From huge problems with pollution, Poland is now facing the positive challenges of EU membership. With knowledge sharing, Poland is a cleaner country

Poland is one of the countries that suffered the most during the Second World War. Our country’s course took a dramatic and unexpected turn in the post-1939 period. The country came under the influence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and suffered many decades of having its natural resources overexploited.

The liberation of Eastern and Central Europe from the USSR began in Poland and the first free elections for the Polish parliament took place in June 1989. From then on, the transformation of Poland from a former communist satellite state to a modern independent country moved quickly. In Athens in April 1994, Poland applied to join the European Union, becoming an EU Member State in May 2004. Its integration is a dynamic and continuously ongoing, and sometimes difficult, process.

20th century pollution

Environmental protection is one of the greatest challenges to EU integration. During the 20th century, Polish industry had an extremely negative impact on the environment, using a lot of energy, water and mineral resources, while polluting air, rivers and lakes. In addition, cities didn’t have appropriate water and waste water infrastructure and a lot of untreated waste water was transported by the Oder and Vistula rivers to the Baltic Sea.

Polish experts were aware that they needed know-how, new procedures, new investments and new approaches to tackle this problem. EU integration allowed Poland to develop a huge environmental protection programme. Before 2004, the country used pre-accession funds like Phare, the Instrument for Structural Policies for Pre Accession (ISPA) and the Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development to do this. ISPA was created in 1999 to support investment in transport and environmental protection infrastructure.

Between 2004-06, Poland was the biggest beneficiary of EU grants. In its first three years of EU membership, the European Commission allocated €12.9bn of community funds, which were combined with €4bn of Polish public and private funds. Poland needed not just new infrastructure but also knowledge, expertise and support from more experienced Member States.

From 2007-13, Poland participated in the third stage of the Cohesion Fund and European Regional Development Fund. The water sector is benefiting from EU financial support. The most important challenges concern the implementation of the EU directives such as the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/ EC), the Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC) and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC) (UWWTD).

The implementation of all the accession treaty commitments continues to be a huge challenge for the country. However, it isn’t only solved through implementing new solutions and technologies; we have to change mentalities as well as organisational and management procedures.

Thanks to EU integration, Poland received significant support in doing this from the European institutions and other Member States through funds, technology, knowledge and best practices.

Implementing the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

During the accession negotiations, the transitional periods for the implementation of the UWWTD were permitted. Poland was obliged to implement the directive before the end of December 2015.

The Polish government developed the National Programme for Urban Waste Water Treatment (NPUWWT) to manage the process of implementing the directive. The programme entered into force in 2003. It included a list of agglomerations above 2.000 pe (population equivalent), with their needs, planned investments on waste water collection systems and treatment plants.

The first version contained 1.378 agglomerations where 1.163 waste water treatment plants had to be built, extended or modernised. The programme also included plans to build 21.000km of sewage networks. The NPUWWT has periodically been revised to verify how municipalities manage their projects. It was already updated four times and the fifth update is currently under development.

Although many waste water treatment plants were built before 2000, they didn’t meet the requirements of the UWWTD. Thanks to the pre-accession funds, the process of the modernisation of the waste water infrastructure began before Poland entered the European Union. Between 2003-14, with EU financial support, 376 new waste water treatment plants were built and 1.206 were extended or modernised. Agglomerations gained more than 76.000km in sewage networks. The investment value exceeded €14bn.


Implementation problem

Unfortunately, the deadlines were not observed. The National Water Management Authority estimates that the requirements of the directive are met by 50% of urban areas. In addition, due to a misunderstanding between the Polish Ministry of the Environment and the European Commission, the national plan for the implementation of the UWWTD was based on article 5.4 instead of article 5.2, which would have allowed Poland a transition period.

This error was only identified in 2011. Once it was detected, Poland introduced amendments to the relevant regulations, agglomerations had to revise their plans and the NPUWWT was updated. As a result, the amount and the value of indispensable investments increased.

For this reason, waste water management should remain one of the priorities of environmental policy in Polish cities. Addressing this challenge would not be possible without the participation of private partnerships and international cooperation, which for Poland provides the administrative, operational and technological solutions as well as innovative methods of financing. The estimated value of planned investments exceeds €7bn. Because of increasing amounts of treated waste water, a new challenge has emerged. In 2015, urban waste water treatment plants produced 568 tonnes of dry matter sludge. At the end of the 19th century, sludge had been stored or used in agriculture; however, its growing volume and a recent prohibition of its use for landfill mobilised utilities to find innovative solutions to using it.

The access to available technologies used in the EU became crucial. Currently, Polish companies have free access to the best available techniques existing in Europe but can also exchange experiences with other countries.

Drinking water

An analysis of statistical data for European countries shows that Polish water resources are modest. In spite of quite heavy precipitation, almost 75% of rainfall is allowed to evaporate. Poland has similar problems to other EU Member States related to drinking water quality, especially in medium and small cities and villages.

Of course, water resources depend on the region and the type of water (surface water, groundwater). However, if there are shortages of drinking water, they are usually local and temporary, caused by the inefficiency or the lack of water plants and not by insufficient water resources. Industry, especially the energy sector, is in a more difficult situation since low water levels on rivers cause seasonal operational problems. Another problem concerns the drinking water quality.

The implementation of the Drinking Water Directive has motivated Polish municipalities to invest in drinking water technologies and network extension. Between 2000-15, the length of the supply network increased by 30%.

During that period, €3.5bn was spent on the water network, €4bn on treatment plants and €1.3bn on intakes. Most of the investments came from EU funds or grants.

Water operators have a major impact on water use by implementing solutions that reduce the amount of leaked water and educating consumers about proper water use. Furthermore, modern household appliances use less and less water. Naturally, reductions may also be caused by prices, which in Poland rose significantly.

Due to these factors, the use of water in some Polish cities has reduced to a quarter of what it was 20 years ago. For example, in the 1990s, Warsaw was estimated to use approximately 450 litres per citizen per day. Today, it’s less than 100 litres.

But it is fair to say, only very few cities are investing in new technologies to achieve better control and effective management of water consumption. This is why the implementation of smart networks and systems is necessary.

Organisation of the water sector

Technical challenges are important for the water sector. Although they are difficult and costly, they have clear rules. Organisational issues are much more complicated. In 1990, local government and territorial reforms took place. It was a significant change from a centralised economy towards the local management of communal services.

All regional state enterprises responsible for water services were split between municipalities. Municipalities were autonomous in deciding how their local water services were managed: to outsource, privatise or manage in-house. Currently, most municipalities manage water utilities themselves. In addition, EU funds didn’t mobilise governments to look after external (for example, private) sources of financing. Of course, it will change when EU funding ends.

EurEau membership

The Polish association of water utilities, Izba Gospodarcza Wodociągi Polskie (IGWP; Economic Chamber Polish Waterworks), has been a member of EurEau since 2004. For IGWP, EurEau is the most important source of knowledge about water issues and regulations. EurEau is not only a platform for the exchange of knowledge; it gives a unique opportunity to share experiences between experts working for the federation. It’s a significant part of our EU integration.

By Dr Klara Ramm, water expert at IGWP – the Polish Waterworks Chamber of Commerce

Read more: Water Matters

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