Indicator Assessment

Use of freshwater resources in Europe

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-11-en
  Also known as: CSI 018 , WAT 001
Published 23 Dec 2019 Last modified 22 Nov 2021
41 min read

Overall, water abstraction and economic growth in the EU showed absolute decoupling over the period 2000–2017. Total water abstraction declined by 17 %, while total gross value added generated from all economic sectors increased by 59 %. However, water scarcity conditions and drought events continue to cause significant risks in southern Europe, as well as in specific areas of other European regions.

Agriculture remained the sector exerting the highest pressure on renewable freshwater resources overall, being responsible for 59 % of total water use in Europe in 2017. This is mainly because of agriculture levels in southern Europe.

In 2017, 64 % of total water abstraction was from rivers and 24 % from groundwater.

Annual renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant showed a decreasing trend across all regions except eastern Europe over the period 1990-2017. Large decreases were observed in Spain (-65 %), Malta (-54 %) and Cyprus (-32 %). Climate change and population increase exerted high pressures on renewable freshwater resources in Europe over this period.

The increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme droughts and floods enhance the risk of there being reduced volumes of renewable freshwater resources in the future.

Water exploitation index plus (WEI+) for river basin districts (1990-2015)

This interactive map gives a European overview of water stress conditions. The information presented may deviate from that available in the EEA member countries and cooperating countries, particularly for those countries where data availability is insufficient in the WISE SoE - Water quantity database (WISE 3). Data on hydro-climatic variables were aggregated from a daily to a monthly scale. Water abstraction data were taken from WISE 3 (annual resolution at the national scale), although there are large gaps in the time series. Therefore, intensive gap filling was performed on water abstraction data and proxies were used to disaggregate the data from the national to the sub-basin scale. Information on water use was mainly modelled on the UWWTP capacities, the E-PRTR database and the Eurostat Population change dataset (online data code [demo_gind]) among others. See the methodology chapter for further explanation of gap filling, and spatial and temporal disaggregation, and the data uncertainties chapter for current data availability. This interactive map allows users to explore changes over time in water abstraction by source, water use by sector and water stress level at sub-basin or river basin scale. The WEI+ has been estimated as the quarterly average per river basin district for the years 1990-2015, as defined in the European catchments and rivers network system (ECRINS). The ECRINS delineation of river basin districts differs slightly from that defined by Member States under the Water Framework Directive. The Ecrins delineation is used instead of the WFD because it contains geospatial information on Europe’s hydrographical systems with full topological information enabling flow estimation between upstream and downstream basins, as well as integration of economic data collected at NUTS or country level. In addition to using the WISE SoE - Water quantity database, comprehensive manual data collection was performed by accessing all open sources (Eurostat, OECD, FAO), including national statistical offices of the countries. This was done because of the temporal and spatial gaps in the data on water abstraction. Moreover, a large part of the stream flow data from LISFLOOD has also been substantially updated by the Directorate-General Joint Research Centre. Similarly, a comprehensive update with climatic parameters has been performed by the EEA based on the E-OBS dataset. Therefore, the time series of the WEI+ presented in the current version might be slightly different for some basins compared with the previous version.

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Population and area exposed to water scarcity conditions in Europe (summers 1990-2015)

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Development of the water exploitation index plus (WEI+)

WEI+ by year
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WEI+ by country
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Water scarcity is primarily driven by two factors: water demand, which is largely affected by population trends and socio-economic developments; and climate conditions, which control the availability of renewable freshwater resources and the seasonality of water supply.

The water exploitation index plus (WEI+) aims to illustrate the pressure on the renewable freshwater resources of a defined territory (country, river basin, sub-basin etc.) during a specified period (e.g. seasonal, annual), as a consequence of water use for human purposes. Values above 20 % indicate that water resources are under water stress, and values above 40 % indicate that water stress is severe and the use of freshwater resources is clearly unsustainable (Raskin et al., 1997).

The EU's Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) aims to ensure that stress on renewable freshwater resources is prevented or significantly reduced by 2020 (EU, 2013). The EU’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (EC, 2011) also includes a goal for 2020, namely that ‘water abstraction should stay below 20 % of available renewable freshwater resources. However, no particular spatial or temporal context (analytical unit) is given in the roadmap. European-scale estimations of renewable freshwater resources and water abstractions are likely to underestimate the actual water stress levels and thus, would be misleading. Instead, estimations of the proportional area affected by water scarcity conditions (either seasonally or throughout an entire year) may better capture the actual level of water stress on the continental scale.

Annual renewable freshwater resources are relatively abundant in Europe. They reach 4 560 m3 per person when their total volume is averaged over the total European population for the period 1990-2017. However, considerable differences are observed across Europe when similar estimations are conducted at national level. These differences are caused by variations in climatic conditions and population distribution. In 2017, annual renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant ranged between 120 m3 per person in Malta to 70 000 m3 per person in Norway.

Between 1990 and 2017, annual renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant decreased in southern Europe from 2 800 to 2 400 m3 per person; in western Europe they went from from 2 300 to 2 100 m3 per person; and in northern Europe from 9 000 to 8 850 m3 per person. Large decreases were observed in countries such as Spain (-65 %), Malta (-54 %) and Cyprus (-32 %).

Apart from shifting climate patterns, population change is also becoming a significant driver for higher or lower pressures on renewable freshwater resources. For example, in western Europe, the volume of annual renewable freshwater resources increased by 4 % between 1990 and 2017. However, the regional population also increased by 11 % over the same period. Eastern Europe was the only region where an increase in renewable freshwater resource per inhabitant — from 3 200 to 4 100 m3 per person — was observed. The main reason behind this increase was the significant reduction (-6 %) in the regional population.

Every year, there is a degree of variability in the areas experiencing significant water stress conditions, either seasonally or throughout the entire year. As a result, water scarcity affects Europe at different spatial extents, which range between 15 % and 25 % of the total European territory. It should be noted that aggregated estimates of water stress at the country and annual level may shadow actual water stress at river basin or seasonal level.

In general, water scarcity is more frequently experienced in southern Europe where more than half of the population lives incessantly under water scarcity conditions. This is particularly so during summer, because of higher abstractions from agriculture, public water supply and tourism. Because of very intensive irrigation, the Middle Apennines and the Po Basin (Italy), Guadiana (Portugal and Spain) and Segura (Spain), experience severe water stress almost all year long (Fig. 1). Mediterranean islands, such as the Balearic islands, Crete and Sicily experience incessant and severe water stress conditions throughout the year, with agriculture and tourism exerting very high pressures.

Nevertheless, water scarcity is not only limited to southern Europe, but extends further to western, eastern and northern areas. This is usually a result of significant urbanisation, combined with high abstractions from the energy and industrial sectors for cooling purposes and from the public water supply sector. Higher pressures than the regional average can be observed in the wider area of Copenhagen, London and Stockholm, and the river basins of the Loire, Meuse, Oder and Weser rivers. In addition, droughts can strike river basins, where water scarcity might not be perceived as a critical issue (e.g. in Scandinavia during the summer of 2018, the Elbe basin in the summer of 2015 and the Black Sea basin in 2007).

Substantial progress has been made in the EU Member States towards reducing total water abstraction. The main developments encompass improvements in water conveyance, efficiency gains in water use and socio-economic transformations, particularly in eastern Europe (Alcantara et al, 2013; Hartvigsen, 2013). Total water abstraction has decreased by 17 % since 2000, in line with 7th EAP objectives. However, the goal of reducing water abstraction to below 20 % of renewable freshwater resources, as set in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, has not been achieved in all European river basins and does not look realistic in the short term. Hence, it remains uncertain whether significantly reducing water scarcity in Europe will be achieved by 2020.

Water abstraction has substantially increased in southern Europe since 1990; by 30 % for electricity cooling, and by 9 % for agriculture. At the country level, trends in sectoral pressures vary considerably. For instance, water abstraction for agriculture has increased significantly in Turkey (70 %) and Greece (11 %), whereas water abstraction for electricity cooling has increased significantly in the Netherlands (23 %) and Slovenia (18 %).

Freshwater abstraction in Europe by source, 2017

Freshwater abstraction by source
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The annual average volume of renewable freshwater resources is estimated to be approximately 2 400 km3 for EEA member countries (1990-2017), of which 75 % is available within the EU territory. Renewable freshwater resources fluctuate greatly over the years and seasons. This creates high pressure when fewer renewable water resources are available for a given season. The level of pressure also fluctuates per type of economic activity throughout the year. Agriculture and public water supplies put high pressure on groundwater resources in spring and summer, while the use of water for cooling in energy generation puts high pressure on rivers in autumn and winter.

In response to water scarcity, in many cases, water is transferred from other river basins. This has a negative impact on the natural hydrological cycle and the aquatic ecosystems in the donor basin. Furthermore, more dams and reservoirs have been constructed over recent decades in Europe in order to reduce the potential impacts of water scarcity, particularly in summer months. For instance, since the 1950s, the number of reservoirs has increased more than three times. The largest reservoir storage capacity is found in southern Europe (38 %), followed by western (30 %) and eastern Europe (20 %). However, dams and reservoirs change the natural water balance and fragment the longitudinal and latitudinal connectivity in rivers and riparian zones. In addition, desalination is more frequently applied (e.g. in Cyprus, Malta and Spain) to cover increasing water demands under limited freshwater availability. For instance, Cyprus desalinated twelve times more water from the sea in 2017 compared with 1997, with a total volume of 65.3 million m3 corresponding to 22 % of total water abstraction. However, desalination involves energy intensive processes, which indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, by-products of the desalination process (e.g. brine) pose environmental risks for coastal and marine habitats

Water use in Europe by economic sector, 2017

Water use by sectors
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Annual table
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Seasonal table
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The development of water abstraction in Europe since the 1990s

By region