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Ensuring the availability and sustainability of water for all - EUROSTAT report on the SDGs

Access to water and sanitation services is a human need, and facilities human and environmental health. We also need water for other uses such as for manufacturing, industry and agriculture. Each of us plays a role in protecting our water to ensure we all have enough now and for our future needs.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals strive to achieve this, and a new EUROSTAT report evaluates Europe’s progress towards the goals including Goal 6 for ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, and ending open defecation. It also aims to improve water quality and efficiency and to encourage sustainable abstractions and supply.

In the EU, the focus is on sanitation, water quality and efficiency. Overall, the news is quite positive for Europe.

EUROSTAT finds that people that have neither a bath, shower nor indoor flushing toilet in their household decreased from 2.5% in 2013 to 1.9% in 2018. However, digging a little deeper, the report finds different levels of access to sanitation persist between Member States. While across the EU, 1% of households don’t have access to sanitation facilities, this can go up to 25% in individual countries.

Linked to water quality, the report states that more people are connected to secondary water treatment. Since 2012, reported connection rates to secondary treatment have increased in more than two-thirds, and in many states, connection rates of over 80% are reported. This is great news for the protection of water quality, and is evidence of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) in motion.

This improved waste water treatment is leading to less organic pollution in European rivers, which has been decreasing, though the decline has slowed in recent years.

The Commission is due to revise the UWWTD. We would like to see any updated directive include the strict application of the Control at Source Principle to prevent potentially harmful substances from entering the water cycle, and the Polluters Pays Principle should be implemented if they do. This will protect public health and the environment, help to keep water services affordable and contribute to the Circular Economy.

The EEA concluded in 2018 that although nutrient pollution has fallen since the 1990s, it is still the main reason why 28% of EU surface water bodies have not achieved good water quality, as set out under the Water Framework Directive. Agricultural production is a major source of diffuse pollution, mostly as a result of excessive emissions of nutrients and chemicals according to the EEA report. We advocate a source control approach, which will also make significant steps towards achieving the circular economy.

Bathing water quality has reached very high levels across the EU but the reports hints at the need to target overflows from heavy rain events and drainage from sources of pollution such as from agriculture or CSOs. EurEau urges a range of actions from policy and legislation, local-specific urban planning, nature-based solutions and innovation to ensure that overflows from collecting systems are managed in a sustainable manner. Our position paper lays out our views in more detail.

Finally, with a view to water efficiency, the report finds three countries are under stress; Cyprus, Portugal and Spain. Europe is affected by water scarcity, with 30% of people touched by it in 2015. Climate change will directly and significantly affect water service providers in most parts of Europe, through more frequent or intense periods of drought, heat waves or storms, and in more places.

EurEau believes that we have a lot to do to maintain and improve access to and the quality of our water services in Europe, especially if we want to have affordable and sufficient water in the future. The implementation of EU principles such as Control at Source will impact on this. Commissioner Sinkevicius committed to the full implementation of the Water Framework Directive, which will uphold many of our goals. We work with the EU institutions to ensure this is a reality.

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