Press Release

United Nations Environment Programme and European Environment Agency

Press Release Published 20 Jan 1997 Last modified 28 Jun 2016
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doc_logo.gif United Nations Environment Programme
European Environment Agency

For use by the media only, not an official document


Water Stress in Europe

Geneva/Copenhagen, 20 January 1997 -- The European Environment Agency (EEA) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) are launching today their first annual joint Statement on the Environment, this year focusing on water resources under serious stress in Europe.

Water stress - shortages, floods, pollution and damaged ecosystems (see graphic) - requires radical new approaches to the use and management of water resources if Europeans are to avoid severe water crises, the joint Statement concludes.

"We have a 19th century approach to 21st century problems", says Domingo Jiménez Beltrán, EEA's Executive Director. "We just think of supplying new dams and pipelines ("megalitres") rather than increasing water use efficiency ("negalitres"). Prices don't cover the full cost of supplying and using water, which encourages its inefficient use. An integrated approach to water quality and quantity is needed."

Some of the main points in the Statement include:

  • The low availability of water demanded for households, agriculture, and industry.
  • Drinking-water losses from pipes are estimated at 30% in most countries and up to 70-80% in some cities.
  • As water shortages increase, river basin authorities are restricting water-use for industry. Similar pressures on agriculture are likely to occur in the near future.
  • About 60% of large European cities are over-exploiting their groundwater resources for their drinking and other water needs. If depleted or polluted, these resources are expensive and time-consuming to restore.
  • Other threats include the increase of the global mean sea level due to changes in climate and run-off patterns of water courses in some areas.

"Concerted action at the European level is becoming more and more essential," says Frits Schlingemann, UNEP's Representative and Regional Director for Europe. "International organizations provide a forum for promoting and complementing national action through international cooperation. Detailed and reliable information as well as analyses of the world's fresh water systems can help promote solutions for easing related environmental pressures."

The Statement summarises many water initiatives, such as the proposed European Union Water Resources Framework Directive, the Cleaner Production Programme of UNEP, and the improved pollution monitoring work of the EEA. It stresses that new political agreements on integrated river basin management and greater public support for new types of policy instruments such as taxes, voluntary agreements and tradable permits are needed if these initiatives are to be implemented successfully.

For more information, please contact Gertrud Attar at telephone (4122) 929 9234, fax (4122) 797 3464 or e-mail:
or Niels Thyssen at the EEA in Copenhagen, telephone (4533) 367 156, fax (4533) 367 151 or e-mail:

Further notes:

  1. The EEA provides objective, reliable and comparable information on Europe's environment for those concerned with framing and implementing European and national environmental policy, and for the public. UNEP is the environmental conscience of the United Nations system, having a mandate to provide leadership and to encourage partnerships in caring for the environment, with a strong regional emphasis.
  2. Negalitres refer to demand side management (DSM) which focuses on the more efficient use of water by reducing losses, less wasteful use of water, more efficient appliances, and water recycling. In many cases it is cheaper and more effective to improve water use efficiency than it is to increase water supplies. For example, water efficiency measures reduced the consumption of water in Madrid by 25 per cent between 1992 and 1994. This is the equivalent to a reservoir providing over 100 million m3 of water per year. The use of 6-litre toilet water flushes in the UK, rather than the usual 9 litres, would save 10 per cent of the UK's household water use, according to a recent estimate.
  3. Inefficient use: The prices of nitrates and pesticides on agricultural land do not include the full costs of their use, such as their pollution of groundwater and the expense of treating these drinking water supplies so as to meet EU water quality standards.
  4. Water quality and quantity are linked. For example, polluted water can reduce available supplies; and channelisation of rivers can improve drainage in adjacent farmland, but it also destroys aquatic life in the river, reducing its pollution-filtering activity, and the risk of downstream flooding is increased by the speeding up of water flow.



European water demand, 1950­2000

Source: WHO/UNEP, 1989


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