Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

Page Last modified 24 Jun 2020
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See also CEC/ DG environment: Urban wastewater treatment 

Under the 1991 Urban Waste Water Treatment (UWWT) Directive, the standards for collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater required at each works depends on two factors:

  1. size of the urban area.
  2. classification of the receiving waters, i.e. sensitive or non-sensitive to   eutrophication.

For discharges to sensitive waters, the directive required all urban areas populated by more than 10 000 people to provide primary, secondary and tertiary treatment for their waste by 1998. Meanwhile, for discharges to non-sensitive waters, urban areas with populations greater than 15 000 people were required to provide primary and secondary treatment for their waste by 2000. For both categories, these rules apply to all urban areas with a population of 2 000 or more inhabitants after 2005. The dates have been extended to 2010 for the EU-10 Member States.


Many EU-15 countries have not yet complied fully with the directive. Several have failed to monitor water courses and assess their ecological status, so they can be designated sensitive areas where appropriate. Many have not yet installed the sewage treatment capacity that the directive required by 1998 and 2000. Others are seeking postponements to requirements in order to extend sewage treatment to smaller urban areas by 2005.

Some countries have shown that both successful implementation of the UWWT Directive and subsequent  significant improvements in water quality are possible. These countries include: Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. In France, only 40 % of sewage discharges to sensitive areas meet the required standard. In Spain, supported by substantial subsidies from the EU Cohesion Funds, 55 % of the population is connected to public sewage treatment plants. For the EU-10, Estonia and Poland have enjoyed the most success so far; 70% of Estonia’s and 55% of Poland’s population is served by wastewater treatment plants or connected to sewage plants.

Despite the gaps in compliance, the directive is cutting point sources of pollution to rivers substantially. In both Denmark and the Netherlands, point-source discharges to surface waters have decreased by 90 %. Estonia has also achieved a 90 % reduction in such discharges in a decade.

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