Wasted billions of litres of water in villages

Water resources worldwide are shrinking at a quick pace. An alarmingly low level of clear water is reported in nearly half of the EU countries – less than 3 thousand m³ per person a year. According to UNO, the annual volume of water resources below 1.7 thousand m³ per resident results in the so-called water stress, which is when there is not enough water to meet the demand of people and the environment or when water is non-potable. At the same time, renewable water resources per resident in Poland went down from 1.8 m³ per year in 1972 to 1.6 m³ per year in 2017. In the EU it is worse in this respect only in the Czech Republic, in Cyprus and in Malta.

Annual water resources per resident in 2017
Graphic description

Annual water resources per resident in 2017

Country Total resources Resources per resident
Malta 0.1 0.2
Kosovo 0.3 0.2
Cyprus 0.3 0.4
Czech Republic 16 1.5
Poland 60.2 1.6
Italy 115.8 1.9
Romania 39.6 2
Germany 188 2.3
Belgium 26.3 2.3
Spain 111.1 2.4
Great Britain 172.9 2.6
Luxembourg 1.6 2.7
Denmark 16.3 2.8
France 191 2.9
Netherlands 91.8 5.3
Switzerland 52.4 6.2
Greece 72 6.7
Portugal 73.6 7.2
Lithuania 22.3 7.9
Bosnia and Hercegovina 32.3 8.4
Estonia 12.3 9.4
Austria 86 9.7
Ireland 52.8 10.9
Hungary 116.4 11.9
Bulgaria 100.8 14.3
Slovakia 80.3 14.8
Slovenia 32.1 15.5
Latvia 33.7 17.4
Sweden 196.5 19.4
Finland 110 20
Serbia 172.1 24.6
Norway 371 70.1

Source: NIK's analysis based on Eurostat data

However, water management issues are not only related to the amount of water resources but also to water quality. Water provided for consumption is not always safe for health. For instance, in 2019 the state sanitary inspectors from five audited provinces questioned the quality of nearly 1800 water samples in villages located in those provinces, which made up about 11% of all tested samples. According to the inspectors water was non-potable or potable under certain conditions, e.g. after boiling.

In the context of providing high-quality water, it is extremely important to build sewage systems in rural areas. Improper use of domestic sewage treatment plants, especially the use of leaky septic tanks, may be harmful to the environment and thus have an adverse impact on water quality. The NIK audits on sewage treatment in municipalities revealed mainly ineffective supervision over the way sewage is disposed of in septic tanks. Another finding of NIK was related to the absence of registers (required by the law) of septic tanks or domestic sewage treatment plants.

NIK points out that the access to drinking water and sanitary services has improved in the past decade. The progress is unequal for urban and rural areas, though. According to WHO the access to drinking water and sanitary services in cities may be even four times higher than in villages.

The data of GUS (Central Statistical Office) reveal that about PLN 2.7 billion was spent on water management in 2020, mainly on the construction of infrastructure providing drinking water. The investments in water intake and water supply made up more than half of all outlays on fixed assets in water management.

Huge water losses

In the audited period the water companies reported losses of nearly 5.3 million m³ of water in total.

In over half of the entities the water losses in the audited period exceeded 30% of water produced and pumped into the water system. In 45% of the audited water companies the water losses made up over half of the volume of water sold and in six entities the water losses exceeded 60% of that volume.

The majority of the audited companies took efforts to reduce water losses, including first of all: caulking of the system, liquidation of old water intake facilities, assembly and replacement of water meters as well as modernisation and current repairs of the water system.

Frequent breakdowns of water systems

Frequent breakdowns of water systems were a big issue. In the audited period the companies reported about 1.8 breakdowns in total. In 2019-2021 (1st half), in the audited companies on average 90 breakdowns of the water system occurred in the audited entities.

The breakdown frequency ratio, measured as the number of failures per 1 kilometre of the water system in the audited companies ranged from 0.03 to 3.7.

The water system breakdowns were mainly caused by the poor condition, wear and age of the water system but also damages made in the course of works.

NIK has stressed that breakdowns were frequent but not long-lasting which may prove that ad hoc measures taken by the companies were effective. In 2019-2021 (1st half), one breakdown lasted for four hours on average.

The water companies took various efforts to reduce the failure frequency: reconstruction of the water system, replacement of water system sections or optimisation of water pressure in the system. Continuous monitoring of the network was effective in preventing breakdowns. However, the majority of the audited entities (65%) did not use that solution.

Absence of periodic inspections

Frequent failures of the water system coexisted with irregular periodic inspections. As much as 75% of the audited companies did not commission such inspections: 14 of 20 companies did not make any inspections at all and one entity conducted them only for 1% of the entire water system. Heads of the audited companies explained that problems with periodic inspections were caused among others by the lack of funds or unfamiliarity with the applicable law.

Water quality issues

As many as 80% of the audited companies water not always met the parameters set out in the water quality ordinance. In ¼ of the audited companies at least 20% of water samples were questioned. In one entity only half of tests made by the state district sanitary inspectors confirmed water potability.

The audited companies took remedy actions which were not always effective, though. In one case water was non-potable for about 5 months and in another it was potable under specific conditions since 2013.

In 35% of the audited entities the NIK audit revealed irregularities in terms of controlling water quality by water companies. Main problems included incomplete monitoring of the water system as well as passing with delay or not passing information about exceeded parameters to sanitary inspectors.

Poor technical condition

Water intake facilities missing a fence or a cover, corroded and mossed wells, damp patches and cracks on the walls or a damaged gable vent on the ceiling – these are only some irregularities identified by district inspectorates of the construction supervision. At NIK’s request those units made inspections of 41 water treatment points and 59 sections of the water system.

Corroded water pipe and poor condition of a water intake facility

The poor technical condition of the water systems was related to their age. Most of the systems were from 20 to 60 years old. Interestingly enough, 40% of the entities lacked information on the age of their water systems and more than ⅓ of companies did not know what material they were made of. The lack of basic knowledge about the water systems made it difficult to use, maintain and modernise them. But first of all it made it impossible to properly establish essential revenues and to set a tariff tailored to the scope of activity in terms of collective water supply.

Unprotected water protection areas

In 7 of 20 entities not all water intakes had their protection areas marked, although it is required by the Water Law Act. In nearly half of the audited companies (8 of 20) the areas did not function properly. The main problem was that the protection areas were not kept safe, e.g. the fence was in a poor condition or the gate was open. It also happened that the area was used for purposes other than water intake or some information about the protection area was missing.

A cistern, pipes and the fence in a water intake protection area

Problem with permits required under the Water Law Act

Permits required under the Water Law Act were missing in 7 of 20 audited companies. In line with the Act, such permits are required among others for water intake, water treatment or retention of groundwater or surface waters, sewage collection and treatment. In line with the Water Law Act 30% of the audited entities had to pay more for water use because of the lack of permits.

Besides, more than half of the audited companies did not fully discharge their obligations related to permits required under the Water Law Act. Part of entities failed to test samples of raw water and washing waters, did not measure the capacity of wells and did not make the daily register of abstracted water.

Regardless of the above, in case of ¼ of the audited companies, the volumes of abstracted water exceeded the quantities specified in permits required under the Water Law Act. But the companies did not pay higher fees set out in the Act because the Environmental Protection Inspectorate bodies failed to take relevant decisions.

Costs exceeding revenues, tariff-setting issues and staff shortages

In 2020,  in case of ¼ of the audited companies, costs of collective water supply exceeded revenues in this area. The audited units’ heads often emphasised that the funds they had at their disposal allowed them to finance the current business only. Therefore, the companies’ efforts focused on the water network maintenance or ongoing repairs. On the other hand, investment and modernisation activities related to collective water supply were largely limited. In this context it is crucial to properly develop tariffs above all to guarantee cost-covering revenues. NIK stands in a position that a separate tool is needed to subsidise investments in water and sewage infrastructure in rural areas.

Tariff-setting irregularities occurred in 15% of companies. The auditees were obliged to motivate service recipients to use water in a rational way and reduce sewage pollution. The companies’ employees failed to do this, however, because they stated they were not told how to motivate water service recipients to save water and protect the environment.

The shortage of qualified staff was one of NIK auditors’ findings. The lack of money limited the possibility of obtaining required number of employees. One of consequences was low attendance in training sessions.

Unequal access to the water and sewage system

The NIK audit revealed considerable disproportions in access to the water and sewage system. In the municipalities covered by the scope of activity of the audited entities nearly all residents had access to the water system (95% on average) and only half of them (51% on average) had access to the sewage system. According to the companies’ employees, the residents did not connect their houses to the water and sewage system among others because the buildings were located far from the existing water and sewage systems. Another reason was the lack of money for the construction of water supply pipes. Despite financial problems, the audited entities’ heads did not acquire any external funds in the audited period for tasks related to collective water supply. In 2019, only one company obtained PLN 25 thousand of external funds which it used to buy a car.

NIK’s recommendations

To the Minister of Infrastructure – to amend the Act on collective water supply by adding among others the following provisions on water companies’ obligations:

  • to reduce prices of water delivered to consumers in case the quality or the pressure of water does not comply with effective regulations;
  • technical data on the water system used should be included in the tariff approval request.  

To the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development:

  • to intensify efforts to develop the water and sewage infrastructure in rural areas as part of relevant domestic programmes and programmes co-funded by the EU.

To the Chief Environmental Inspector:

  • make sure the Environmental Protection Inspectorate bodies take effective steps to establish higher fees under the Water Law Act.

To State Water Holding Polish Waters:

  • develop specific and clear-cut instructions on motivating service recipients to use water rationally and reduce sewage pollution, as mentioned in the tariff ordinance.


Article informations

Date of creation:
20 September 2022 12:48
Date of publication:
20 September 2022 12:48
Published by:
Marta Połczyńska
Date of last change:
20 September 2022 14:32
Last modified by:
Marta Połczyńska
Cistern and pipes in a water intake protection area © Adobe Stock

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