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EU’s new Drinking Water Directive addresses new challenges to deliver improved quality to consumers and the environment

It’s been a long journey from the Commission’s initial proposed revision of the Drinking Water Directive in 2018 until now. The outcome? Water remains safe and affordable, while Member States will improve access for all.

There were three goals in revising the directive: adapt the legislation to new challenges by updating the list of quality parameters, implementing WHO’s Water Safety Plan approach and increase the transparency of water services.

The revision came about as part of the Commission's response to the European Citizens' Initiative 'Right2Water' and as a means to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Europe’s drinking water suppliers are satisfied with the final text of the directive - which will be voted upon by the Council today and which represents an improvement of the European Commission proposal.

When it enters into force at the end of this year, the directive will:

  • protect human health by updating quality parameters in line with WHO recommendations and by developing EU-wide hygienic requirements for the materials in contact with drinking water
  • enable authorities and operators to better deal with risks to water resources and water supply with the introduction of the compulsory Risk-Based Approach (RBA)
  • contribute to the realisation of SDG6 targets
  • streamline the information to citizens and customers on the quality of drinking water and other aspects of the water supply in order to enhance the trust of consumers in tap water
  • promote the consumption of drinking water in public spaces.

The final text of the directive is more complex compared to the current legislation since different deadlines are related to the various new obligations.

At the same time, the new directive lacks uniform definitions that are at the basis of some obligations: this may grant Member States more flexibility in the implementation process.

What consumers will not see but will most certainly benefit from are the additional measures that different players from national authorities to property owners will enact.

First of these is that the new legislation makes the risk assessment and management proposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) compulsory, thereby establishing a link between the Water Framework Directive - that safeguards the quality of water resources – and the proper maintenance of the domestic installation. This makes the protection of human health as guaranteed by the Drinking Water Directive a reality.

Second of all, the Commission will adopt a Watch List to monitor contaminants of emerging concern – another important tool to protect, or where necessary to, restore drinking water resources. Water suppliers need the support of the competent authorities to rely on drinking water resources of good status.

It remains to be seen however if the Watch List can be an interesting tool for the monitoring of water resources; it is not clear on which basis the substances will be selected.  

It is a pity though that there will be no automatic review of authorisations under chemical legislation (pesticides, pharmaceuticals) or automatic restrictions under REACH if a substance is detected with a parametric value higher than the guidance value. This would have facilitated a source-control approach to pollutants in line with the EU Treaties and with the Water Framework Directive’s Art.7.3.        

The new directive set thresholds for the complex group of PFAS. Given their mobility and persistence, they are likely to accumulate in water resources over the next years. With this in mind, EurEau calls on policy makers to swiftly implement the group restriction under REACH as announced in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. EurEau recommends the appropriate and reasonable implementation of the quality standards by Member States taking into account the technical risk management solutions to tackle PFAS substances.

But it’s not just the water in our pipes that is targeted. All materials and products that carry our water to us are included thanks to the establishment of EU-wide hygienic requirements for the materials that come into contact with drinking water. EurEau had advocated for these requirements since the revision process was announced in 2014. It is a major achievement for the protection of our health, for ensuring that public money is spent by water operators on products that are fit-for-purpose and for the creation of a single market for these products.

The new directive is fit for purpose and will significantly contribute to consumer and environmental protection for years to come if it is properly implemented and ambitiously supported by the Member States.

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