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Document 52018AE1285

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption (recast)’ (COM(2017) 753 final — 2017/0332(COD))

EESC 2018/01285

OJ C 367, 10.10.2018, p. 107–111 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

10.10.2018   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 367/107


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the

‘Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption (recast)’

(COM(2017) 753 final — 2017/0332(COD))

(2018/C 367/21)

Rapporteur:

Gerardo LARGHI

Referral

European Parliament, 8.2.2018

Council, 28.2.2018

Legal basis

Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

Plenary Assembly decision

13.2.2018

Section responsible

Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment

Adopted in section

26.6.2018

Adopted at plenary

12.7.2018

Plenary session No

536

Outcome of vote

(for/against/abstentions)

161/1/2

1.   Conclusions and Recommendations

1.1.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes the Commission’s proposal aimed at updating the Drinking Water Directive and largely endorses its structure, objectives and measures. The Committee is pleased to note that for the first time a legislative process that started with a European Citizens’ Initiative is being brought to completion, broadly in keeping with the aims of that initiative. The Committee also points out that more than 99 % of EU drinking water complies with the existing Directive 98/83/EC.

1.2.

In line with its previous opinion (1), the EESC regrets that the proposal for a directive stops short of explicitly recognising the universal right of access to safe drinking water and sanitation, as called for by the Right2Water ECI and included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2).

1.3.

The EESC considers the model proposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), based on minimum quantities of water per person per day, to be a viable option. It important to maintain a holistic approach to this issue (3), integrating the legislation on sustainability and the circular economy, as well as the environmental, economic and social dimensions (4).

1.4.

In the EESC’s view, the Commission should: endorse the parametric values suggested by the WHO, continue the derogations mechanism in its current form and reconsider the automatic mechanism provided for under Article 12 of the directive. This proposal aims to ensure the highest quality standards, as well as to outline protocols that can be used when there is a real risk to consumers.

1.5.

The EESC is in favour of introducing measures requiring Member States to facilitate access to drinking water for vulnerable groups and people living in isolated locations, in disadvantaged or peripheral rural areas. In line with the subsidiarity principle, the detailed implementation of the measures should, however, be made in agreement with the Member States.

1.6.

The EESC is pleased to see that the precautionary and polluter pays principles have been adopted (5) and supports the roll-out of communication campaigns to encourage wider, more informed use of public water; it recommends that all available instruments be used and not solely online tools.

1.7.

The EESC recognises that the directive introduces significant new elements in terms of monitoring and the transparency of information. However, in order to increase consumer awareness of the importance of drinking tap water, it recommends that the information conveyed be clear and easily understandable. The EESC underlines the important role of SMEs in the water distribution. In order to avoid bureaucratic burden for SMEs, roles must be proportionate.

1.8.

The EESC considers it important to monitor water supply sources in line with Directive 2000/60/EC while establishing — where necessary — water reserves for responding to emergencies, exploring new approaches to alternative sources, such as rainwater, making more rational use of groundwater in order to limit waste.

1.9.

The EESC believes that water for domestic use should fall within the scope of the circular economy and that it is important that the Commission directive integrate it within that framework, laying down new rules for the production, recovery and reuse of waste water.

1.10.

The EESC is concerned about the fact that the increased costs involved in stepping up monitoring and in modernising and upgrading the network may be passed on solely to the end consumer and will not also be shared between public administrations and supply companies.

1.11.

The EESC calls on Member States to introduce adapted water charges for less well-off citizens, those living below the poverty line and those living in disadvantaged rural areas. At the same time, the Committee recommends measures to discourage the use disproportionate amounts of water, thereby promoting appropriate behaviour instead. This should also apply to industrial and agricultural usage of water. The EESC points out the necessity of efficient maintenance of the water supply network. This measure should reduce the gap between pumped volumes and billed volumes in order to combat waste. It is also fundamental, in order to ensure solidarity with lower income groups, to keep degressive tariffs for big users which could contribute to reducing fixed charges.

1.12.

The EESC considers water to be a primary public good. For this reason groundwater, hydrogeological basins and large natural water reserves should no longer be privatised, or at least should remain publicly available. In order to ensure availability of drinking water for everybody, the Member State can involve private operators for the distribution of water for domestic and industrial uses. The private operators should, however, play a supporting rather than predominant role vis-à-vis public entities.

1.13.

The EESC urges that, in future, a distinction be made between recognition of the right to water and the right to health protection.

2.   Background

2.1.

Drinking water is a primary good, essential for the health, well-being and dignity of every human being. The quality of life of every individual, as well economic and productive activity, are significantly influenced by the availability of water and disruptions to the hydrological cycle.

2.2.

At present, around 40 % of the world’s population depend on cross-border basins for their water supply, and by 2030 some two billion people may live in areas affected by water scarcity.

2.3.

While the EU undoubtedly has one of the best records in the management of drinking water, there are still two million Europeans who do not enjoy safe, clean and cheap water, although more than 99 % of drinking water meets the requirements of Directive 98/83/EC.

2.4.

The quality of water has an impact on the food chain and, in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 178/2002, there must therefore be access to clean water in all areas of the food chain.

2.5.

Many factors such as the growing world population, the increasing need for water for domestic, industrial and agricultural uses, as well as pollution and climate change are creating new challenges relating to water supply, access, management and recycling. This is prompting moves to update the current legislation, inter alia, Directive 98/83/EC.

2.6.

In 2013 the European Citizens’ Initiative known as Right2Water collected more than 1,8 million signatures with the specific aim of updating the existing legislation to meet the new challenges, and essentially calling for recognition of the universal right of access to drinking water and sanitation (6).

2.7.

The European Parliament (7) and the EESC (8) strongly supported this initiative, which was based on the UN’s Agenda 2030 (9).

2.8.

As a result of the Right2Water initiative, the Commission launched a public consultation (10) followed by a formal consultation of all relevant stakeholders, which, inter alia, led to a review of Directive 98/83/EC as part of the REFIT programme. Access to high-quality drinking water and its efficient management constitutes one of the strands of the European social pillar, the system of preventive healthcare and of the supply of safe food and can, together with the reuse of water, form part of the action plan for the circular economy (11).

3.   Gist of the Commission proposal

3.1.

The foundations that the directive sets out are: updating the list of parameters; the introduction of a risk-based approach; improving rules on transparency and consumer access to up-to-date information; better transparency and access to data; improving the free trade in materials in contact with drinking water; and access to drinking water for all.

3.2.

The proposal seeks to tighten up the parameters applicable to water intended for human consumption, partly on the basis of the WHO’s specific recommendations (12), so as to ensure that water is clean and to ensure greater controls against enteric pathogens and Legionella, add new chemical parameters and new parameters on endocrine disruptors, and introduce more restrictive limits for lead and chromium.

3.3.

Member States are to ensure that the supply, treatment and distribution of water intended for human consumption are subject to a risk-based approach focusing on the hazards related to bodies of water used for the abstraction, supply and domestic distribution of water (for the latter the assessments will be every three years, while the supply risk assessments will be every six years).

3.3.1.

Member States have the option of adopting additional monitoring for substances and micro-organisms for which no parameters have been set.

3.3.2.

The new risk-based approach goes hand in hand with the polluter pays principle.

3.4.

The proposal introduces provisions to reduce the existing differences and harmonise the standards on materials in contact with water, which currently represent a barrier to free trade.

3.5.

The Member States are called on to ensure access to drinking water for all, with a particular focus on vulnerable and marginalised groups; to improve the quality of the service, where a service is already provided; to ensure that domestic water is affordable; and to launch campaigns encouraging the use of drinking water and informing the public about the quality of drinking water in their area, and about measures adopted to monitor, collect and dispose of waste water.

3.6.

The additional costs will be borne mainly by water operators. Consumers should see a very marginal increase in their household costs. In any case, this does not risk making drinking water unaffordable. Expenditure per household could increase between 0,73 % and 0,76 %, i.e. between EUR 7,90 and EUR 10,40 per year, but the better quality of domestic water could convince people to abandon consumption of bottled water.

3.7.

Potential job losses could be compensated for by an increase in employment in the water supply sector and by savings on packaging and on plastic recycling. Jobs must be created primarily where sources of supply are located.

3.8.

SMEs, especially those involved with water analysis and treatment, are expected to benefit. Administrative costs to national authorities were assessed as negligible or diminishing.

4.   General comments

4.1.

The EESC has studied the Commission’s proposal aimed at updating the Drinking Water Directive closely. In particular, the Committee welcomes the fact that for the first time a legislative process that started with a European Citizens’ Initiative is being brought to completion, broadly in keeping with the aims of that initiative. However, it is pointed out that more than 99 % of EU drinking water complies with Directive 98/83/EC and is of the highest quality (13).

4.2.

However, the Committee regrets that the directive stops short of clearly recognising the universal right of access to drinking water and sanitation, as called for by the ECI Right2Water and included in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 25 September 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 6: Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all).

4.3.

The EESC endorses the Commission’s decision to opt for a directive, in line with subsidiarity, as this is the tool best suited to the specific needs and problems that exist at national and local levels; it does so with the proviso, however, that a holistic approach always be maintained, with due regard, in particular, to all of the other legislation on sustainable development and the circular economy, in order to ensure a high quality of drinking water supply.

4.4.

The EESC proposes that, in line with subsidiarity, the Member States can adopt specific measures to facilitate access to drinking water for vulnerable and marginalised groups. However, the Committee has serious doubts concerning the combination of abolishing the current system of derogations at national level and introducing automatic mechanisms under Article 12 of the directive. These measures do not take sufficient account of territorial specificities and may give rise to sudden interruptions to supply, albeit without a real danger to human health. With this in mind, the Committee calls for trends in water composition to be considered more important than intermittent individual data.

4.5.

The Committee is in favour of extensive communication campaigns to inform the public about the new health protection rules and to promote wider and more informed use of public water. These campaigns must involve non-digital channels so as to include all sectors of the population. The Commission should assess financial measures to encourage recycling campaigns and financing for those who purchase low water consumption domestic appliances.

4.6.

The EESC supports the proposal to harmonise the existing standards on materials in contact with drinking water. In particular, the Committee considers that this measure may help to generate significant economies of scale in the internal market and lead to progress in the field of health.

5.   Specific comments

5.1.

The EESC considers the experience of the Right2Water initiative to be an important case study, which the Commission should consider with a view to strengthening the European Citizens’ Initiative instrument. In particular, the Committee points out that this is the first and only ECI that has gone the full distance, which goes to prove the excessive complexity of the instrument both for the organising committee at the stage of submitting the ECI and gathering statements of support, and as regards the follow-up by the Commission (14), as has been partly acknowledged by the recent proposal for a regulation COM(2017) 482.

5.2.

The Committee believes that the WHO model, based on minimum quantities of water per person per day, could be a viable option (15). The EESC considers it crucial that the EU be at the forefront of the fight against global water poverty.

5.3.

In accordance with WHO guidelines, it is important to draw up policies that aim at improving access to drinking water for consumers, on the basis of the following indicators:

safety: possible traces of pathogenic micro-organisms and chemicals should not exceed the tolerance threshold or generate radiological hazards;

acceptable: water must have an acceptable colour, smell and taste;

accessible: everyone has the right to water and sanitation facilities that are physically accessible within or in close proximity to the home, school, workplace or healthcare institution;

affordable: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) suggests that water costs should not exceed 3 % of household income.

5.4.

The EESC is concerned about the risk of higher costs for consumers and reiterates its call for the right to affordable drinking water to be recognised for all citizens. It therefore calls on the Member States and the Commission to monitor price developments, with a view to greater transparency.

5.5.

The EESC considers that updating the directive could generate new opportunities and jobs in many SMEs, especially those involved with water analysis and monitoring, maintenance and new plants. However, the Committee notes that the Commission has given scant attention to whether there are enough suitably skilled workers available who are capable of taking on the new challenges in the sector. The EESC underlines the important role of SMEs in the water distribution. In order to avoid bureaucratic burden for SMEs, roles must be proportionate.

5.6.

The EESC warns of the risks that the directive may also create for the mineral water production sector, with considerable repercussions on employment. That risk has not been adequately addressed by the Commission both as regards support to companies for possible industrial restructuring, and as regards support for workers who are out of work and reshaping their skills in order to get back into employment. The EESC considers that these issues need to be managed at European level using all of the tools available, including social dialogue.

5.7.

The EESC considers it important to monitor water supply sources in line with Directive 2000/60/EC while establishing — where necessary — water reserves for responding to emergencies, exploring new approaches to alternative sources, such as rainwater, desalination, making more rational use of groundwater in order to limit waste.

Brussels, 12 July 2018.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Luca JAHIER


(1)  EESC opinion, on Water and sanitation are a human right! (OJ C 12, 15.1.2015, p. 33). Point 1.8.

(2)  United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 25 September 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Goal 6: Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

(3)  EESC opinion on European Innovation Partnership on Water (OJ C 44, 15.2.2013, p. 147). Point 1.2.

(4)  EESC opinion on Integration of water policy into other EU policies (OJ C 248, 25.8.2011, p. 43). Point 1.1.

(5)  EESC opinion on A blueprint to safeguard Europe’s water resources (OJ C 327, 12.11.2013, p. 93). Point 1.5.

(6)  www.right2water.eu.

(7)  European Parliament resolution of 8 September 2015 on the follow-up to the European Citizens’ Initiative Right2Water.

(8)  EESC opinion on Water and sanitation are a human right! (OJ C 12, 15.1.2015, p. 33).

(9)  United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 25 September 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Goal 6: Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

(10)  The Commission received over 5 900 responses and subsequently held formal meetings to discuss transparency and benchmarking.

(11)  COM(2017) 614 final.

(12)  Drinking Water Parameter Cooperation Project of the WHO Regional Office for Europe: Support to the revision of Annex I Council Directive 98/83/EC on the quality of water intended for human consumption (Drinking Water Directive) Recommendation, 11 September 2017.

(13)  COM 2016/666.

(14)  EESC opinion on The European Citizens’ Initiative (OJ C 237, 6.7.2018, p. 74).

(15)  http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet35en.pdf.


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