Safe drinking water is a luxury we must protect

Written by Daniel Calleja Crespo on 31 March 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

Ensuring a continuous supply of safe drinking water for all EU citizens requires forward-thinking water management, writes Daniel Calleja Crespo.

The recent media attention garnered by the contaminated drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan has raised awareness about something that many people nowadays take for granted; the provision of clean, safe water for public consumption.

Needless to say, in many parts of the world this remains a largely elusive luxury, but in developed countries, most people consider it a given that when they turn on their taps, the water that flows out is safe to drink and free from the toxic heavy metals that contaminated Flint's water supply.

People may be wondering what the chances are of a similar case arising in the EU, all the more so given that EU citizens clearly care about water quality. In March 2012, a Eurobarometer survey on attitudes of Europeans towards water-related issues, showed that 68 per cent of respondents said they consider water quality problems to be a serious issue. Water was also the subject of the first EU Citizens' Initiative, Right2Water, which gathered over 1.6 million signatures.


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As it turns out, the vast majority of European citizens have access to some of the safest drinking water in the world. The EU drinking water directive, in place since 1998, establishes quality standards at EU level.

It must be regularly monitored and tested to ensure that the quality of water intended for human consumption is wholesome and clean. It applies to all distribution systems serving more than 50 people or supplying more than 10 cubic meters per day, but also those serving less than that if the water is supplied as part of an economic activity. 

While the quality standards set out in the directive generally follow guidelines set by the World Health Organization, in some cases they are considerably more stringent, for example when it comes to pesticides.

The directive also includes requirements to inform consumers about the quality of their drinking water and report to the Commission every three years. 

The latest synthesis report prepared by the Commission in June 2014, shows that in most member states, compliance rates of large water suppliers with microbiological and chemical parameters are between 99 per cent and 100 per cent. 

Small water suppliers perform at comparable rates to large suppliers when it comes to chemical parameters, but increased efforts are needed to achieve similar rates for microbiological parameters.

However, the report shows that any problems that arise are being dealt with quickly and effectively, minimising any potential risks to human health for the citizens concerned.

Investments in upgrading water treatment infrastructure have proven to be a cost-effective means of preventing risks to human health. The drinking water directive is currently under review, with results expected later this year.

Most drinking water in the EU is drawn from lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. The quality of the water at source makes a difference in terms of the cost of water treatment. Here, the EU water framework directive (WFD) plays an important role in ensuring sound water management throughout the EU based on acclaimed worldwide principles. 

These include an integrated approach to management, which considers the full water cycle and addresses all pressures and impacts, stakeholder and public involvement in planning processes and the application of the 'polluter pays' principle through water pricing and cost recovery. 

The aim is to maximise benefits for society at large and ensure that decisions about water management and use are balanced, taking into account different uses, including for human consumption, and the need to protect freshwater ecosystems and the wider environment.

Now more than ever, good water management is vital, not only to deal effectively with problems of water quantity and quality, but also to enable Europe to adapt to the impacts of climate change. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of catastrophic floods in many parts of the EU. 

Over and above the tragic loss of human lives, the costs associated with property damage alone caused by the extreme floods in central Europe in June 2013 amounted to approximately €17bn.

In a business-as-usual scenario, flood-related damages in the EU could end up costing €20bn a year by 2020 and €46bn a year by 2050.

Under the EU flood directive, member states must adopt flood risk management plans based on hazard and risk maps, in close coordination with the river basin management plans required under the WFD.

New approaches to flood risk management based on natural flood prevention are also gaining traction in the EU. The restoration of floodplains and re-meandering of rivers recreates space for the river in case of heavy rainfall and provide multiple benefits in terms of water quality, biodiversity and recreational opportunities.

Good water management practices are equally important at the institutional and household level. Through the environmental management and audit scheme (EMAS), Commission services based in Brussels have managed to reduce water consumption by around 60 per cent since 2005 and other sites have also recorded significant reductions.

22 March is World Water Day. That day, when you turn on your tap, take a moment to reflect on what goes into ensuring that it is not only safe to drink, but also to make sure that we can all enjoy this luxury well into the future.

 

About the author

Daniel Calleja Crespo is Director General of the European Commission's DG environment

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