Indicator Specification

Water intensity of crop production

Indicator Specification
  Indicator codes: WAT 006
Published 21 Dec 2017 Last modified 20 Dec 2019
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The water intensity of crop production is defined as the total volume of water input (irrigation and soil moisture; measured in cubic meters - m 3 ) for one unit of gross value added generated from the production of all crop types, excluding relevant subsidies on crops (GVA adjusted for subsidies; measured in Purchasing Power Standard - PPS). The lower the value of the indicator, the better the water intensity.

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Justification for indicator selection

The agricultural sector is one of the major users of water resources in Europe, accounting for approximately 40 % of total annual water use. In southern Europe, this figure can exceed 80 % in the summer months (Zal et al. 2017).

With more than 10 % of European territory under permanent water scarcity conditions, high demand for water resources in agriculture - especially during the spring and summer months - constitutes a major pressure on European water bodies. Projections on climate change impacts indicate a significant intensification of water scarcity in southern Europe and the expansion of its impacts to northern regions and mountainous areas. Therefore, the availability of water to all sectors, including agriculture, may decline even further (Zal et al. 2017).

As a result, Europe needs to reduce water abstraction and improve the resource efficiency of water use by its economic sectors, including agriculture (EC, 2011). In practice, this means producing more from less, using resources more sustainably and minimising impacts on the environment (EEA, 2016). In the context of crop production, this means that crops should be grown with less water for every unit of GVA generated.

The water intensity of crop production (WAT 006) measures the total volume of water input to crops against the gross value added generated from crops, excluding subsidies. The indicator supports the assessment of the pressure of crop production on water resources and the sustainability of resource use in crop production. Similar indicator concepts have also been proposed by the United Nations to measure water use intensity by economic activity (UNDESA, 2007) and the water use efficiency in irrigated agriculture (FAO - UN Water, 2018).

Scientific references

Indicator definition

The water intensity of crop production is defined as the total volume of water input (irrigation and soil moisture; measured in cubic meters - m3) for one unit of gross value added generated from the production of all crop types, excluding relevant subsidies on crops (GVA adjusted for subsidies; measured in Purchasing Power Standard - PPS).

The lower the value of the indicator, the better the water intensity.


cubic meter (m3) per Purchasing Power Standard (PPS)


Policy context and targets

Context description

Since 2007, the European Commission has highlighted the challenges arising from water scarcity and droughts, adopting a relevant policy document (EC, 2007), followed by a number of policy reviews in subsequent years. In addition, water has become part of the Resource Efficiency Roadmap, which was adopted by the Commission in 2011. This includes a clear target of keeping water abstraction below 20 % of available renewable water resources (EC, 2011). Where crop production is a significant driver of water abstraction, this would require substantial improvements in decreasing water demand and increasing efficiency of irrigation water use. This strategic approach also constitutes one of the key targets of the Seventh Environment Action Programme, which aims to turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy.

According to the “Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources” (EC, 2012) water efficiency targets should be developed by the river basin authorities in each river basin, which suffers or is projected to suffer from water stress. These targets should be substantiated at sector level (e.g. agriculture, households, industry, energy) and should contribute to the WFD objectives for good status of water bodies. Furthermore, the Commission has developed guidelines that support the integration of water reuse in water resources planning and management in the context of WFD implementation (EC, 2016).

The EU is committed to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDG 6.4 requires: “By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity”.


No specific target or threshold has been set for this indicator.

Related policy documents

  • Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union
    EC (2007). Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union. Brussels, 18.07.07, COM(2007)414 final.
  • Guidelines on Integrating Water Reuse into Water Planning and Management in the context of the WFD
    Common Implementation Strategy for the Water Framework Directive.
  • Resource efficiency in Europe — Policies and approaches in 31 EEA member and cooperating countries
    This report provides an overview of resource efficiency policies and instruments in 31 member and cooperating countries of the European Environment Agency network (Eionet). A detailed survey was conducted during the first half of 2011 to collect, analyse and disseminate information about national experiences in developing and implementing resource efficiency policies, and to facilitate sharing of experiences and good practice. The report reviews national approaches to resource efficiency and explores similarities and differences in policies, strategies, indicators and targets, policy drivers and institutional setup and information gaps. It concludes with some EEA considerations for future policies on resource efficiency which could be considered in developing future resource efficiency policies at the EU and country levels. The analysis is illustrated with short examples of policy initiatives in the countries, described in more detail in the country profile documents available below.

Key policy question

Is the water intensity of crop production in Europe improving?

Specific policy question

What is the state of water intensity of crop production in Europe?



Methodology for indicator calculation

Water intensity of crop production is expressed as the ratio of the volume of water input to crops (irrigation plus soil moisture in cubic meters; m3) and GVA generated from the production of all crop types, adjusted for subsidies (in PPS).

Water input to crops (in m3) consists of:

  • irrigation abstraction - surface water (FSW), which is the water abstraction for irrigation purposes from fresh surface water sources;
  • irrigation abstraction - groundwater (FGW), which is the water abstraction for irrigation purposes from fresh groundwater sources;
  • irrigation abstraction - non-freshwater (NFW), which is the water abstraction for irrigation purposes from non-freshwater sources, including treated saline, brackish or reclaimed water;
  • soil moisture in growing season, which is the total available soil water (TAW) that is retained in the soil profile of arable land and land with permanent crops (or utilised agricultural area, excluding permanent grassland and kitchen gardens) during the growing season (assumed to be April-September). TAW is a fraction of the total amount of rainwater, excluding runoff, evaporation and deep percolation (FAO, 1998).

Irrigation abstraction - surface water (FSW) and irrigation abstraction - groundwater (FGW) can be calculated using the Eurostat data set 'water abstraction for agriculture-irrigation (source: fresh surface and groundwater)'. Irrigation abstraction - non-freshwater (NFW) can be calculated using the Eurostat data sets 'water abstraction for agriculture-irrigation (source: desalinated water)','water abstraction for agriculture-irrigation (source: reused water)' and 'water abstraction for agriculture-irrigation (source: non-fresh water sources, not reported elsewhere)'. Water abstraction is expressed in terms of annual volume per country (million m³ per year). Gap-filling is performed using similar data sets from WISE-3(Water Quantity), OECD and AQUASTAT.

Soil moisture in the growing season can be calculated using the soil water content (in l/m3) that is simulated by the soil water balance model for European Water Accounting (swbEWA). The model has been validated using in situ soil moisture measurements at different locations across Europe (Kurnik et al., 2014). The model outputs have also been used for the calculation of the EEA indicator 'Soil moisture' (LSI 007). The model uses as inputs E-OBS data sets for climatic parameters (e.g. temperature, precipitation). The model outputs have been aggregated over the utilised agricultural areas, which are categorised either as 'arable land' or 'permanent crops'. Aggregation is carried out per country and for the growing season (indicatively: April-September), assuming an indicative soil depth of 2 m.

The utilised agricultural area categorised as 'arable land' or 'permanent crops' can be calculated using the available data set from Eurostat ('Crop statistics'). It is expressed in terms of annual area (ha per year).

Gross value added (GVA) of crop production (in PPS; values at constant prices with 2010 as reference year) is presented at basic prices, adjusted for crop subsidies, and expressed in terms of annual value per country (million PPS per year). This is an approximate measure of the net economic value generated by the producer exclusively from the production of all crop types, which best captures the revenues and the costs accrued by the producer. It can be calculated as follows:

  • crop GVA at basic prices = crop output – crop intermediate consumption – taxes (deductible, e.g. VAT, and non-deductible) + crop subsidies
  • crop GVA at basic prices, adjusted for crop subsidies = crop GVA at basic prices – crop subsidies


  • Crop output is the value of crop production at basic prices (in PPS; values at constant prices with 2010 as reference year) per country per year. Crop production refers to NACE activities A1.1 ('Growing of non-perennial crops') and A1.2 ('Growing of perennial crops') and the value of crop production is an aggregate for all crop types. It can be calculated using the data set 'production value at basic price', which is available from Eurostat ('Economic Accounts for Agriculture'), which includes: cereals; industrial crops, including root crops and pulses; forage plants; vegetables and horticultural products; potatoes; fruits , including olives and grapes; wine, olive oil and other crop products.

Crop intermediate consumptionis the value of intermediate costs at basic prices relevant for crop production (in PPS; values at constant prices with 2010 as reference year) per country and year. It can be calculated using a

  • proxy of available data sets from Eurostat (under 'Economic Accounts for Agriculture'). In specific, Eurostat provides the 'intermediate costs for agricultural output at basic prices' as an aggregate, without further separating into sub-categories (e.g. for crop output, animal output, animal product processing, etc). However, a detailed list of intermediate cost types is also provided ('seeds and planting stock,' 'energy; lubricants,' 'veterinary expenses', etc.), which allows those cost types to be fully or partly associated with crop output. For example, 'seeds and planting stock' and 'plant protection products, herbicides, insecticides and pesticides' can be exclusively associated with crop production. 'Fertilisers and soil improvers' can be relevant both for crop and animal production; but not for other components of agricultural production. Therefore, the relative proportion of crop output to the sum of crop and animal output was used to apportion a share of these figures to crop output. 'Energy; lubricants' can be relevant for all types of agricultural production. Therefore, the relative proportion of crop output to total agricultural output was used to apportion a share of the figures to crop output. None of the remaining intermediate cost types was considered to be associated with crop production, because they are rather related to animal breeding or animal product processing or services, etc.
  • Crop subsidies include EU or national payments to crop farms per country per year. They can be calculated using a proxy of available data sets from FADN. 'Total Subsidies - excluding on investments (SE605)' accounts for subsidies on current operations linked to production, not including payments for investments or payments for cessation of farming activities. 'Gross Farm Income (SE410)' is the rough equivalent of crop GVA at micro-economic level, accounting for output minus intermediate consumption plus the balance of taxes and subsidies. In micro-economic terms, the share (%) of 'Total Subsidies - excluding on investments' out of gross farm income constitutes a rough equivalent of the share of crop subsidies out of crop GVA at macro-economic level. Therefore, once this share is calculated, the crop GVA may be discounted in order to derive the crop GVA, adjusted for crop subsidies. The crop farms considered to calculate both variables are those classified under the TF8 (Type of Farm) classification system as: TF = 1. Field crops; 2. Horticulture; 3. Wine; and 4. Other permanent crops.

The economic values of the indicator are expressed at constant prices, because they make indicator interpretation more straightforward. Any increase in the national GVA at constant prices can be associated with an increase in the amount of the produced output. If the national GVA was expressed at current prices, then a change in the GVA could be also a result of changing prices.

The economic values are expressed in PPS, which is an artificial currency unit accounting for price differences across borders. One PPS can buy the same amount of goods and services in different Member States of the Eurozone using the EUR or in other European countries using other currencies, based on exchange rates between the PPS and those currencies, The exchange rates are called Purchasing Power Parities (PPPs). Expressing values in PPS instead of EUR improves the comparisons between different countries, because it balances the relative differences in purchasing power. Furthermore, the estimation of regional and European aggregates becomes more accurate, because the values being summed are equivalent in terms of purchasing power. Expressing the values in EUR for exploring the trends of the same country across time would be a fit option. However, values in PPS can also capture the country trends in a satisfactory way, as well as trends for regional and European aggregates.

If data are not available for water abstraction or soil moisture or gross value added or subsidies on crops, then the calculation of water intensity of crop production is not conducted for the same country and for the same year.

Methodology for gap filling

No gap-filling is conducted for indicator values. Gap-filling is conducted for underlying data in the following cases: Water abstraction for irrigation purposes from non-fresh water sources or reused water or desalinated water are assumed equal to 0, if not reported. The only exception is reused water for irrigation purposes in Cyprus (2015), where the available value for the previous year has been used (i.e. 2014).

Water abstraction for irrigation purposes from fresh surface water and groundwater sources: France (2014, 2015, 2016) estimated using total agricultural abstraction and historic ratio between irrigation abstraction and agricultural abstraction; Italy (2010) estimated using irrigation water use from FSS 2010 increased by +30% to account for average transport losses before use; Luxembourg (2016) assumed  0 because no irrigated areas were reported.

Soil moisture content for Malta was assumed same with Italy for all years, because of data gaps.

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

•    In areas with significant shares of mixed farming, where crop and animal production are combined, the water intensity can be overestimated, as the indicator focuses on GVA generated from crop production only. In those cases where rainwater and irrigation are used for growing livestock feedstuff on arable land and land with permanent crops, the GVA generated from animal production (e.g. dairy, meat and other animal products) is not included in the calculation of the indicator.
•    The methodology that was used to estimate the soil moisture per country is based on EEA modelling work for European water accounting and further aggregations to capture the suitable temporal and spatial scales. Modelling is a simplistic representation of reality, which introduces a number of systematic or random errors. The aggregation techniques are built on assumptions that may insert distortions of the national values of soil moisture. For example, the growing season is considered unique for all countries and crops, using a generic period between April and September. In addition, the depth of the root zone has been taken as equal to 2 m, which is a reasonable average for crops with shallow roots and crops with deeper roots.
•    Separating crop GVA into two portions, one for 'irrigated growth' and one for 'rain-fed growth' would be ideal, but, despite efforts, it has been very difficult to implement this because crop production aggregates all crops and comprehensive national data on irrigated and non-irrigated yields are lacking.
•    The calculation of the crop GVA required the attribution of a proportion of the agricultural intermediate costs (i.e. the total sector costs) to the crop output level. The method that was developed (i.e. by attributing a proportion of the costs based on the relative size of the crop output to either the agricultural industry or the crop plus animal output, as appropriate) is a fair simplification, but it is expected to increase the uncertainty of the indicator results.
•    Total subsidies excluding on investments as a proportion of gross farm income is an estimation using micro-economic variables. Using the same proportion for apportioning crop subsidies and crop GVA, which are macro-economic variables, introduces uncertainties in the calculations.
•    The PPS does not specifically capture the purchasing power of farmers, but customers in general. Therefore, the calculation of a special purchasing power index, covering farmers’ basket, would be preferable. However, such data are not readily available.

Data sets uncertainty

  • Reported values under 'water abstraction for agriculture - irrigation' are identical to reported values under 'water abstraction for agriculture' (Eurostat dataset: env_wat_abs) for all years in Croatia, France, Malta, Slovenia and Turkey. This would imply that the agricultural sector in those countries extracts no water for animals or other uses, which seems inaccurate. For Finland (2005), the reported volume of irrigation abstraction and irrigated area lead to an extreme application rate of 88,889 m3/ha, so the indicator calculation has been suspended. For Sweden (2005, 2010, 2015), values from Eurostat have been substituted by reported values from the national statistical office (Swedish Statistical Office - SCB), due to high discrepancies.
  • Reported values of irrigation abstraction do not account for unauthorised or unregistered self-abstraction, which is a common issue in many agricultural areas, especially in southern Europe.
  • Several countries, such as Poland and the Netherlands, use dual irrigation/drainage systems (i.e. drainage during wet seasons and submerged irrigation in dry seasons by raising water tables in rivers or groundwater).  It is not clear, if reported volumes for irrigation abstraction account for these practices.
  • No data are available on desalinated water for irrigation purposes, whereas this practice seems to exist in some southern countries, e.g. in Spain, based on international literature (FAO, 2006).
  • The soil water balance model (swbEWA) has been found to overestimate soil water storage, especially for low soil depths near the surface.

Rationale uncertainty

Caution is needed when comparing water intensities between different countries, with significant differences in the structure and characteristics of their agricultural production systems. Such comparisons may not be particularly instructive, whereas comparisons within the same geographic and climatic region may be more informative. Low water intensity of crop production values does not necessarily imply that the country is operating efficiently on all levels, but instead may be an indication that the baseline crop mix/production system is inherently of lower intensity.

Furthermore, annual changes in indicator values can be affected by changes in various agents, such as crop patterns, seed quality, soil fertility, cultivation methods and irrigation infrastructure, weather conditions, water limitations, crop failures (e.g. because of frost, heat or insect attacks), etc. Therefore, interpreting the annual changes in indicator values can be very complex. However, the long-term trends can be more informative on whether water intensity is effectively decreasing.

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Nihat Zal


European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
WAT 006
Version id: 1

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 3 years


DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)


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