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How to reuse treated urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation

The European Union’s water resources are increasingly coming under pressure. This is leading to water stress, when water resources are insufficient to meet the needs and to a deterioration in water quality. In addition, climate change, unpredictable weather patterns and drought are contributing significantly to the strain on the availability of freshwater.

Reusing reclaimed water is widely recognised as a practice that helps manage water resources more efficiently and helps adapt our systems to climate change, in line with the EU’s strategy set out in the European Green Deal. Thus, the Commission published some guidelines to help Member States and stakeholders apply the rules on the safe reuse of treated urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation.

The Water Reuse Regulation, applicable from June 2023, sets out minimum water quality, risk management and monitoring requirements to ensure safe water reuse. The guidelines are also complemented by several practical examples to facilitate the application of the rules.

“Freshwater resources are scarce and increasingly under pressure,” said Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevičius. “In times of unprecedented temperature peaks, we need to stop wasting water and use this resource more efficiently to adapt to the changing climate and ensure the security and sustainability of our agricultural supply. Today’s guidelines can help us do just that and secure the safe circulation, across the EU, of food products grown with reclaimed water.”

Reuse of treated wastewater can provide significant environmental, social and economic benefits. For example, water reuse can improve the status of the environment. Moreover, when compared to alternative sources of water supply such as desalination or water transfer, water reuse often turns out to require lower investment costs and energy, also contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reuse of treated wastewater can also be considered a reliable water supply, quite independent from seasonal drought and weather variability and able to cover peaks of water demand. This can be very beneficial to farming activities that can rely on reliable continuity of water supply during the irrigation period, consequently reducing the risk of crop failure and income losses. Appropriate consideration for nutrients in treated wastewater could also reduce the use of additional fertilisers resulting in savings for the environment, farmers and wastewater treatment.

The world water market is growing rapidly, and it is estimated to reach 1 trillion euros by 2020. For this reason, water reuse also encompasses significant potential in terms of the creation of green jobs in the water-related industry and it is estimated that a 1 per cent increase in the rate of growth of the water industry in Europe could create up to 20.000 new jobs.

At present, about 1 billion cubic metres of treated urban wastewater is reused annually, which accounts for approximately 2.4 per cent of the treated urban wastewater effluents and less than 0.5 per cent of annual EU freshwater withdrawals. But the EU potential is much higher, estimated in the order of 6 billion cubic metres – six times the current volume. There are some CEE Member States that already have in place numerous initiatives regarding water reuse for irrigation, industrial uses and aquifer recharge. For example, Greece reuses between 5 and 12 per cent of its effluents, clearly indicating a huge potential for further uptake.

This drive towards more efficient use of water is also reflected in the recent Commission proposal to revise the Industrial Emissions Directive, calling also for more efficient use of water across all industrial processes including through water reuse. The upcoming Commission’s proposal to revise the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive will also aim to further facilitate water reuse.

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