Meeting the waste water treatment challenge

Between 2007 and 2013, some 14 billion EUR will be spent across the EU on infrastructure for the collection or treatment of waste water under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWT). The aim is to ensure that human and industrial waste doesn’t adversely affect human health and the environment. The latest report on implementation of the Directive, for the period 2007/2008, shows that work is progressing well but that collection and treatment compliance rates could still improve. It reveals that most longstanding EU Member States (EU-15)1 maintained good standards of waste water treatment and improved on treatment of sensitive waters, while newer Members States (EU-12) improved on overall collection and treatment.

The main findings of the report are:

Most EU-15 urban waste water collection systems are very effective and capture 99% of their target waters
The total area designated as sensitive (eutrophic or at risk of becoming eutrophic), and requiring more stringent treatment, has increased from 68% to 73% since the last report. This could partially indicate an increase of eutrophic waters, but also that Member States better recognise and protect their sensitive waters.
There are still large variations regarding implementation of more stringent water treatment, but very high compliance rates have been reached in Austria, Netherlands and Germany; improvements were made in Denmark, Finland, France, Luxembourg and Sweden, and in the EU-12, especially in Lithuania.
Waste water treatment is well advanced in big cities, with more stringent treatment installations in place for 77% of such waste water. Some cities however still do not have adequate treatment, including four in the EU-15: Barreiro/Moita and Matosinhos in Portugal, Frejus in France, and Trieste in Italy

Next Steps
The Commission will assist Member States with financing projects using Cohesion Funds; also other EU institutions play an important role on financing, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB). Regarding enforcement, the Commission will take proactive steps to work with Member States when possible, but will also continue to take legal action against countries where implementation falls behind, especially in cases of serious implementation gaps and delays.

The Urban Waste Water Directive requires waste water to be collected and treated in any area that generates the water pollution equivalent of a settlement of above 2000 people. There are almost 23,000 such areas in the EU 27, producing a total waste water pollution load of about 550 million population equivalents. Biological waste water treatment (‘secondary treatment’) is provided for in the Directive, and more stringent treatment is required for especially sensitive water areas that demand a higher level of protection.

For EU-15 Member States the Directive should have been be fully implemented at the time of the report, but EU-12 countries were granted extensions in their Accession Treaties. In 2007/08 Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Slovenia still had deadlines pending.

A Commission study [ pdf file354kB] in 2000 estimated that about €152 billion would be invested in waste water infrastructure over the period 1990-2010. EU funds have a key role in financing treatment and collection infrastructure, especially in the EU-12. The funds have previously helped countries such as Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece achieve impressive improvements since the 1990s, in some cases quadrupling figures for secondary treatment.

The EU improves compliance levels via strict enforcement actions: in 2007 for instance, the Commission followed up on UWWT court rulings against Belgium, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom and Spain.

This is the sixth UWWT Directive implementation reports. After 20 years, wastewater treatment situation in Europe has improved significantly.

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