Revised Water Directive means safer EU tap water

by Peter Easton, Senior Advisor Water and Sustainability

30 October 2020 | Reading 3 mins.

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When we fill our glass of water from the tap, we rarely stop to think about the controls that ensure it is safe. Luckily for us, the EU has drinking water as safe as anywhere in the world, but we rarely consider how this is achieved. These controls and the principles for safe drinking water are governed by the Drinking Water Directive.

Since its publication in 1998, the Drinking Water Directive has been a success story of EU legislation. But emerging contaminants, environmental protection, and the human right to safe drinking water all present fresh challenges that it needs to be adapted to. The 2016 REFIT evaluation of the original directive concluded it was successful, achieving more than 99% safety compliance, but that there were still areas for improvement.

Increased risk assessment

The original directive focuses on which parameters to test, as well as their limits and monitoring frequencies. Compliance can be achieved through comprehensive treatment processes. But each additional treatment barrier brings an added cost and sometimes risk, for example, that of disinfection by-products.

The new directive establishes that safety also depends on protecting the natural environment and our water sources.

In line with the trend in EU legislation, the new directive applies greater emphasis on risk assessment. It also updates the parameter requirements, introduces standards for water contact materials, and addresses the human rights perspective of access to safe drinking water for all.

This approach to testing parameters recognizes it is unrealistic to simply keep adding new ‘contaminants of potential concern’ – something that can substantially increase analysis costs and divert attention away from the most critical and higher risk parameters.

A risk assessment approach identifies priority parameters and provides greater consumer protection.

For more on emerging contaminants, click here

Safer drinking water for everyone

There have been several key changes to the Drinking Water Directive to ensure greater safety:

  • Water Safety Plan approach (from WHO) – The water supplier must undertake a risk assessment on three key parts of the water supply chain in order to define the final list of parameters and monitoring frequencies on a case-by-case basis:
    1. The water catchment: its extent, land uses and risks posed – linking directly to the Water Framework Directive principles for human and environmental protection.
    2. The water supply infrastructure: pipes, treatments and storage reservoirs.
    3. The household water system: the infrastructure in private property not under direct control of the supplier.
  • Updated parameter list and limits – New parameters have been added – mainly manmade chemicals and some limits have been adjusted.
  • Watch list – A new watch list will be created of parameters with potential concern such as pharmaceuticals, endocrine-disrupting compounds and micro-plastics, but whose risk does not yet justify full inclusion. Where appropriate, they will be given a guidance value to be taken into account in the risk assessments.
  • Materials in contact with drinking water New EU-wide safety standards to be introduced for materials in contact with water such as pipes and containers.
  • Universal access to water – Responding to the citizens’ initiative Right2Water, Member States will be required to identify vulnerable and marginalized groups who lack safe water access. They will also have to improve access via new connections and/or public taps, and to raise awareness on access and safety.
  • Transparency – Additional requirements to inform consumers on quality results, the cost of water, and the volumes they consume.

This updated Drinking Water Directive is allowing us to ‘borrow’ our water from the water cycle both wisely and safely. In doing so, the EU is securing the quality and safety of our drinking water for generations to come.


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