Well-intentioned, but unsuitable: EU regulation on water reuse in agriculture

Competition for water resources between agriculture, industry and public water supply is increasing. In view of the increasing demand, a European regulation on the possibilities of water reuse in agriculture is urgently needed. It is therefore logical that the EU Commission has drawn up a draft law on the subject and submitted it to European bodies for consultation. But in its current form the proposal not only misses opportunities, but also ignores urgent environmental concerns. In a discussion paper, water experts of ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research comment on the proposed draft EU regulation and make recommendations for a revision.

The persistent drought during  the summer months of this year  has shown in Germany as well what kind of damage occurs when the availability of water is limited. Drinking water has become scarce in many places, agriculture has to adapt to harvest losses, cities and communities are facing additional investments in dried out green areas. In the course of climate change, new processes are required  in order to make water available for different areas in sufficient quantity and quality.

Drinking water quality is not mandatory for all areas of application. Especially for the irrigation of green areas and gardens, but also for toilet flushing or car washing the use of drinking water is not mandatory. Technically speaking, treated water has long been a reliable alternative source of water: in industry, at home and in agriculture. What is missing is a legal regulation that can be applied throughout Europe and that covers the use of innovative processes and water reuse according to the principle of recycling management.

Environmental protection: amendments to the draft law are necessary

At the end of May 2018, the EU Commission submitted a draft law to the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, and the national parliaments to regulate water reuse in Europe. From the point of view of the water experts of ISOE, this draft is still in need of improvement in many parts. “A promising regulation for water reuse must be consistent with health protection, occupational safety and environmental protection,” says ISOE water researcher Engelbert Schramm. However, the draft does particularly not pay enough attention to environmental protection. For example, it will make disinfection mandatory in future, but the use of chlorine, as used in many member states for this purpose, will not be regulated. However, this form of disinfection causes organochlorine compounds to enter the environment.

Agriculture must switch to less water-intensive production methods

Schramm and the other authors of the ISOE discussion paper consider it a major deficit that the main effect of the regulation – namely to strengthen agriculture against drought – cannot be achieved with the proposed legal means. “This would require the creation of a climate adaptation strategy for European agriculture that pursues the objectives of circular economy,” says Schramm. Agriculture must concentrate on particularly efficient production methods that are not overly water-intensive. “Switching to alternative water sources is important, but has not sufficiently been implemented in the regulation,” says co-author Martina Winker. “The thirst of agriculture can only be satisfied by innovative and sustainable production methods.” Examples include hydroponic systems, which, in contrast to conventional agriculture, require little water.

In addition, the techniques for water treatment prescribed in the draft law are too general, and central definitions are inadequately formulated or do not exist at all. The possible areas of application are also not sufficiently spelled out. “The great potential  of sustainable water reuse is not reflected in the draft,” says Engelbert Schramm.

Schramm, Engelbert/Thomas Dockhorn/Björn Ebert/Martina Winker (2018): Wasserwiederverwendung im Gemeinschaftsrecht/Water reuse in European Communities law. Kritische Hinweise zur geplanten EU-Verordnung/Critical comments on the planned EU regulation. ISOE-Diskussionspapiere, 43. Frankfurt am Main: ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung

Back to list