Water scarcity conditions in Europe (Water exploitation index plus)

Water scarcity affected 29% of the EU territory during at least one season in 2019. Despite water abstraction declining by 15% in the EU between 2000 and 2019, there has been no overall reduction in the area affected by water scarcity conditions. In fact, since 2010 there has been a worsening of the situation. This, compounded with the fact that climate change is expected to further increase the frequency, intensity and impacts of drought events, makes it unlikely that water scarcity will reduce by 2030. Additional effort is needed to ensure sustainable water use

Published: ‒ 25min read

Freshwater resources are essential for human health, nature and the functioning of economies and societies. However, across the EU, these resources are threatened by multiple pressures. To address this, the Water Framework Directive requires Member States to promote the sustainable use of water resources and to protect the available water resources .

Water scarcity is determined primarily by (1) water demand and consumption, which largely depend on population and type of socio-economic activities; (2) climatic conditions, which control water availability and seasonality of supply; and (3) landscape and geological characteristics of the basins. Assessing water scarcity conditions across Europe at river basin level and by season is more informative, compared to aggregated annual estimates at European or even country level, which masks the extent or intensity of the problem for certain areas or seasons. The water exploitation index plus (WEI+) does that by measuring water consumption as a percentage of the renewable freshwater resources available at river sub-basin level and by each of the four quarters of the year (3 consecutive months). WEI+ values above 20% indicate that water resources are under stress and therefore water scarcity conditions prevail; values above 40% indicate that stress is severe and freshwater use is unsustainable .

Figure 1 shows the percentage of the EU territory that has been affected in at least one of the four quarters of the year by WEI+ values of above 20% per year. It shows that 29% of the EU-27 territory, excluding Italy, was affected by water scarcity conditions in 2019. Despite total water abstraction declining by about 15% in the EU between 2000 and 2019, the area affected by water scarcity conditions was relatively stable over the period, albeit there has been an increase since 2010.

In general, water scarcity is more common in southern Europe, where approximately 30 % of its population living in areas with permanent water stress and up to 70 % of its population living in areas with seasonal water stress during summer. Water abstractions for agriculture, public water supply and tourism are the most significant pressures on freshwater

However, water scarcity is not limited to southern Europe. It extends to river basins across the EU, particularly in western Europe, where water scarcity is caused primarily by high population density in urban areas, combined with high levels of abstraction for public water supply, energy and industry. During the last decade, drought events have also become more frequent and severe in these areas, with impacts on seasonal water availability.

Climate change threatens to reduce further the availability of freshwater resources mostly in southern, western and eastern Europe and to exacerbate the natural fluctuations in seasonal water availability. As a result, it is expected that the frequency, intensity and impacts of drought events will be increasing. Based on this and the fact that the overall past trend does not show any improvement — rather a deterioration since 2010 — it seems unlikely that water scarcity will reduce by 2030 (Figure 1).

In 2019, Cyprus, Malta, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain faced the most significant water scarcity conditions in the EU-27 on the seasonal scale (seasonal WEI+ >40%). Malta is experiencing the permanent water scarcity conditions partly due to its natural hydro-climatic conditions. Romania displays water scarcity challenges as well (seasonal WEI+ >20%) (Figure 2). Among the non-EU European countries for which data are available, Turkey is the most severely challenged.

In general, water scarcity conditions intensify between July and September in the majority of countries. This is a combination of dry weather, reduced flows and increased abstractions for irrigated agriculture, tourism and recreational activities, and other socio-economic activities during that period of the year.

Certain river sub-basins, which were affected by seasonal water scarcity in 2019, are located in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Spain and Romania (seasonal WEI+ >20%; see further River sub-basin seasonal WEI+ results).

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