If the well runs dry — climate change adaptation and water

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Article Published 14 Apr 2009 Last modified 11 May 2021
8 min read
'Our water is shut off once or twice a month, sometimes more,' says Baris Tekin from his apartment in Besiktas, an historic district of Istanbul, where he lives with his wife and daughter. 'We have about 50 litres of bottled water in the apartment for washing and cleaning, just in case. If the water is off for a really long time we go to my father's place or to my wife's parents,' says Baris, an economics professor at Marmara University.

The old apartment does not have a water tank of its own so the Tekins' are directly connected to the city's water system. A drought in Western Turkey over the past two years means that water is regularly shut off by the city for periods of up to 36 hours.

Water shortages are not new — Baris remembers them from his childhood. Although improvements in the infrastructure mean less water wasted, the current drought is particularly serious and 'water rationing' during the summer months is a fact of life for the city's 12 million residents.

Impacts of climate change

Extremes of heat and drought, rain and flooding are affecting many parts of Europe.  

Last summer, while Spanish daily newspaper El Pais ran photographs of dry riverbeds, the Guardian in Britain ran alarming headlines about floods. While the local government in Barcelona made plans to import water by ship, the British government assessed its flood defences.

There are many causes but climate change is expected to increase both the frequency and the severity of these events. Even if we do reduce emissions, the historic build up of greenhouse gases will result in some level of climate change — so there will be impacts. Therefore, we will need to adapt — that means assessing our vulnerability and acting to lessen the risks. This analysis of adaptation to climate change focuses on water issues, mainly drought.

Water scarcity and drought

As temperatures rise, southern Europe's reserves of water will drop. At the same time, agriculture and tourism will require more water especially in the hotter drier regions.

An increase in water temperatures and lower river flows in the south will also affect water quality. Increases in extreme rainfall events and flash floods will increase the risk of pollution from storm water overflow and emergency discharges from waste water treatment plants.

In the spring of 2008, water levels in the reservoirs supplying Barcelona were so low that plans were made to ship water in. At an estimated cost of EUR 22 million, six shiploads, each holding enough fresh water to fill ten Olympic swimming pools, were sourced. The fresh water was to come from Tarragona in southern Catalonia, Marseille and Almeria — one of the driest areas of southern Spain. Luckily, May was wet, the reservoirs filled sufficiently and the plans were shelved. However, discussions around diverting water from rivers such as the Ebro and even the Rhône in France continue (1).

Cyprus is experiencing a catastrophic drought. Water demand has been increasing over the past 17 years and is over 100 million cubic metres (m3) of fresh water per year. Over the last three years only 24, 39, and 19 million m3 have been available respectively.

To ease the water crisis water was sailed in from Greece last summer. By September 2008, 29 ships had arrived from Greece. Water shortages in Greece slowed the shipments. The Cypriote government has been forced to apply emergency measures which include cutting water supply by 30 %.

In Turkey, water levels fell consistently last summer, according to the state waterworks authority. The reservoirs supplying drinking water to Istanbul had 28 % of their capacity. The reservoirs supplying Ankara, home to four million people, had only 1 % of its drinking water capacity.

A report from the Water Office on Crete painted an alarming picture of groundwater resources on the island. Aquifers — underground reservoirs — have dropped by 15 metres since 2005 because of over pumping. Seawater has actually begun to creep in, polluting the remaining supplies.

Crisis control is not adaptation

Current droughts and water crisis must be dealt with in the short term to ensure that people have water. However, long-term adaptation policies must also be developed. Governments at local and national level, desperate to boost water supply, are investing in projects such as reservoirs for storing water, water transfer and desalination plants, which make salt water fit for drinking.

Mediterranean countries are increasingly relying on desalination to provide fresh water. Spain currently has 700 desalination plants, which provide enough water for 8 million people every day. Desalination is expected to double over the next 50 years in Spain.

Water shortages are not restricted to Southern Europe. The United Kingdom is constructing its first desalination plant in east London. At a cost of GBP 200m, more than EUR 250m, the facility could supply 140 million litres of water a day, enough to supply 400 000 homes. Ironically, the local water authority constructing the plant loses many millions of litres of clean drinking water everyday, through leaky pipes and poor infrastructure.

Desalination can have a legitimate role to play in long term water management but the process of turning salty water into drinking water is notoriously energy intensive. Some plants now make use of solar energy, which is a positive step. However, desalination is still expensive. Also, the salty brine, a by product of the process is difficult to dispose of and can harm the environment.

Managing our water resources

'It is often over 40 °C here in the summer and the humidity can be very high,' Baris says from Istanbul. 'The local authorities are much better at warning us now and they can usually tell us how long the water will be off — so we can make plans. But, they don't seem to be doing much to deal with the shortage itself — they can't make it rain more, I suppose,' he said.

Regional and national authorities in Turkey, and all over Europe, could better 'manage' water resources. This means taking action to reduce and manage demand instead of simply trying to increase the supply of water.

The Water Framework Directive (WFD), the defining piece of legislation on water in Europe, obliges Member States to use pricing (charging money) for water-related services as an effective tool for promoting water conservation.

Indeed water pricing is one of the most effective methods of influencing water consumption patterns. However, effective water management must also include efforts towards reducing water losses and information on water-efficiency.


Better information will help us adapt

Figure 1: Water exploitation index The Water Exploitation Index (WEI) is a good example of the type of information needed to give an overview of the scale and location of the problems facing us.

In simple terms, the index shows available water resources in a country or region compared to the amount of water used. An index of over 20 % usually indicates water scarcity. As the graph shows, nine countries are considered 'water stressed': Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Italy, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Malta, Spain, and the United Kingdom (England and Wales).

WEI data are available for England and show that the South East and London are especially stressed. This level of information is key in terms of effective adaptation to climate change. By understanding how much water is available in a region, where it's coming from and who uses it, we will be able to build effective local strategies to adapt to climate change.


Looking ahead

An upcoming EEA report considers the Alps, often described as the 'water tower of Europe' because 40 % of Europe's fresh water comes from the mountain range. The Alpine region has experienced temperature increases of 1.48 °C in the last hundred years — twice the global average. Glaciers are melting, the snowline is rising and the mountain range is gradually changing the way it collects and stores water in winter and distributes it again in the warmer summer months, the report says.

The Alps are crucial in terms of water supply, not only to the eight alpine countries, but to a huge part of continental Europe, feeding many of the major rivers. As such they act as an iconic symbol of the scale of the threat and the type of response required. Adaptation strategies and policies must include local, cross border, and EU-wide elements. Seemingly unconnected activities, such as farming and tourism, energy production and public health must be considered together.

Ultimately, adaptation means reconsidering where and how we live now and in the future. Where will our water come from? How we will protect ourselves from extreme events?

EEA studies focusing on land cover show that coastal areas are often where most building is going on. The EEA report, 'The changing faces of Europe's coastal areas' refers to the 'Med wall' and shows that 50 % of the Mediterranean coastline is built on. Water shortages and drought are already an issue in many of these regions. More apartments, more tourists and more golf courses mean increased demand for water. Coastal areas in the North and West of Europe, where increased flooding is expected, are also being rapidly developed.

The integration of adaptation into key EU policies has been limited. However, the European Commission is expected to publish a White paper on adaptation in 2009. A recent EEA report points out that only seven of the 32 EEA countries have actually adopted National Adaptation Strategies for climate change, so far. However, all EU Member states are busy preparing, developing and implementing national measures based on the observed situation in each country.

The joined up thinking necessary for effective adaptation is not well developed but the process is starting.


Mitigation and adaptation

Greenhouse gases are causing our climate to change. Southern Europe is expected to become warmer and drier while the North and North West will most likely become milder and wetter. Overall global temperatures will continue to rise.

EU Member States ag ree that global temperature increases should be limited to 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid severe changes to our climate.

This is the main goal of the EU's 'mitigation' effort. Mitigation efforts are focused on cutting emissions of 'greenhouse' gases. Limiting temperature increases to 2 °C requires as much as a 50 % reduction in global gas emissions by 2050.

However, even if emissions stop today, climate change will continue for a long time due to the historical build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Impacts are already clear in the Arctic, for example. We must begin to adapt. Adaptation means assessing and dealing with the vulnerability of human and natural systems.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are very closely linked. The more successful mitigation efforts are in cutting emissions, the less extensive our need for adaptation.


IPCC, 2007. IPCC report, Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, April 2007.
EEA, 2006. The changing faces of Europe's coastal areas. EEA Report No 6/2006.
EEA, 2008. Impacts of Europe's changing climate — 2008 indicator-based assessment. EEA Report No 4/2008.
EEA, 2009. Adaptation to water shortages in the Alps (in preparation).


(1) On 27 May 2008, the Department of the Environment for the Spanish region of Catalonia said that recent heavy rains have eased the drought in the regional capital of Barcelona, possibly allowing the government to lift restrictions on water use. Reservoirs that were at 20 % of their capacity in March are now 44 % full.


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