As governments across Europe struggle with shortages, Brussels hopes to boost use of wastewater to irrigate crops. But are consumers ready, asks Valerie Flynn.
As the warm summer months arrive, ask yourself this: would you eat food grown on land that had been irrigated with treated wastewater? It’s a question that governments across Europe will have to grapple with in the coming years.
Europe’s water resources are under increasing stress, with climate change increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts, and even non-arid regions suffering from water shortages due to intensive farming, tourism and industrial activities.
Over-abstraction for irrigation in particular is one of the main threats to the EU water environment, according to the European Commission. One solution is to reuse water that has already been abstracted.
The commission hopes to boost public acceptance of this by enacting minimum standards for water reuse in law. A formal proposal, due next year, is one of the key legislative measures planned under the EU’s landmark resource efficiency policy programme, the Circular Economy strategy.
In a policy document published in April, the commission confirmed that its proposal will target reuse for irrigation, and to replenish groundwater. The proposed legislation won’t force any country to reuse water but it will create legal conditions intended to facilitate this.
Water reuse is already accepted practice in countries such as Cyprus and Spain, where water scarcity is a longstanding problem. Some northern European countries are also getting on board, including the UK, where the Olympic Park development in east London reuses treated wastewater for toilet flushing and irrigation.
The Olympic Park is a good example of the obstacles facing would-be water recyclers. The developers of that scheme told a recent EU study that legislative uncertainty meant they had to go through every relevant agency and regulatory body – the Environment Agency, Health Protection Agency and Drinking Water Inspectorate – to gain permission to reuse water.
According to the commission, low public awareness of water recycling’s benefits is one of the fundamental barriers, as is the inconsistency of the legal framework from country to country, which could inhibit trade in farm produce irrigated with recycled water.
Public acceptance of water recycling for food uses is particularly low, at least if a 2014 EU public consultation is anything to go by. Respondents were most in favour of using recycled water for uses that do not require high-quality water, such as street cleaning and firefighting. They were least in favour of uses in which reclaimed water is directly in contact with food – such as in the food industry and in irrigation of fruit and veg to be eaten raw.
The commission’s consultants concluded that the results indicated “the lack of awareness of the public with regard to the possibility to adapt the quality of the reclaimed water to the intended uses”. The consultants also noted that no respondent provided any evidence of actual health or environmental problems resulting from water reuse in the EU.
The food and agriculture sectors were particularly concerned about
negative public perception of the quality of reused water. More than 80% of respondents from both sectors supported legally binding minimum standards, such as those now planned by the commission, as an effective means of promoting water reuse.
The agri-food sector’s concerns are likely to be examined in detail in an EU impact assessment currently under way, and again when national governments and MEPs begin examining the proposal next year.
The commission’s environment department will be hoping that the environmental benefits of reuse also get their fair share of attention. Many European rivers have high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus (partly due to wastewater treatment plant discharges) and water reuse could help decrease this nutrient pollution. Water reuse is also likely to be energy efficient, requiring less energy than alternatives such as desalination and water transport.
It all seems like a sensible idea, but whether it’ll wash with consumers remains to be seen.