Water abstraction by source and economic sector in Europe

The Water Framework Directive aims to protect the EU’s water resources by promoting efficient water use and minimising abstraction. From 2000 to 2019, the total volume of water abstracted from surface water and groundwater declined by 15%, with the relative contribution of groundwater to the total volume abstracted increasing from 19% to 23%. A decline in abstraction for cooling in electricity generation contributed significantly to this decrease as this sector accounts for more water abstraction than any other. Abstraction for some sectors increased, however, and more effort is needed to increase water use efficiency overall.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Water plays an important role in European societies and economies, meeting demands for drinking, food, energy, industry, transport and ecosystems. With the aim of protecting available water resources long term, the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims to promote sustainable water use, prevent the further deterioration of water resources, and protect and enhance the status of aquatic ecosystems .

Freshwater demand in the 27 EU Member States (EU-27) is met largely by abstraction from surface waters (rivers, reservoirs and lakes) and groundwater. Monitoring changes in water abstraction from these resources is key to monitoring progress towards meeting the objectives of the WFD and the European Green Deal.

Between 2000 and 2019, total water abstraction per year in the EU-27 decreased by 15%, from about 215,000 million m3 in 2000 to 202,000 million m3 in 2019. However, the relative contributions of surface water and groundwater to the total volume of water abstracted have changed during this period: in 2000, surface water accounted for 81% of abstraction and groundwater for 19%, while, in 2019, surface water accounted for only 77% and groundwater for 23%.

The increase in water abstraction from groundwater can largely be explained by increasing demand in the public water supply and agriculture sectors, with groundwater meeting almost 65% of total public water supply and 25% of agricultural water demands in the EU-27 in 2019. Climate change exacerbating seasonal variability in surface water availability is likely to have contributed to this, as demand for water has increased during spring and summer months when availability of surface water is limited, particularly in southern Europe, causing competition between sectors and driving a shift in water abstraction from surface water to groundwater .

Despite the notable achievements made in decreasing overall water abstraction in the EU in the last 20 years, uncertainty over seasonal water availability is increasing . To manage the risks associated with this, further efforts to increase water use efficiency and adapt to climate change are needed to meet the overall objectives of the WFD and the European Green Deal.

Explore water abstraction by source at the country level.

Water is abstracted for use across economic sectors in the EU-27. Abstraction for cooling in electricity generation remained the largest contributor to total annual water abstraction (32%) in 2019, followed by abstraction for agriculture (28%), public water supply (20%), manufacturing (13%) and cooling in manufacturing (5%), with mining and quarrying, and construction accounting for only 1% of total abstraction each.

Between 2000 and 2019, water abstraction declined overall, reflecting policy measures implemented under the WFD. However, while abstraction declined in some sectors, such as for cooling in electricity generation (-27%), it increased in others. For instance, water abstraction for cooling in manufacturing almost tripled, while abstraction for public water supply increased by 4%, with a particularly sharp increase since 2010 (14%). Water abstraction for agriculture decreased overall between 2000 and 2019. However, since 2010 it has increased by 8%, mainly because of the increasing demand for irrigation in southern Europe.

Explore water abstraction by economic sector at the country level

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