Unlocking the hidden potential of waste water

It’s time we adapted our water management to the challenges we face – that includes tapping the potential in water, says Pernille Weiss.

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By Pernille Weiss

Pernille Weiss (DK, EPP) is the EPP Group’s spokeswoman on the revision of the EU Energy Efficiency Directive

23 Mar 2020

By its very nature, water is in constant circulation. In all communities, we have a shared responsibility to manage our water resources effectively and to bear in mind the impacts that water use can have on other sectors.

The water crisis has many faces, whether it is water scarcity or flooding, we should turn “crisis” into “challenge”.

There are many reasons why we are in this situation, such as urbanisation, the use of chemicals and the expanding world population that brings with it a need for greater food production. In all these aspects, water is essential for many natural habitats.


In the near future, we will need to improve the way we adapt our water management to accommodate the climate changes we face. It all comes down to how we use the water resources; whether it is the abstraction of water, water as a basis for natural and human activities or as a recipient to treated waste water.

The water sector, which is based on an ageing infrastructure in the EU, should of course also contribute to the Paris Climate Agreement through efficient processes and be combined with the extended extraction of energy resources that waste water can provide.

“In the near future, we will need to improve the way we adapt our water management to accommodate the climate changes we face”

The waste water sector has huge potential to help reduce CO2 emissions. In my home country, Denmark, several waste water treatment plants, for example the ‘Kalundborg Utility’ and - as cited in the World Energy Outlook 2016 - ‘Marselisborg Wastewater Treatment Plant’, are now operating in a climate-neutral manner.

In fact, they are energy producing while also being highly efficient in traditional water treatment. For these very reasons, it is essential to have a critical review of the legal framework; starting with the current Urban Waste Water Directive which dates from 1991.

The European Commission has held their consultations on this directive and, on 5 March, the Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, stated that there was room for improvement.

I would very much urge the Commission to come up with a proposal for revising the Urban Waste Water Directive in order to secure the correct legal framework and legal certainty for Europe’s waste water treatment plants.

The technology already exists when it comes to extracting energy from waste water, now we simply need to regulate the use of this energy resource.

Our perspective on water should be one of good management of a sound and healthy resource in all communities.

Every stakeholder in the water ecosystem should be aware of where the water comes from, if they are using it responsibly and if the discarding of waste water contributes to a sustainable recharge of aquifers and waters throughout Europe.

Our efforts to maintain a good quality of water in Europe will also address the fates of chemical substances, pharmaceuticals from households and medical centres and microplastic particles in the environment.

The road to the future is already here; the revised Drinking Water Directive, with reduction of water loss and measures to ensure better water quality, is now on its way. This was concluded politically in the beginning of this year.

“Our perspective on water should be one of good management of a sound and healthy resource in all communities”

The same is the case for the Regulation on the reuse of treated waste water in agriculture, for which I happened to be the ‘shadow rapporteur’ on behalf of the EPP Group.

The European Green Deal is a platform for the future integration of the EU’s industrial sectors and for innovation towards new solutions.

We will find a way to shape legislation that helps us work together to tackle climate change and its impacts on our resources.

Circularity in the water sector does not simply aim at the recycling of the water source at local level, where the water resource is the background for agriculture and nature, it also deals with the recovery of resources in the “waste” parts of “waste water”.

We need a new forum where architects, engineers, urban planners and landscape managers can develop ways to work with and disseminate solutions on climate adaptation.

The lessons we learnt from getting the European Green Deal, the new industrial policy that will enter into force, and the achievements to enforce better digitalisation in Europe can be applied to Europe’s water sector.

Moreover, we can share the best solutions with the rest of the world. Scientific knowledge must be the backbone for regulation of pharmaceuticals and microplastics, to create a background for innovation and the cross-sectoral collaboration we need.

Households, industry sectors and the water sector should be addressed in this approach, therefore we shall apply new innovative methods designed to unleash new ideas rather than classic limiting regulation. New initiatives will require financing.

As such, a sound cost recovery principle throughout the European water sector is a good example. However, the Just Transition Fund, the green taxonomy, revised state aid rules, as well as the Horizon Europe programme, can all contribute to developing good and integrated water solutions to support the European water industry and all EU citizens.

Read the most recent articles written by Pernille Weiss - Making the ICT sector energy efficient

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