Water abstraction

Page Last modified 07 Nov 2018
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Overall, the region abstracts a relatively small portion of its total renewable water resources each year.

Total water abstraction in the region is about 350 km3/year. In other words, approximately 10 % of Europe’s total freshwater resource is abstracted annually.

To ensure water supply many countries have built reservoirs. Three countries - Spain, Turkey and Romania - are able to store more than 40 % of their long-term annual available (LTAA) resource, but also countries such as Cyprus, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Sweden and the Czech Republic have high storage capacities. Although such structures are beneficial for securing supply at critical moments, they adversely affect the regional water cycle and sediment transport. Moreover, they act as barriers for migrating aquatic species, e.g. salmon and sturgeon.

Water-stressed countries are often identified in terms of the water exploitation index (WEI), which is the total water abstraction divided by the long-term available annual resource (see figure WEI). The warning threshold for WEI which distinguishes a non-stressed from a stressed country is around 20 %. Severe water stress can occur where the WEI exceeds 40 %, indicating unsustainable water use.

Water exploitation index. Total water abstraction per year as percentage of long-term freshwater resources in 1990 and 2002

Water exploitation

Source: EEA Core set indicator 18 Use of freshwater resources

In Europe, there are eight countries that can be considered water-stressed (Germany, England and Wales, Italy, Malta, Belgium, Spain, Bulgaria and Cyprus), representing 46% of Europe's population. Only in Cyprus does the WEI exceed 40 %. However, it is necessary to take high water abstraction for non-consumptive uses (cooling water) into account in Germany, England and Wales, Bulgaria and Belgium. Most of the water abstracted in the other four countries (Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta) is for consumptive uses (especially irrigation) and there is therefore higher pressure on water resources in these four countries.

The WEI decreased in 17 countries during the period 1990 to 2002, representing a considerable decrease in total water abstraction. Most of the decrease occurred in the new EU Member States, as a result of the decline in abstraction in most economic sectors. This trend was the result of institutional and economic changes. However, five countries (The Netherlands, the UK, Greece, Portugal, and Turkey) saw their WEI rise in the same period due to increases in total water abstraction.

Total water abstraction in Europe has decreased by more than 20 % over the last 15 years. The decrease was fastest between 1991 and 1997. The percentage reduction in water abstraction was largest (35 to 40 %) in central Europe. In the northern and western EEA countries the reduction was only 15 %. By contrast, in southern European countries water abstraction increased by more than 15 %, in particular due to increased water abstraction in Turkey.

Publications and links

Epaedia:  Europe's freshwater - Supply and demand 

Epaedia: How we use freshwater


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