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Water: too precious a resource to be used just once

Within 20 years, one in five countries will face severe water shortages due to climate change. How can we reduce the pressure on freshwater resources? In addition to reducing consumption, solutions already exist, such as treating and reusing wastewater. An Elabe survey carried out in France for the newspaper La Tribune, shows that 83% of respondents would be willing to drink water produced from wastewater.

Reusing waste water enhances the value of water resources for all applications: irrigating green spaces or crops, fire-fighting, industrial needs, urban cooling, and supplying people with drinking water. However, in Europe, reuse is still an under-exploited solution: 0.6% in France, 8% in Italy, 14% in Spain... but 80% in Israel.

Given the environmental urgency, pragmatism combined with confidence in the technology is overcoming fears

The Elabe survey reveals that 92% of respondents are concerned about ocean and river pollution, 87% about dwindling resources and 84% about the risk of drought. One French person in two is worried about the risk of a shortage of drinking water. But in France, treated wastewater reuse, which is regulated by European legislation on crop irrigation, comes up against fears about the presence of micro pollutants and a psychological barrier. Governments and health authorities are therefore reluctant to encourage treated wastewater reuse. However, 70% of French people think that solutions will be found to deal with the water shortage and 46% are not surprised when they learn that wastewater can be transformed into drinking water. In the event of drought, 87% say they are convinced about the benefits of producing drinking water from treated wastewater. 75% of respondents say they would be willing to use recycled drinking water for growing fruit and vegetables and raising livestock. With only 17% very reticent, the overwhelming majority said they would be willing to drink treated water, provided they receive regular information about water quality, it tastes the same and is cheaper.

People are ready to change their habits to address environmental issues, confirms Philippe Sébérac, Director Technical & Scientific Expertise, Business Support & Performance Department of Veolia.

For example over the last 40 years in Namibia, with Veolia the Windhoek treatment plant transforms 21,000 m3 of wastewater into drinking water in complete safety every day. In Sainte-Maxime, France, every year 300,000 m3 of treated water is used to water the golf course and green spaces. In Pornic, recycled water is used to cool an urban area that is very popular with tourists.

Veolia in France innovates with reuse for agricultural irrigation...

The development of new models is speeding up the deployment of reuse projects: decentralised systems treat water as close as possible to the needs. Smart irrigation systems measure soil and plant water requirements in real time and adapt the amount of nutrients contained in the recycled water used. In water-deficit regions, Veolia optimizes irrigation management: sensors developed by Vegetal Signals measure plant needs, limit water volumes and reduce costs. The Irrialt’Eau project drip irrigates 80 hectares of vineyards in the area around Gruissan with treated wastewater. It has been supported by winegrowers and environmentalist associations since 2011, after a test phase proving the absence of contaminants in the soil and in the grapes. In Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, the project is currently being developed for both vineyards and market gardening. In the Hautes-Pyrénées, in order to optimize productivity without chemical inputs, SFR-SmartFertiReuse is experimenting with irrigation based on crop needs using treated wastewater enriched with nutrients contained in effluents.

Erko, the first Czech beer produced from recycled water

The Czechs regard water recycling as one of the most effective ways of combating drought (according to an IBRS survey for Veolia, conducted among 1,000 people in the Czech Republic between 8 and 12 June 2020).

     In Prague, the Vinoř golf course is already watered with recycled wastewater. To break up the reuse water stigma, we launched the Erko project, which represents the first beer made from recycled water in the Czech Republic. Before being brewed, the water used is treated in three stages: filtration, reverse osmosis and disinfection, explains Ondřej Beneš, Sales and Technical Director for Water at Veolia.

Several countries already allow treated wastewater reuse for drinking water

According to the 2017 WHO and US EPA census, the states reusing treated wastewater for drinking water production and distribution are Australia, California, Texas, Singapore, Namibia, South Africa, Kuwait, Belgium and the United Kingdom. In these countries, reused water replenishes groundwater or surface water (dam). In Brazil and India, projects are under consideration. Recommendations from health and environmental institutions make this practice safe (WHO 2017, USEPA 2012 and 2017, Water Research Australia 2019). Drinking water regulations in each of these countries apply to water produced from treated wastewater.

A European reuse regulation resulting from the "Fork to Fork" strategy

The regulation dated 25 May 2020 on minimum requirements for water reuse*, establishes 4 qualities of water reuse for irrigating crops. Combined with economical crop irrigation, reuse has the greatest impact on water abstraction at source. This regulation, which applies throughout Europe, is part of the "from farm to fork" strategy: all consumers in the European Union will benefit from the same quality of food products through the quality of their irrigation water, without any discrepancies between producing countries.

This text harmonizes the requirements at levels comparable to those set in Australia and California. France, Spain, Italy, Malta, Cyprus and Greece will have to "update" their legislation, while countries that want to get out of it will have to examine their agricultural practices to check that they are not in breach, says Dominique Gâtel, Director of Public Affairs for Water.

French regulations define 4 qualities of treated wastewater: A, B, C and D, based on sanitary objectives, for the irrigation of crops or green spaces. The required quality of water depends on the use, i.e. the type of crop, its subsequent transformation and the irrigation system. For example, market gardening produce, fruit and vegetable crops that are consumed raw require quality A, which is the most stringent. In contrast, in the case of localised irrigation of crops that will be processed without contact between the crop and the water (e.g. drip irrigation of vines), C quality is sufficient.