Environmental Protection

EEA Calls on Europe to Minimize Water Demand

A new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) recommends that European countries try a new approach to managing their water use.

The EEA report 'Water Resources across Europe -- Confronting Water Scarcity and Drought" highlights that while southern Europe continues to experience the greatest water scarcity problems, water stress is growing in parts of the north, too. Moreover, climate change will cause the severity and frequency of droughts to increase in the future, exacerbating water stress, especially during the summer months.

Excluding illegal water use, Europe abstracts around 285 km3 of fresh water annually, representing on average 5,300 m3 per capita, roughly equivalent to two Olympic-size swimming pools.

"We are living beyond our means when it comes to water. The short-term solution to water scarcity has been to extract ever greater amounts of water from our surface and groundwater assets. Overexploitation is not sustainable. It has a heavy impact on the quality and quantity of the remaining water as well as the ecosystems which depend on it," said Professor Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of EEA. "We have to cut demand, minimize the amount of water that we are extracting, and increase the efficiency of its use."

Shifting the management focus from increasing supply to minimizing demand needs involves various different policies and practices:

  • In all sectors, including agriculture, water should be priced according to the volume used.
  • Governments should implement drought management plans more extensively and focus on risk rather than crisis management.
  • Water-intensive bioenergy crops should be avoided in areas of water scarcity.
  • A combination of crop selection and irrigation methods can substantially improve agricultural water efficiency if backed-up with farmer advisory programs. National and EU funds including the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy can play an important role in promoting efficient and sustainable water use in agriculture.
  • Measures to raise public awareness, such as eco-labeling, eco-certification, education programs in schools, are essential to realize sustainable water use.
  • Leakage in public water supply systems must be addressed. In parts of Europe, water loss via leakage can exceed 40 percent of total supplies.
  • Illegal abstraction of water, often for agricultural use, is widespread in certain areas of Europe. Appropriate surveillance and a system of fines or penalties should be put in place to address the issue.
  • Authorities should create incentives for greater use of alternative water supplies, such as treated wastewater, gray water, and 'harvested' rainwater, to help reduce water stress.

In Europe as a whole, 44 percent of abstraction is used for energy production, 24 percent for agriculture, 21 percent for public water supply, and 11 percent for industry. However, these figures mask significant differences in sector water use across the continent. In southern Europe, for example, agriculture accounts for 60 percent of the total water abstracted and reaches as much as 80 percent in certain areas.

Across Europe, surface waters, such as lakes and rivers, provide 81 percent of the total freshwater abstracted and are the predominant water source for industry, energy, and agriculture. By contrast, public water supply relies mostly on groundwater due to its generally higher quality. Almost all water used in energy production is returned to a waterbody, whereas most of the water used for agriculture is not.

The report is available at http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/water-resources-across-europe/.

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