by Edoardo de Paola
The effects of climate change in Europe are becoming more and more apparent. Worrying trends of increased desertification and more extreme fluctuations in rainfall patterns have been assessed by the latestIPCC report. These transformations impact the freshwater availability in EU countries, particularly the warmest, which has created a need for adaptive solutions to water scarcity. The European Commission has published a regulation on the matter in June 2020. Water reuse is a large-scale technique which treats wastewater coming primarily from households to make “new” freshwater which can be utilised on agricultural lands. The regulation will come into effect from June 2023, committing each member state to implement water reuse within the broader 2020 Circular economy action plan.
The current treated wastewater average in EU countries is around 10% , with two important outliers: Cyprus and Malta, which recycle 90% and 60% of their water respectively. Both are islands, situated at low latitudes, with relatively high population density, little to no rain for almost six months of the year, and lacking in rivers and lakes. These elements combine to leave them with very low freshwater availability per capita, making reused water all the more important.
In Cyprus, wastewater treatment plants have been installed on a national scale earlier than any other European state. Following a drought in 2007, there has been a greater focus on investing in desalination and wastewater treatment plants. Whilst this has been crucial to maintaining water supplies in Cyprus, other negative aspects also need to be mitigated. The consequences of both strategies include: the environmental impact caused by brine, the biological impact of what is left from treated wastewater, and the economic cost of both due to their high electricity consumption. When implementing these policies across the EU, these obstacles should be considered and appropriately addressed.
In Malta, I conducted a fieldwork to assess the accessibility to the local reused water source called “new water”. The government has installed three treatment plants which supply clean water to farmers. For the three years in which the plants have been in function, agricultural workers have been satisfied with the provision of continuous water supplies as rainwater becomes sparser.
Whilst its long-term financial viability is questioned by some due to heavy government subsidies, agriculture is a focal part of Maltese culture, and safeguarding it is considered a worthwhile endeavour by the government. Ensuring fair access to these water sources is essential, and is an issue Malta is having to overcome. Currently, those who live near treatment plants have better access to supplies than those who live more remotely from them. Securing good connections between the plants and the communities who rely on their resources is key. For other countries which intend to implement similar strategies, this will be something that they must overcome to ensure equitable access to resources.
One could ask why water reuse has not been implemented vastly across the EU. Whilst states across the Mediterranean will suffer major droughts, impacting locals’ lifestyles, tourism, and agricultural production, the effects of water scarcity will also be felt indirectly. From supermarket shortages of fruits, to unsustainable levels of tourism and increased labour migration, EU member states that have not implemented policies on water reuse will still feel the ramifications of their inaction in the coming years.
The potential for reusing water exists: in fact, 40 billion m3 of wastewater is already treated in the EU, but only 3% is actually reused. This was also the case in Malta during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but the country has started reusing water in programs such as the aforementioned new water.
It is imperative that all EU countries take proactive stances on this issue now, whether they experience water stress directly or not, before it is too late. The cases of Cyprus and Malta can act as a guide for other regions which experience, or are predicted to experience, water scarcity. Other islands, particularly in the Mediterranean region, are likely to be similarly vulnerable to water scarcity in the years and decades to come. Investing in water treatment plants now will ensure that sufficient infrastructure is in place when they are really needed. Delays today risk the lives and livelihoods of communities in the future.
Alcade, S.A.N.Z.L. and Gawlik, B. (2014) Water reuse in Europe – relevant guidelines, needs for and barriers to innovation, JRC Publications Repository. Publications Office of the European Union. Available at: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC92582 (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (2022) IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/ (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
European Commission (2020) Circular economy action plan, Environment. Available at: https://environment.ec.europa.eu/strategy/circular-economy-action-plan_en (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Water reuse (2020) Water Reuse – Environment – European Commission. European Commission. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/reuse.htm (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Edoardo has a passion for sustainability, which he has paired with his European belonging through his master course in Sustainable Development in Leuven, not far from the capital of Europe, Brussels. He started writing articles because his Italian teacher would give him poor marks in writing. Out of this necessity he tries to make a virtue.