even cutting this capacity.

Is there any East-West divide on this?

We have a lot to do in the new member states – there is still a lot of untreated wastewater, and they still need to catch up with the EU legislation on waste water. And this is a huge challenge for them as well.

Is there any assessment of how much it will cost for the new member states to rise to EU standards?

There are assessments for individual member states.

Also, more than 10 million people still lack sanitation in Europe, in particular in Eastern Europe. You have real health threats, for example in rural areas of Romania and Bulgaria, where people don't have any appropriate sanitation. We still have blue babies being born when they get drinking water from local wells which are heavily contaminated by nitrates from farm manure next to it. So these types of situation still exist in Europe. You don't need to look to Africa to find them.

What opportunities and challenges do you see in integrating water issues into the upcoming Common Agricultural Policy reform? Do you think water is being sufficiently addressed in the current CAP or do you see shortcomings in it?

At the moment water is not sufficiently addressed in the CAP. That's very clear.

It needs to be addressed as a public good that needs to be much better managed by the agricultural side. We also need water to be better looked at in terms of cross-compliance in the CAP. We will have huge challenges with agriculture and water, but on the other hand we will have problems with global food security. FAO figures say we need to double food production globally by 2025.

70% of agricultural production happens on the 45% of irrigated fields. So if you want to increase production you need to improve irrigation, and here we come back to the need for new technologies. So, in the CAP we need to address both the food security aspects and the whole environmental security question – the soils, biodiversity and water issues – to allow farmers to produce sustainably. In the European Parliament you start to see this being reflected and this is encouraging.

Would this mean linking CAP payments to minimum standards in good water management?

Absolutely, we need to see this happen. We at EWP have developed a standard for sustainable water management for farmers. And the farming community is very interested in that because they see it coming. We will start in autumn with concrete farming communities to test it. This can then be a tool to be applied in the CAP reform.

I see that in particular the younger farming community is quite sensitive to this – while we see traditional farming associations as being a little bit in the 'old world', however.

Is there catching up to do on technologies for farmers?

Yes, not only in terms of water quantity but also in terms of quality – on how farmers use for example pesticides. And here we really need to look at product stewardship – that not only the application of a product on the field is improved but also the pesticide as such.

Water issues need to be looked at when developing pesticides. One of the problems is that while the pesticide as such could be fine, it goes through the soil, it gets degraded into other substances, ends up in ground water and finally in drinking water. Chlorinating water during the production process of drinking water could then result in hazardous substances.

And one of the big problems in Europe will be micro-pollution – from pharmaceuticals, but also from pesticides and nutrients. But this pollution from agriculture has very often to do with application of pesticides and nutrients. If they are applied on the field as regulated, according to the soil type, there is normally no problem.

While farmers are required to wash their equipment on the field, they may do it on the farm, allowing water including pesticides to enter canals and then they end up into the wastewater treatment plant and pass through. Even in big rivers such as the Rhine we can find pesticide concentrations that are too high.

And of course then there are the residues from pharmaceuticals, which will be one of the hot topics of the future.

Is there any EU legislation that addresses pharmaceuticals in water?

No, not really. And this is an area that has to be addressed in a much better way. But also more research on this is needed. One immediate measure would be to address waste water from hospitals. It needs to be collected separately.

But pharmaceuticals also get into the water cycle via households. One example is modern medical treatment methodologies where people don't stay in hospitals but go home. And we need to see how we address this, because I feel that this will be one of the big problems in the future – micro-pollutants go everywhere via many different pathways.

The big question is how you address this at the beginning and not at the end of the pipe. One part of the solution could be to address the water problems during the development of medicaments.  

At least we need to improve our knowledge of these substances. Another part could be improved monitoring in the aquatic environment and of the drinking water.

Are there ways to contain this kind of pollution?

I think that first we need to look at how big the problem is at the moment. So we need to improve the monitoring of it and see where the biggest sources are – is it really pharmaceuticals or is it something else?

What are the consequences of this pollution?

Some of these can be carcinogenic and can also have environmental effects. The worst is of course if it goes to drinking water.

There are some studies on whether men get less fertile. I also know about studies where fish had changes in bone systems – this was discovered when they no longer passed the fish filleting machine. But we need more research in this area.

And we know that this comes from micro-pollution?

It is very difficult to trace the origin of these problems but there is some evidence that it comes from micro-pollution. But here we need much more research and studies and more careful consideration of different sources and substances. And then perhaps we should look at this at the beginning, when we develop these substances. 

What are the other big upcoming issues that you see in Europe and globally?

We will have availability issues in the South with climate change putting pressure on resources. The South and East will get drier and there will be pressure on the availability side.

We need to look at new ways of being more efficient.

Are there particular technologies emerging/gaining ground on this, such as desalination technologies becoming cheaper?

Desalination will play a role in the future but before you desalinate and increase the supply, you look at the demand side. It does not make sense to always increase the supply – this is an old policy.

What about a Japanese-style bloc pricing system for water, or using water trading, like in Australia?

The trading of water rights could be possible, but if then only within river basins. But first of all people really need to look at efficient and sustainable water management in their river basins. Water is very local, however, you cannot compare it with CO2, and this is the big danger. This type of approach comes very much from the CO2 policies. But water is very local and you first need to be sustainable at local level.

So you need to have local governance structures and pricing?

Yes.

But one of the future issues that needs to be looked at more carefully is land-use planning. Why do we need irrigated, high water-intensity vegetables in southern Spain? Wouldn't it be better to do something else there?

Land-use planning in the future is one of the key responses to water management – and to a lot of other things as well. And this is not something we are good at. And there is no EU legislation on this and Europe cannot look into that, because it is completely nationalised.

Land-use planning is also important with regard to flood prevention. You know how many cities have built into their flood plains? And then they wonder why they have so much damage. And on top of that people say this is all climate change…

The first ones to say this are the local and regional people responsible – who know they have done the wrong thing in the first place, but then blame flooding on climate change and ask for subsidies to repair the problems. While from the start the issue is wrong land-use planning and really bad city planning. And this is something we need to improve a lot.

Just to be clear: we will see negative effects of climate change in the future with regard to flooding.

What are you expecting from the Commission's water efficiency plans?

The Commission has announced a blueprint on water by 2012.

I hope it will look at our work on the water vision and the Water Stewardship Programme, because there are some concrete responses in there, which they could use. One thing is always the legislation, but you need to provide concrete tools so that people can do it. Our stewardship approach, for example, has concrete tools that the industry can apply in their companies.

I hope that the blueprint on water looks at the Europe's water situation in a very holistic way and makes a very thorough assessment of what comes out of the WFD and the river basin management plans. That's the first step that the Commission has to take – a thorough assessment of what has already been done and then the same regarding the challenges.

Do you think that the Commission is going to propose a directive on water efficiency?

Yes – but only in buildings.

I think that in principle it's not a bad idea to look at water efficiency in buildings, but I'd hope that they look at water efficiency in a much broader way. Buildings can probably be a starting point but I think it is not the biggest point to start with.  

Where would you start from then?

I'd start from water efficiency in agriculture. I would start with water efficiency and management in cities – to reduce leakage rates, etc. – and I would start on the awareness side.

In many member states, such as in Germany, you have very low water consumption. And this is not only due to the price – people consume less water because they think it's a good thing to save water.

Of course you can introduce legislation, but at the same time the awareness side is probably a much better and faster tool to boost a water-saving culture. This, because a Directive needs two or three years to be adopted, a couple of years to be implemented, and then a Directive on water efficiency in buildings need to be implemented very locally, and so on.

Is there a role for the EU on the awareness side or is it a local/national issue?

I think so, as the EU could provide much better tools for awareness-raising. They could really provide much better exchange of information. This is also what we try to do – we collect information from local and national campaigns and try to make it available to others, who want to do something similar. They could also provide finance for this type of local and regional activity.

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