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The European Green Deal starts with water

The new rules on drinking water are only one piece of a much wider puzzle, albeit a fundamental one. A good start, but only a start.

by Roberto Di Giovan Paolo
6 min read
by Roberto Di Giovan Paolo
6 min read

This article is taken from World Energy (WE) number 46 – Water stories

The global political and economic situation will ensure that the Green Deal announced by European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen will not remain just a dream. Donald Trump's failure to show remorse, which, in the event of his re-election to the White House, will lead to the formal withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Treaty, and the economic, health and social crisis which has hit China, give the European Union a potential advantage “on the ground” in making a commitment to sustainability. This leadership is underscored by funding of one trillion euros from EU budget resources, allocations from the 27 post-Brexit countries and financial commitments made by important stakeholders. However, whether this is a functional and effective deal remains to be seen once the actual actions taken have been verified.

A concrete commitment: the new rules on drinking water

With regard to water, especially drinking water for domestic use, the EU seems serious. In February, the Commission sent the European Parliament the final proposal for a new directive. The text, which is agreeable to both the Parliament and the Council and will be put to a final vote in March, updates the quality standards for drinking water set over 20 years ago and establishes new minimum hygiene requirements for all materials that come into contact with it, such as pipes and taps, to avoid possible contamination. On these issues specific EU budget areas already provide for investments of millions of euros.

The new rules require monitoring of organic substances, pharmaceuticals and microplastics and establish conditions for access to water for minorities who have limited or no access to it. They also provide financial support that includes money from the European Social Fund for the installation of supply pipes and fountains. Particular attention is paid to the use of water in public places such as restaurants, bars and pubs, and the directive aims to act on the cost lever to limit waste. Significant focus is placed on glass bottling at source and the recycling of bottles to guarantee a decrease in the use of plastic.

The directive is being implemented in an advanced sector where, according to the European Environment Agency, more than 98.5 percent of the tests carried out on drinking water samples respect the standards currently in force in the EU.  The directive is considered a “flagship” because it stems from a request made by European citizens in a petition that has collected almost two million signatures in all countries of the Union for guidelines then espoused by the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament. These guidelines provide for the protection of water and its basins as a public asset, guarantee sanitary and healthy water for all and universal access, establishing drinking water, the defense of basins, lakes and rivers, reservoirs and maintenance and distribution structures as the cornerstones of a common European asset in the water sector. This is a sector in which the European Union has  been consciously active for over a decade, thinking extensively about good quality water resources and promoting the joint efforts of European and national institutions throughout the water cycle. As early as 2015, a water framework directive indicated the need for coordinated management of river basins, even when they fall within the geographies of multiple countries and regardless of their outlet. Over time, great attention has also been paid to the marine environment, attention demonstrated by the many experiments that have been underway for years on desalination to create drinking water and by the studies and experiments on the use of waves of water, in both marine and internal basins, for energy purposes.

The new drinking water directive is the first revision of all European documents relating to the water sector including blueprints, white papers, 2012 directives and 2015 and 2016 studies, and it will lead to others.

A step forward towards the circular economy

In the foreword, it introduces for the first time the theme of the circular economy, with an impact assessment “which also examined the issue highlighted in the European citizens' initiative and in the consultations, namely the inaccessibility of water for some groups of the population, for example vulnerable and marginalized communities such as the Roma people.” Because of democratic availability of the asset, reuse, monitoring and attention to energy consumption represent the fundamental pillars of the directive, the impact of which will go well beyond the 27 countries of the Union. In fact, the measures contained in the directives guide both funding from the EU budget, which allocates about 25 percent of the total to combat climate change and sustainability, but also funding under the Union's collaboration and cooperation programs with the rest of the world and in particular the developing countries of Latin America and Africa.

The directive then revises, in a restrictive sense, the protection of areas suitable for reservoirs with a general approach to defending the land and the surrounding environment. The impact of these measures will also be felt on the market, in particular for mineral spring waters, which must comply with specific rules to ensure the health of local people and communities.

The directive will be included among those in the work program for the EU circular economy action plan “because it is consistent with the European Union's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and marine litter and with the European strategy for plastic.” This approach, according to the Commission, guarantees a European water market management aimed at reducing economic risk and, indeed, relaunches its competitiveness while guaranteeing European citizens more information and transparency on products.

In short, the Green Deal seems to be finding its feet. But the water directive is only one piece of a much wider puzzle, albeit a fundamental one. A good start, but only a start.

The author: Roberto Di Giovan Paolo

Journalist, has written for, among others, ANSA, Avvenire and Famiglia Cristiana. He was Secretary General of the Italian Association for the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, and he is a lecturer at the University of International Studies of Rome.