Main authors: Cors van den Brink, Sarah Zernitz, Alma de Vries
Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »van den Brink, C. et al. (2021) Lessons Learned and Recommendations for Water Safety Plans. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 2.4, 97 pp


Waterborne diseases are still an important health concern in the world. Many people all over the world lack access to safe drinking water. This has significant health consequences and impedes socio-economic development. During the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) era, the access to improved water supplies has increased. However, monitoring was focused on the access to water. With the start of the Sustainable Development Goals era, this has changed. Through Sustainable Development Goal 6, “countries around the world have expressed strong political will to ensure drinking-water is universally safe” (World Health Organization, 2017, iii). Coupled to SDG6 is an indicator which facilitates the measurement of the SDG target 6.1 (By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking-water for all). With this, the attention has shifted to improving water quality of water supplies – ensuring that the water supplied is safe.

Safe drinking water is vital for the health and wellbeing of all. However, providing safe drinking water can be a complex challenge. “An estimated 663 million people remain without access to an improved source of drinking-water. Many more still lack access to safe drinking-water, with at least 1.8 billion people relying on water sources that are faecally contaminated” (World Health Organization, 2017, iii). In order to ensure the safety of a supply, proactive water supply system management is required (World Health Organization, 2017).

Since the mid-1970s European drinking water policy has been in place. This has proved to be an important element for ensuring high drinking water quality throughout the European Union. The European Drinking Water Directive (DWD) lays down the obligations for Member States in “providing clean and wholesome water to all citizens receiving their drinking water through a water supply serving more than 50 persons, through a smaller commercial water supply or through a supply which is public.” The European Drinking water Directive (DWD) 98/83/EC set the legal framework to protect human health from the adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean. Preventive safety planning and risk-based elements were only considered to a limited extent in Directive 98/83/EC.

The evaluation of the DWD (EC 2016) assessed the coherence with the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and identified a missing link in the DWD as regards protecting drinking water resources. Therefore, the 2018 proposal for a recast of the DWD is introducing a risk based approach from abstraction to tap, and improving communication between Member States’ authorities and water suppliers to ensure there is a full governance cycle for water. The proposal aims to improve coherence between the two Directives and ensure that the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle both apply.

On 16 December 2020, the European Parliament formally adopted a revised Drinking Water Directive. The revised Drinking Water Directive comes as a result of the REFIT evaluation, the implementation of the Commission's response to the European Citizens' Initiative 'Right2Water' and as a contribution to meeting the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The limited reliance on a risk-based approach was identified as one of the areas in which improvement could be made (Klaassens, 2015). Furthermore, the Right2Water initiative displayed that part of the population, in particular marginalised groups, has no access to water intended for human consumption. Providing such access is a commitment under Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The concept of a water safety plan introduced in 2004 by the WHO has become more important in particular in response to microbiological-related challenges. It offers opportunities to concentrate time and resources on risks that matter and to avoid analyses on non-occurring parameters, in particular in small supplies with risks easy to survey (EC, 2016). These elements of a risk-based approach are taken up in the recap of the DWD.

Thus, the renewed Drinking Water Directive is not restricted to obligations related to the monitoring and sampling of water supplies. In effect, it requires Member States to identify, analyse and assess risks to the safety of the supply. This requires a risk assessment / risk management approach (RA/RM) based on the following three components:

  1. “Identification of the hazards associated with the catchment areas for abstraction points (“risk assessment and risk management of the catchment areas for abstraction points of water intended for human consumption”), in line with the WHO Guidelines and Water Safety Plan Manual.
  2. A possibility for the water supplier to adapt monitoring to the main risks and to take the necessary measures to manage the risks identified in the supply chain from the abstraction, treatment, storage and distribution of water (“risk assessment and risk management of the supply system”).
  3. An assessment of the potential risks stemming from domestic distribution systems, such as Legionella or lead (“risk assessment of the domestic distribution systems”), with special focus on priority premises. Those assessments should be regularly reviewed, inter alia, in response to threats from climate-related extreme weather events, known changes of human activity in the abstraction area or in response to source-related incidents.

The risk-based approach should ensure a continuous exchange of information between competent authorities and water suppliers.” (European Commission, 2020) The risk-based approach should be applied by all water suppliers, including small water suppliers, as the evaluation of Directive 98/83/EC showed deficiencies in its implementation by those suppliers. The second River Basin Management Plans (RBMP) shows that for drinking water protection, most member states have defined, or are in the process of defining, specific zones including specific water protection measures and apply basic measures. In several countries, there are also supplementary measures. Safeguard zones around drinking water abstractions are established for nearly 80% of the RBMPs (EC 2019a). While basic measures are mandatory in most cases, the supplementary measures are mostly applied on a voluntary basis and are linked to the EU Rural Development Programs under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Safeguard zones and drinking water protected areas are established in a majority of EU countries and occupy large surfaces of the countries (up to 21% of country size for safeguard zones) (CIS, 2017/18).

Despite these efforts for drinking water protection, representatives from the water service companies pointed out in the consultation of the Fitness Check of the WFD (EC 2019b) that the need to treat drinking water is increasing, which comes at a cost to consumers.

An example of a RA/RM approach is the Water Safety Plan (WSP) approach. The Water Safety Plan framework is defined as the systematic approach to ensure water safety, covering all stages of water supply production and distribution from catchment to consumer. The concept of WSPs was introduced in the third edition of the WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality (GDWQ) and the International Water Association (IWA) Bonn Charter for Safe Drinking Water in 2004. Water Safety Planning is promoted as the approach that can ensure that the water supplied is safe. The approach of Water Safety Planning has been adopted worldwide. A survey carried out by WHO and IWA in 2017 shows that since its introduction in 2004 WSPs have been implemented in 93 countries, representing every region of the world (World Health Organization, 2017, 2). However, 30% of the implementing countries have not yet moved from the early adoption stage to wider implementation (World Health Organization, 2017, 2). Especially for small supplies, WSP adoption has been low. Furthermore, the quality of drinking water that is supplied by these small systems does not always meet the standards as laid out in the European Drinking Water Directive 98/83/EC.

Agriculture is one of the sources of pollution that can be identified in the Water Safety Plan. Agriculture is the biggest source of pesticides and nitrate pollution in European fresh waters (call text). The quality of groundwater and surface water (used to produce drinking water) impacts greatly the level and cost of treatment. Diffuse pollution as a result of the use of pesticides and fertilisers remains an obstacle to achieving the Water Framework Directive objectives (call text). Monitoring this pollution is challenging, since there is a high number of registered pesticides, the analyses are costly, and there is a need for samples to be taken during periods of application and use and in diverse weather conditions. Furthermore, the time dynamics, with the delay between activities above the ground and the reaction in the groundwater is challenging. The Water Safety Plan, as a RA/RM approach, is a tool that helps to overcome these challenges and can help to improve/preserve the quality of drinking water resources from agricultural pollution.

It has been 15 years since the Water Safety Plan approach was first coined. Over the years, research has been done on uptake, and manuals/guides have been produced on how to set up a Water Safety Plan. In this section of FAIRWAYiS we focus on agricultural pollution and go into depth on how to carry out the specific steps of the assessment of vulnerability, hazards and risks. Through this, it aims to raise awareness on the benefits of water safety planning, build capacity for successful WSP implementation, and contribute to the development of appropriate monitoring and decision-support tools that help to develop and implement governance models to preserve the quality of drinking water resources.


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