A Double Challenge: Improving Services for Millions while Meeting EU Standards in the Danube Region

May 8, 2015


  • Many countries in the Danube region face the double challenge of providing water and sanitation services for all of their citizens while also meeting the European Acquis.
  • Over the last two decades, countries along the Danube River basin have made great strides in securing access to modern water services, but more than 22 million people remain without piped water in their homes and 28 million lack flush toilets.
  • A new “State of the Sector” report analyzes the progress made and also the challenges facing 16 countries in delivering sustainable water and wastewater services to everyone in the region.

Most countries in the Danube catchment area share a common lifeline in the Danube River. But, they also share a common double challenge: the need to provide sustainable water resources for every person living in the region, while meeting the high standards of the European acquis communautaire – which includes provisions for drinking water quality and wastewater management.

While access to water and sanitation services in the Danube region is high compared to the rest of the world, a significant number of people still lack access to modern services in their homes. As many as 28 million people in the Danube watershed lack access to flush toilets and more than 22 million live without piped water.

Rural populations and those in the bottom 40 percent of the income range are disproportionally impacted by these issues. Less than 20 percent of the poorest and less than half of the bottom 40 percent of the population have access to a private toilet in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania, for example. And minorities, such as the Roma, generally tend to have lower access to water and sanitation than the rest of the population.

These challenges are not resolved through access alone, however. The efficiency, sustainability and affordability of the available services are also key elements to improving the living standards of the population. 

Addressing these diverse, yet interconnected, challenges across different countries – all facing their own unique set of challenges – requires analysis that is both broad and deep.


The Danube River basin is the second-largest river basin in Europe, home to a total of 81 million people in 19 countries, a majority of them EU members. The Danube connects with 27 large and over 300 small tributaries from its spring in the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, and is the largest water basin in the EU.

Against this backdrop, a new report, Water and Wastewater Services in the Danube Region: A State of the Sector, aims to provide a roadmap for how to stimulate action and improve services for the tens of millions of people living along the Danube River basin.

The report analyzes the progress and challenges of 16 countries in delivering sustainable water and wastewater services to everyone, while meeting the European Union (EU) environmental acquis. By breaking down water services into the core components of context, organization, access, performance, and financing, the report seeks to encourage and inform a policy dialogue around sector challenges and across national borders, rather than provide a definitive set of policy recommendations.

While significant overall improvements have been seen over the last 15 years, countries across the Danube region still show very different levels of progress in their ability to provide sustainable services for all their citizens. 

The level of progress generally reflects the level of economic development of a given country – with EU members, especially those that joined before 2007, benefitting from a generally stable policy environment and a steady stream of EU funding, while more recent members and candidate countries continue to struggle with public services gaps, especially among the most vulnerable, and underperforming utility service providers. 

Governments and water service providers can implement clear accountability and incentive mechanisms, improved financing strategies – including more targeted and poor-inclusive subsidies – and improved management practices. Broader water sector financing frameworks are also needed to overcome an estimated annual investment gap of more than €2 billion.

In many countries, water service is generally continuous and the quality of the drinking water meets national standards. Despite overall improvements, however, the efficiency of utilities in most countries is below international standards.

Increasing costs have driven increases in tariffs throughout the region to the point where services might become unaffordable for low-income customers in some countries – yet the region is far from implementing the EU’s cost recovery principle.

Despite these challenges, however, there are also real opportunities. The report suggests that countries look closely at the local context to best understand and overcome the challenges that undermine the ability of these institutions to deliver. History has shown that the water and wastewater sector is open to change – and if governments base their efforts on solid analysis, they can continue to build a positive momentum for the sector.

EU integration does pose a challenge – but it is also a tremendous policy and financing opportunity for many countries.

Finally, the sector can count on a strong technical workforce which, together with reforms at managerial levels and in terms of accountability mechanisms, has great potential to move the sector forward and secure access to high performing water services for all the people in the Danube region.