Freshwater use

Briefing Last modified 19 Dec 2018
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Freshwater use

Indicator

EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Use of freshwater resources

Green triangle: improving trend

Water abstraction should stay below 20 % of available renewable freshwater resources — Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe

Stable or unclear trend

While the area in the EU that was affected by water stress reduced, hotspots for water stress conditions are likely to remain given continued pressures such as climate change, increasing population and urbanisation

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017

 

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) aims to ensure that, by 2020, water stress – stress on renewable water resources – is prevented or significantly reduced in the EU. Water is an essential component for preserving biodiversity and maintaining other freshwater ecosystem services such as water supply. Freshwater also serves as a vital input to economic activities across Europe, including agriculture, industrial activities and tourism.
While freshwater is relatively abundant in the EU, water availability and socio-economic activity are unevenly distributed, leading to major differences in water stress levels across the continent. With the exception of some northern and sparsely populated areas that possess abundant freshwater resources, water stress occurs in many areas of the EU, particularly in the Mediterranean and parts of the Atlantic region, because they are confronted with a difficult combination of both a severe lack of freshwater and a high demand for it.

Overall, the EU area affected by water stress decreased over the period 2002 and 2014. A key reason behind this was a decrease in water abstraction as a result of efficiency gains in electricity cooling, agriculture and public water supply.
While efficiency gains in water abstraction are likely to persevere in the period to 2020, hotspots for water stress conditions are nevertheless likely to remain, given continued pressures such as climate change, increasing population and ongoing urbanisation. It therefore remains uncertain whether or not water stress can be prevented or significantly reduced by 2020 across the EU. It is indeed important that water abstraction respects available renewable resource limits in order to prevent or significantly reduce water stress.

Setting the scene 

The 7th EAP aims to ensure that, by 2020, stress on renewable water resources is prevented or significantly reduced in the European Union (EU, 2013). This briefing presents trends in the use of freshwater resources. Water is an input to key economic sectors such as agriculture, industry and tourism, and it is an essential component for preserving biodiversity and maintaining other freshwater ecosystem services such as water supply. It is therefore important that water use - as measured by the Water Exploitation Index plus (WEI+) – respects the limits of available renewable freshwater resources and that water stress be prevented or significantly reduced. For more information on WEI+ see the ‘About the indicator’ section of this briefing.

Policy targets and progress

The EU’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (EC, 2011) includes a milestone for 2020 that ‘water abstraction should stay below 20 % of available renewable freshwater resources’. As quantity and quality of water are closely linked, achieving ‘good’ status under the Water Framework Directive (see Surface waters briefing, AIRS_PO1.9, 2017) also requires ensuring that there is no overexploitation of water resources.

On average, over the 2002-2014 period, 12.1 % of the EU (and Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) territory was affected by water stress. Water stress decreased over this period. 12.7 % of the EU (plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) area was affected by water stress in 2002 and in 2014 the affected territory was 11 % (ETC ICM, 2017).

Water stress is driven by two important factors: (1) climate, which controls availability of renewable water resources and seasonality in water supply, and (2) water demand, which is largely driven by population density and related economic activities.

While freshwater is relatively abundant in the EU (EEA, 2015), water availability and socio-economic activity are unevenly distributed, leading to major differences in water stress levels across the continent. Except in some northern and sparsely populated areas that possess abundant freshwater resources, water stress occurs in many parts of the EU, in particular in densely populated areas and the Mediterranean (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Water Exploitation Index plus for Europe, 2002 - 2014

Freshwater use static

Source: a) The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR), Member States reporting under Article 7 of Regulation (EC) No 166/2006, b)  Waterbase - UWWTD: Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive – reported data, c)  Waterbase - Water Quantity, d)  European catchments and Rivers network system (Ecrins).

Note: The Water Exploitation Index Plus has been calculated at the sub basin scale on seasonal resolution and then aggregated to river basin district scale. The reference year is 2014 (Q1: January, February, March; Q2: April, May, June; Q3: July, August, September; Q4: October, November, December). The spatial reference data used when estimating the WEI+ is the ECRINS (European catchments and rivers network system). The ECRINS delineation of sub basin and river basin district differ from those defined by Member States under the Water Framework Directive, particularly for transboundary river basin districts. Click on more info to see time series in WEI+ including level of sectorial pressures over freshwater resource

Summer is the period when most water stress occurs. This is due to a combination of factors. Water availability decreases because of hotter and drier conditions, while water abstraction doubles during the summer compared with winter, because people and sectors, such as agriculture and industry, require more freshwater, e.g. for cooling and irrigation. The highest WEI+ for the 2014 summer period was estimated for Spanish and Portuguese islands, Malta and Cyprus (81 %), where tourism and recreational activities put high pressure over the renewable water resources. At the river basin district scale, the highest WEI+ for the 2014 summer period were estimated in the Jarft river basin in Poland (67 %) and in the Segura river basin in Spain (62 %).

Rivers and groundwater aquifers supply more than 80 % of the total water used in Europe annually.

Around 17 river basin districts, mainly in Spain, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Poland and the United Kingdom experienced water stress conditions during the summer months in 2014. This was because of relatively low net precipitation with large variations within and between years, combined with their inability to draw on more distant water sources, as well as intense tourism activities.

In addition, near-shore groundwater aquifers are threatened by seawater intrusion. The situation is worse in summer, when average precipitation is very low and water demand for agriculture and tourism is high. This makes water resource management, particularly on the Mediterranean islands, challenging.

Figure 2 looks in detail into water abstraction by sector. Sectorial demand on water abstraction varies among different regions in the EU. For instance, while agriculture is the main pressure on water resources in southern Europe, water abstraction for electricity cooling and public water supply are the main pressures in western Europe (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Water abstraction by sector, EU

Note:
- East: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia
- South: Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain
- West: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom
Data show the four main sectors.
Early 2000s, early 2010s and latest year were calculated as the averages of 1999-2001, 2009-2011 and 2013-2015 respectively with some limited gap filling (background data files can be obtained on demand).

 
Water abstraction decreased by approximately 9 % between the early 2000s (which is an average gap filled value for 1999-2001) and the latest available ‘year’ (which is an average gap filled value for 2013-2015); data availability by country and sector can be seen in WISE 3 (EEA, 2017a) and in Eurostat, 2017.


The decrease in water abstraction from the early 2000s and up to the latest available ‘year’ was mainly because of efficiency gains in electricity cooling, agriculture and public water supply. The decrease in water abstraction played a key role in the decrease in water stress observed over the period 2002 to 2014 (ETC ICM, 2017).

Looking towards 2020, while efficiency gains in water abstraction at sector level are likely to continue to improve in the period to 2020, hotspots for water stress conditions are likely to remain – primarily in Southern Europe as well as in a number of highly densely populated areas across Europe. This is because of ongoing and projected pressures from climate change – such as increasing droughts in several parts of Europe (EEA, 2017b) – increasing population and ongoing urbanisation. It therefore remains uncertain whether or not water stress can be prevented or significantly reduced across the EU. It is indeed important that water abstraction respects available renewable resource limits in order to prevent or significantly reduce water stress.

Outlook beyond 2020

The long-term vision of the 7th EAP is of an innovative economy in which natural resources are managed sustainably. This includes water resources. However, in the coming years, the consequences of various drivers and pressures including climate change, increasing population and continued urbanisation of floodplain areas will increase the likelihood of flooding, droughts and water scarcity in several regions of Europe (EEA, 2017b). There are many indications that water bodies already under stress are highly susceptible to climate change impacts, and that climate change may hinder attempts to restore some water bodies to good status (EEA, 2017b and ETC ICM, 2017).

If the area under water stress is to be reduced, additional improvements to water efficiency in all sectors will be needed. However, water efficiency improvements alone are unlikely to be sufficient to offset all the additional impacts of climate change on water scarcity in the future. It is therefore likely that water stress will continue to increase beyond 2020.

About the indicator

The WEI+ indicator aims to illustrate water use. It shows the percentage used of the total renewable freshwater resources available. A WEI+ above 20 % implies that a water resource is under stress, and more than 40 % indicates severe stress and clearly unsustainable use of the resource (Raskin et al., 1997).

WEI+ data are available at fine spatial (e.g. sub-basin or river basin) and temporal (monthly or seasonal) scales to better capture local and seasonal variation in the pressure on renewable freshwater resources. The indicator focuses on water quantity. For some aspects of freshwater quality, see the Surface waters briefing (AIRS_PO1.9, 2017).

Data on water use have been derived from various sources such as WISE 3, EPRT-R (EEA, 2017c), UWWTPs (EEA. 2017d) and Eurostat water data (Eurostat, 2017), which have been integrated into the EEA water accounts production database.

For further information on the methodology of the WEI+ see EEA, 2017e and ETC ICM, 2017.

Footnotes and References

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, ‘Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe’, section 4.4 (SEC(2011) 1067 final).

EEA, 2015, Hydrological systems and sustainable water management, SOER briefing, European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/europe/hydrological-systems) accessed 25 August 2017.

EEA, 2017a, ‘WISE 3’ (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/data/waterbase-water-quantity-9) accessed 26 August 2017.

EEA, 2017b, Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016 — An indicator based report, EEA Report No 1/2017, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

EEA, 2017c, ‘EPRT-R’ (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/data/member-states-reporting-art-7-under-the-european-pollutant-release-and-transfer-register-e-prtr-regulation-14) accessed 26 August 2017.

EEA, 2017d, ‘UWWTPs’ (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/data/waterbase-uwwtd-urban-waste-water-treatment-directive-4) accessed 26 August 2017.

EEA, 2017e, ‘Use of freshwater resources (CSI 018)’, (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/use-of-freshwater-resources-2/assessment-2) accessed 15 November 2017.

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, Annex A, paragraph 43(e) (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

European Topic Centre on Inland, Coastal and Marine waters, Zal, N., Bariamis, G., Zachos, A., Baltas, E., Mimikou, M., 2017, Use of Freshwater Resources in Europe — An assessment based on water quantity accounts, ETC/ICM Technical Report 1/2017 (http://icm.eionet.europa.eu/ETC_Reports/UseOfFreshwaterResourcesInEurope_2002-2014/Water_Accounts_Report_2016_final_for_publication.pdf) accessed 26 August 2017.

Eurostat, 2017, ‘Annual freshwater abstraction by source and sector’ (http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_wat_abs&lang=en) accessed 26 August 2017.

Raskin, P., Gleick, P.H., Kirshen, P., Pontius, R.G. Jr and Strzepek, K., 1997, Comprehensive assessment of the freshwater resources of the world, Stockholm Environmental Institute, Stockholm, Sweden. Document prepared for UN Commission for Sustainable Development 5th Session 1997 — Water stress categories are described on pages 27–29.


Briefings

AIRS_PO1.9, 2017, Surface waters, European Environment Agency

 

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

 

Related content

Based on indicators

Use of freshwater resources Despite renewable water is abundant in Europe, signals from long-term climate and hydrological assessments, including on population dynamics, indicate that there was 24% decrease in renewable water resources per capita across Europe between 1960 and 2010, particularly in southern Europe. The densely populated river basinsin different parts of Europe, which correspond to 11 % of the total area of Europe, continue to be hotspots for water stress conditions, and, in the summer of 2014, there were 86 million inhabitants in these areas. Around 40 % of the inhabitants in the Mediterranean region lived under water stress conditions in the summer of 2014. Groundwater resources and rivers continue to be affected by overexploitation in many parts of Europe, especially in the western and eastern European basins. A positive development is that water abstraction decreased by around 7 % between 2002 and 2014. Agriculture is still the main pressure on renewable water resources. In the spring of 2014, this sector used 66 % of the total water used in Europe. Around 80 % of total water abstraction for agriculture occurred in the Mediterranean region.  The total irrigated area in southern Europe increased by 12 % between 2002 and 2014, but the total harvested agricultural production decreased by 36 % in the same period in this region. On average, water supply for households per capita is around 102 L/person per day in Europe, which means that there is 'no water stress'. However, water scarcity conditions created by population growth and urbanisation, including tourism, have particularly affected small Mediterranean islands and highly populated areas in recent years. Because of the huge volumes of water abstracted for hydropower and cooling, the hydromorphology and natural hydrological regimes of rivers and lakes continue to be altered. The targets set in the water scarcity roadmap, as well as the key objectives of the Seventh Environment Action Programme in the context of water quantity, were not achieved in Europe for the years 2002–2014.
Use of freshwater resources While water is generally abundant in Europe, water scarcity and droughts continue to affect some water basins in particular seasons. The Mediterranean region and most of the densely populated river basins in different parts of Europe are hot spots for water stress conditions. During winter, some 30 million inhabitants live under water stress conditions, while the figure for summer is 70 million. This corresponds to 6 % and 14 % of the total population of Europe respectively. Around 20 % of total the population of the Mediterranean region live under permanent water stress conditions. More than half (53 %) of the Mediterranean population is effected by water stress during the summer.   At 46 % and 35 % respectively, rivers and groundwater resources provide more than 80 % of the total water demand in Europe.  Agriculture accounts for 36 % of total water use on an annual scale. In summer, this increases to about 60 %. Agriculture in the Mediterranean region alone accounts for almost 75 % of total water use for agriculture in Europe. Public water supply is second to agriculture, accounting for 32 % of total water use. This puts pressure on renewable water resources, particularly in high population density areas with no water coming from upstream.  Service sector has become one of the main pressures on renewable water resources, accounting for 11 % of total annual water use. Small Mediterranean islands in particular are under severe water stress conditions due to receiving 10-15 times more tourists than they have local inhabitants. 

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