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News article19 November 2021Directorate-General for Environment

Treating urban waste water: new data shows improvement across Europe

Collection and treatment of waste water are key to reducing pressures and risks to human health and the environment, especially to rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. On the occasion of the World Toilet Day, the European Commission and the European Environment Agency published today new data which shows that over 90% of Europe’s urban waste waters are collected and treated in line with EU standards. Country Profiles on the implementation of EU rules on wastewater treatment show that EU Member States are better applying the rules, with the compliance rate slightly increasing between 2016 and 2018.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, said:

Today, when we remind ourselves that 32% of the world’s population does not have access to basic sanitation and only 39% of people in the world have access to safely managed sanitation, we can be truly grateful and proud of what we have achieved in Europe. Thanks to the successes of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, and massive investments and efforts by national authorities, Europeans now enjoy not only safe and functioning sanitation but also cleaner lakes and river. However, differences among countries remain, and delivering on the ambition of the European Green Deal and the Zero Pollution Action Plan requires new responses. This is why next year we will be looking to improve the EU rules.

Based on information from the Country profiles, four countries – Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – treat 100% of their urban waste water in compliance with the Directive’s requirements, while 10 additional countries have reached more than 90% compliance rate. At the other end of the scale are five countries – Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Malta – that comply in less than half of their urban areas according to the same standards.

The UWWTD Country Profiles show latest data submitted by Member States, but also data that is not reported under the Directive, but nonetheless important for meeting the ambition of the European Green Deal and the Zero Pollution Action Plan, such as trends in emission of greenhouse gases by the urban waste water treatment sector. To better integrate circular systems for water/sludge reuse and recovery of components, the Country Profiles show data per country on waste water and sludge reuse.

The evaluation of the UWWTD Directive in 2019, concluded that, overall, the Directive is fit for purpose but there is room for improvement. Consequently, the Commission will publish an impact assessment in 2022 with the aim of proposing a modernised legal text for the Directive. The purpose of the revision is to align the requirements with the new ambitions of the European Union, as outlined in the Zero Pollution Action Plan, as well as to address a number of areas of improvement that were identified in the evaluation of the Directive. The areas of improvement include:

  • Pollution coming from smaller agglomerations that are currently not covered to the same extent by the Directive or coming from small-scale or individual systems for waste water treatment or from storm water overflows and urban run-off;
  • The Directive does not deal with micropollutants from waste water, e.g., the pollution of surface waters by all kinds of micropollutants including pharmaceutical residues or personal care products residues;
  • More can be done to align the Directive with new ambitions regarding efficient energy use, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the circular economy, notably for what relates to sewage sludge management;
  • The way the Directive covers governance, in particular with regards to transparency, access to justice, affordability, and access to sanitation, is deemed insufficient.


The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive has played a crucial role in improving the quality of the EU’s rivers, lakes and seas and has had a beneficial impact on European citizens’ health, quality of life and access to sanitation. It was adopted nearly 30 years ago, and requires Member States to ensure that their towns, cities and settlements properly collect and treat waste water. Untreated waste water can be contaminated with harmful chemicals, bacteria and viruses and thus presents a risk to human 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 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its study estimates that all EU countries together spend on average EUR 100 billion per year on water supply and sanitation. This needs to increase to meet compliance with the UWWTD and Drinking Water Directive. Total cumulative additional expenditures by 2030 for water supply and sanitation amounts to EUR 289 billion for the 28 Member States.

For more information

UWWTD Country Profiles on WISE-Freshwater platform

Background on the review of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

Summary on the reporting requirements under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

European Environment Agency on UWWTD Country Profiles (press release)


Publication date
19 November 2021
Directorate-General for Environment

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