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new f2Environment: Urban wastewater trends moving in the right direction

The latest figures for wastewater treatment in Europe show improvements in collection and treatment, even if big differences remain between Member States. Frontrunners such as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands largely meet European Union minimum standards for wastewater treatment with several others being very close. Newer Member States, starting from a lower baseline, have also improved overall collection and treatment, despite lower compliance rates. This progress comes with significant European Union investment support, amounting to EUR 14.3 billion between 2007-2013.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "Wastewater treatment is one of those fundamental tests for society: are we cleaning up the mess we create, or are we fouling the environment we depend upon? I am relieved to see the trends going in the right direction, and I am also happy to see that Commission action, a mix of financial support and tough legal action when necessary, has paid dividends for Europe's citizens."

The report shows that the vast majority (91 %) of the pollution load from the European Union's big cities receives more stringent treatment, a considerable improvement on the situation in the previous report (77 %).

In addition, better water treatment and fewer raw sewage discharges into the environment have also undoubtedly improved bathing water quality (see IP/13/445). In the early 1990s, only around 60 % of bathing sites had excellent quality water, whereas today that figure is 78 %.

Under European Union legislation agreed back in 1991, Member States are obliged to have systems for collecting urban waste water in place, and they have to ensure that water entering collection systems undergoes appropriate "secondary" treatment to remove pollutants. Wastewater entering sensitive areas (such as bathing sites or drinking water reservoirs, for example) must undergo an additional more stringent form of treatment.

The latest report covers the period 2009/2010. The main findings are:

  •     Collection rates were at a very high level, with 15 Member States collecting 100 % of their total polluting load. All had maintained or improved previous results, although compliance rates remained below 30 % in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia and Slovenia.
  •     Compliance rates for secondary treatment are 82 %, up four points since the previous report. But there were huge differences between the European Union-15, where rates were in the range 90-100 %, and European Union-12, where average compliance was 39 %.
  •     Compliance rates for more stringent treatment to combat eutrophication or reduce bacteriological pollution that could affect human health were 77 % overall. European Union-12 Member States averaged only 14 %, whereas Austria, Germany, Greece, and Finland reached 100 % compliance.
  •     The share of European Union territory designated as a sensitive area increased by two points since the previous report, reaching almost 75 %. The biggest increases took place in France and Greece.

The report shows that the vast majority (91 %) of the pollution load from the European Union's big cities receives more stringent treatment, a considerable improvement on the situation in the previous report (77 %). But an annex to the report comparing the situation of 27 European capital cities adds a note of caution: only 11 of the 27 had an adequate collecting and treatment system in place – despite the fact that the standards were set more than 20 years ago.


Towns, cities and settlements across the European Union are required to collect and treat their urban waste water under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. Untreated waste water can be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses and thus presents a risk to public health. It also contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous which can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes other life, a process known as eutrophication.

The Directive provides for biological wastewater treatment called ‘secondary treatment’ and, in the catchments of particularly sensitive waters, more stringent treatment. For European Union-15 Member States all deadlines in the Directive have expired, but European Union-12 Member States have extended deadlines, with the latest one expiring in 2018.

Cohesion funds and the European Regional Development Fund play a major role in the implementation of the Directive. In 2009, EUR 3.5 billion were allocated to wastewater infrastructure projects, and EUR 9.7 billion in 2010, with Poland receiving EUR 3.3 billion, Romania EUR 1.2 billion, and Hungary EUR 600 million. For the whole programming period 2007-2013, the European Unioin contribution to waste water investments is estimated at about EUR 14.3 billion.

Compliance rates were higher where costs were recovered and the "polluter pays" principle implemented. The Commission is promoting compliance through continued dialogue and, where necessary, through infringement procedures, some dating back to 1997. Infringement cases against 10 Member States are still open.

For more information:

Link to the report:

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