As a response to increasing evidence that there is less rain in many parts of Europe, the Union is now equipped with a new piece of legislation that will make the use of treated wastewater to irrigate crops safe, transparent and accessible to farmers: the Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation (the Water Reuse Regulation (Regulation (EU)2020/741)).

Did you know?

38% of the EU population was affected by water scarcity in 2019

By 2030 water stress and scarcity will probably affect half of Europe’s river basins

More than 40,000 million m3 of wastewater is treated in the EU every year but only the 2.4% is further treated to be reused

The Water Reuse Regulation (WRR) will increase the trust of consumers and farmers in this circular approach to the use of water, ensuring it is safe and reducing the pressures of abstractions on increasingly scarce water resources. It will also help preserve the water resources needed by the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This is a tool to help protect biodiversity, for achieving zero pollution and adapting to climate change.

This new Regulation requires that urban wastewater, which has already been treated in accordance with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (UWWTD), is further treated to meet the minimum quality standards of the Regulation to be suitable for agricultural use.

As water stress is exacerbated by climate change impacts, the use of this reclaimed water in agriculture can play an important role in tackling water scarcity and drought. By setting minimum quality standards, the WRR promotes the safe use of reclaimed water in agriculture and ensures the protection of human and animal health and the environment.

Circularity in the use of water for increased resilience

Good quality water in sufficient quantity is vital for the sustainable growth of European society and economy and for the protection of the environment. However, freshwater resources in EU countries are increasingly coming under pressure, leading to water stress and poorer water quality. Climate change, with its unpredictable weather patterns and more frequent and severe droughts are contributing significantly to lower water availability.

In line with the European Green Deal and the principles of the Circular Economy, water reuse for agriculture can help preserve our freshwater resources and increase our resilience to water stress by reducing the water abstraction from rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Agriculture supports the production of food and other agricultural products necessary for the health and prosperity of European citizens. EU is the global leader of agri-food exports, employing over 40 million people. However, the EU agriculture sector is also one of the major users of freshwater resources in Europe, accounting for approximately 50% of total annual water consumption.

Water demand from agriculture is highest in late spring and summer, when water availability is at its lowest in many parts of Europe. Water reuse can ensure that farmers have access to a more predictable supply of clean water and help them adapt to unpredictable water availability, as well as improve resilience to climate change and mitigate its impacts. In addition, reusing water can increase investment in innovative treatment technologies and competitiveness on the market.

The Water Reuse Regulation sets out minimum standards to give EU citizens and businesses confidence in the quality of reclaimed water and agricultural products. It also sets out common monitoring requirements, risk management provisions for possible health and environmental risks, and ensures transparency, so that key information about any water reuse project will be available to the public.

Application of the new rules

The legislative set up

The Water Reuse Regulation is applicable as of 26 June 2023. The Regulation sets out:

  • Minimum water quality requirements in the European Union for the safe reuse of treated urban wastewaters in agricultural irrigation;
  • Harmonised minimum monitoring requirements, notably the frequency of monitoring for each water quality parameter, and validation monitoring requirements;
  • Risk management provisions to assess and address potential additional health risks to human and animals; and possible environmental risks;
  • Permitting requirements for producing and supplying reclaimed water;
  • Transparency, whereby key information about any water reuse project is made available to the public.

State of play in the Member States

The Member States have been preparing for the application of the new rules, with many choosing to integrate the new rules into relevant national law or strategies. Some are also regulating water reuse for applications beyond agricultural irrigation.

Where treated wastewater is reused for irrigation in agriculture, this must be done in accordance with the new rules. However, the Water Reuse Regulation allows Member States to decide not to practice water reuse in their territory or to limit the water reuse in certain areas.

Some Member States, where freshwater resources are abundant and irrigation demand is low, have planned not to allow water reuse for irrigation in their countries. Some Member States have not yet made a final decision, as resource and infrastructure costs still are being evaluated. The map below shows which countries in the European Union currently allow water reuse (April 2024).

Map view: Member States where water reuse for agricultural irrigation is allowed (April 2024)