The revised EU Drinking Water Directive

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No longer a problem to be managed, but a risk to be prevented.

It is on this pivotal principle that the revised EU Directive 2020/2184 (the ‘Directive’) on the quality of water intended for human consumption is based. This Directive must be transposed by January 2023 in all Member States and revises, supersedes, and replaces (after more than 20 years) Directive 98/83/EC with the primary objective to protect human health from the negative effects deriving from the consumption of contaminated water.

The Directive focuses on the precautionary principle and, to do so, it introduces clear obligations of information, surveillance, control and guarantee to ensure the wholesomeness and cleanliness of water intended for human consumption.

Starting from the critical issues that emerged from the Right2Water initiative, a campaign promoted by European citizens which called on the Commission to ensure that all EU citizens enjoy the right to water and sanitation), and from the European Commission’s subsequent assessment of the adequacy of the current regulations, the directive introduces the obligation of preventive controls throughout the supply chain, with a more holistic approach for risk management.

The risk-based approach aims at ensuring a continuous exchange of information between competent authorities and water suppliers, thus requiring visibility on the whole supply chain from the catchment area, abstraction, treatment, storage, and distribution of water.
The Directive redefines the list of microbiological and chemical parameters by including, for example, microplastics, endocrine disruptors, and pharmaceuticals in the abstraction phase, and, in the domestic distribution area, the control of legionella and lead, focusing on ‘priority premises’ (healthcare facilities, accommodation facilities, schools and public establishments). Minimum hygiene requirements for materials that come into contact with pipelines are also defined and, most importantly, access to water is guaranteed for all, including vulnerable and marginalised groups, which in Europe are approximately 2 million.

“The revolution brought about by the Directive goes further and also focus on the information – adequate and up-to-date – to be provided to consumers in order to promote its use and value tap water” clarifies Paola Rita Esposito, Water Law Advisor at Celeris. “The two main aims of the Directive are to protect human health and improve access to water and related information.
To achieve these objectives it is essential not only to periodically collect data (information on risk assessment and management for each water abstraction point, results of water quality monitoring, accidents, derogations granted, etc.) but also to harmonise the data owned by the different actors involved in the supply chain to be compared at the EU level.

The Directive, indeed, requires Member States to set up, keep up-to-date, and make accessible to the Commission and the European Environment Agency data sets containing the relevant data. Hence the Italian government decision to set up a platform and review the entire system of surveillance and control of drinking water, entrusted to the Istituto Superiore di Sanità. The latter will become the National Centre for Water Safety with renewed functions for the approval of water safety plans and the water service under the jurisdiction of ARERA, the Regulatory Authority for Energy, Networks and the Environment.

Moreover, a system of sanctions for violations will also be redefined. Water supply becomes a general service whose cost is paid by users and includes all services related to the use of water such as equipment maintenance, investments, environmental costs, and those related to the depletion of resources. This is, ultimately, the true revolution because it will not accept the waste and abuse of such a precious commodity.

Member States will be given a transitional period to adapt: they will have until January 2026 to take the necessary measures and ensure that water intended for human consumption is in line with the parameters indicated in the Directive; by July 2027, the risk assessment and management plans for river basins and abstraction points will have to be established; finally, by January 2029, Member States will have to introduce measures to improve access to, and promote the use of, water for human consumption together with the risk assessment plan for distribution and supply systems.

The introduction of the new holistic ‘risk-based’ approach to water safety, extended from the natural cycle to the integrated water cycle (drinking water distribution, sewage, purification, return to the environment) will lead to reconsider the entire drinking water system, revolutionising the existing system of water controls, with a preventive criterion based on the analysis of potentially dangerous situations that could occur throughout the supply chain.

Every 5 years, recurring evaluation will be carried out of microbial and chemical standards, as well as monitoring, sampling and risk assessment procedures.
In 2035 the first, tangible evaluation of the Directive has been foreseen.

The Water Health Open knoWledge (WHOW) project

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The WHOW project, launched in September 2020 and ending in August 2023 under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) framework, represents a significant step towards achieving the goals of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and in particular Goal #6 on Sustainable Water Management and Sanitation.

By promoting actions at the regional level, the UN Agenda urges countries to integrate Goal # 6, along with its target and indicators, into their national development plans by focusing on the issues regarding water management. Furthermore, it suggests an all-inclusive and strongly co-operational approach.

Relying on the data available in the United Nations Global SDG Indicators Database, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) released the 2021 assessment of SDG progress in the region. The Progress Index reports that the region will fully achieve 23 of the 169 SDG targets by 2030, while  progress needs to accelerate on another 57 targets, and for 9 targets, the current trend needs to be reversed. “With 80 targets out of the total 169 that cannot be adequately measured by official statistics, it is also a reminder of the magnitude of the work still ahead of us to measure the complexity of sustainable development in an internationally comparable manner.” – UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova stated.

The WHOW project will address the issue of data quality and harmonization. The project intends to create the first European knowledge graph on water consumption and pollution, with data sources coming from different administrative levels. It will link this environmental data to health data on disease diffusion. The WHOW project partners will integrate datasets from Italy and other European countries, as well as through data available on the European Data Portal (EDP) and the Copernicus Space Infrastructure, making them available for re-use.

WHOW promotes a set of actions aiming at designing fully distributed systems that are sustainable over time, managing large amounts of data available in real time, opening data (currently not publicly available) in compliance with the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) principles and building common semantics compliant with reference standards sector that can contribute to harmonized and standardized data at the European level. These actions will be coupled with the capacity building activities within the partners’ organization and an external engagement programme for interested communities and users from the public and private sector.

The Action will support the development of the European service infrastructure for Public Open Data fostering the development of products and services based on the re-use and combination of environmental data and health data on disease diffusion.

Celeris Advisory Ltd (Ireland) is  the Coordinator of the project, while other partners include the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), the Innovation and procurement regional Company of Lombardy Region S.p.A. (ARIA) and the Italian National Research Council – Institute of cognitive sciences and technologies (CNR-ISTC).

“WHOW is an ambitious and challenging project as it aims to address a key global issue.  It consists in achieving higher data quality and comparable data for the SDG Goals. Our efforts will be focused on data harmonization for selected SDG #6 indicators. This is our contribution to filling the current data knowledge gap to the benefit of the EU and the international community.” – Carmen Ciciriello, CEO Celeris Advisory and WHOW project Coordinator.

These challenges demonstrate a strong need for international cooperation and a fertile ground to combine efforts and find effective solutions within a sustainable timeframe. The UN Agenda requires countries and regions to achieve the SDG Goals by the end of 2030.