Towards better information for sustainable water management

Speech Published 05 Sep 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency at the European Water Partnership (EWP) conference, Zaragoza, 4th September 2008.

With the added complication of climate change, with an increase in water temperatures and lower river flows, it will lead to a decrease of water quality.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency

I am very pleased to be here today to talk about one of our most pressing environmental challenges; sustainable water management.

The water availability picture around Europe is very different, with an increase projected in the north and decrease in the south, whilst in certain parts of Western Europe, extractions could decrease due to a saturation of demand and increasing efficiency of water use.

Predicting sustainable use and consumption of water is a difficult task and varies significantly at the country, regional and local level.

Dramatically this summer, Barcelona planned to ship in water to cope with a serious drought. At a cost of €22m, six shiploads would have arrived each month for three months, from Tarragona in southern Catalonia, Marseille and Almeria - one of the driest areas of southern Spain.

But Barcelona is not alone. The entire Iberian Peninsula, Turkey and South-Eastern England are just three parts of Europe that were seriously affected by drought in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Although we may consider that water issues are confined to the South, we have to remember that Finland implemented new policies after the 2002/3 drought and France, aiming to provide a better balance between supply and demand, enacted a new water Act in 2006.

With the added complication of climate change, with an increase in water temperatures and lower river flows, it will lead to a decrease of water quality.

Increases in extreme rainfall events and flash floods will also increase the risk of pollution from storm water overflow and emergency discharges from waste water treatment plants.

Further, there are many different human activities that lead to pressures on water resources; pollution from industry, management of rivers, building of houses in areas with flood risk, to name but a few.

All of these points illustrate the complexity in achieving sustainable water management and, importantly, the need for robust and quality assured data to establish the right policy responses.

Policy instruments, information and the role of the European Environment Agency

The organisation I direct - the European Environment Agency - has a key role in ensuring the EU and its citizens can make the changes our environment needs.

We are required to support sustainable development and help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

Here, WISE, the water Information System for Europe is our main tool, which we developed together with the Commission as the single entry point for water information in Europe.

WISE combines information needed and produced under different water legislation, as well as information reported to us on a voluntary basis.

We know that for efficient policy evaluation we need to combine compliance information, provided by our network of 350 organisations across 32 countries (known as Eionet) with other forms of information, be it from the public, research or business.

This is an evolving process. Following our establishment by Council regulation in 1990 we are also required to produce assessments, policy evaluations, technical analyses, models and scenarios.

For example the EEA is currently preparing an indicator report on climate change impacts. This shows in detail that over the past 30 years, Europe has been affected by a number of major droughts.

The predictions, which are in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), confirms a future of more floods AND more droughts.

In particular, more severe river flow droughts have been observed in Spain, many parts of Eastern Europe and large parts of the UK.

Southern and south-eastern Europe river droughts with an intensity of once in a 100-year today, may recur every 10-50 years by the 2070s, and 7 day river flow averages show severe decreases as you see in this graph.

The communication “water scarcity and drought” published by the European Commission last year illustrates that policy actions are needed at national as well as European level.

The EEA hopes that this will encourage significant changes in water management, which supports the water vision launched with the EWP.

Which Information do we need to describe the problem?

Whether we are talking about droughts as a temporary decrease in the average water availability or of water scarcity due to consumption patterns, the information needed and the indicators used to describe the status and trends are similar, and can give a general oversight of water issues in Europe.

The Water Exploitation Index is a good example of the sort of information needed to give an overview of the scale and location of the problems facing us.

An index of over 10 % is normally taken to indicate water scarcity. As we can see, 17 member countries of the EEA have water exploitation indices above 10 %, some significantly so, for example Cyprus with over 50 %.

Southern and south-eastern Europe is strongly represented with Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Turkey all having a Water Exploitation Index above 10 %.

But does this information aggregated by country show the full truth?  No – for this we need this information broken down at the region and the catchment level.

Through our network we have some examples of these data, as they are available in advanced national information systems.

For example, the Water Exploitation Index at river basin level shows a clear focus on the southern part of Spain, and, for the United Kingdom, a hotspot in southern England.

Sustainable water management

The water exploitation index combines the results from two driving forces into status information; Water availability, described by meteorological information, and management.

An index over 10 % can result in reduced reservoir storage and reduced river flow.

Too often the ‘Responses’ to water availability have seen Governments at local and national level investing in unsustainable projects such as bigger and more reservoirs, water transfer and desalination plants.

Inevitably, as rainfall varies so does a body of opinion suggesting that storing water in dams has advantages.

Transfers can help diversify supply to regions with different climatic characteristics and reduce vulnerability to local droughts. But as you know well from the Ebro debate here in Spain, dams and transfers also have environmental impacts.

Often desalinisation plants are considered as long-term options to cope with longer dry spells. But - even if the costs of desalination are declining their use is unsustainable. Particularly considering their energy use and when we need to reduce greenhouse gases significantly!

Instead of crises management concentrating on simply increasing the supply of water, governments and regional authorities must take action to reduce the demand.

Here, water pricing, reducing water losses and informing on more water-efficient practices all have a part to play.

An example of missing water efficiency is illustrated, with the estimated losses of water due to leakages and failing infrastructure.

This casts a light on the extent of the problem, and importantly, the potential for increased efficiency.

Demand management includes retrofitting of water appliances, leakage detection and control, wastewater recycling, reforming water prices to give incentives for using less water, regulating new water appliances or imposing controls on land-uses.

An EEA evaluation report on the urban waste water treatment Directive highlighted that economic instruments used in the Netherlands has been very successful as an incentive for polluters to reduce pollution at source, rather than expensive end of pipe solutions.

Generally, such interventions cost less and they don’t use much energy or produce greenhouse gases.

Those that have taken demand management seriously have had impressive results, for example, the municipal services in Barcelona have reduced water consumption by 35% in the last seven years.

The way ahead in environmental information

At the EEA we are aware of the problems ahead and that we need to tackle them differently. Our new strategy is forward looking and innovative in response to new demands on environmental monitoring and information.

New ways of using environmental information

Our environment is of course influenced by massive global and national factors, but it is also affected by the daily actions, no matter how small, of each and every European citizen.

If we are to bring about real improvement, we need to find new ways to inform and involve citizens in something that is critical to our shared future.

Transparent information and evaluation of policy efficiency is crucial for this kind of measure. But we need more and better information to track the efficiency of the different measures and to produce sound trend analysis.

This means that we need instantaneous access to the most up-to-date information on the environment — it will also empower us, citizens, to ask for more from decision-makers.

New ways of identifying emerging environmental problems

Through modelling and drought forecasting we have good indications on drought trends and natural water availability.

But for the evaluation of good, sustainable water management we need more information on the whole management approach, with respect to demand or supply management. And we need this information at the River Basin level.

Happily, this can be achieved, and in partnership with EU citizens and members of the European water partnership who are at the heart of water management and identifying emerging issues.

You are well placed to understand the policy options and impacts; on water use and supply, desalinisation, reservoirs and water transfers. Bottom up environmental information can only make our partnership function better.

New ways of interpreting environmental information


New ways of working


The EEA is working together with relevant commission services to develop a Water Scarcity and Drought Information System as an integrated part of the existing Water Information System for Europe (WISE).

This work has been specifically requested and financed by the European Parliament and will provide the information for the EU as well as the platform for exchange of information.

Best practice is essential and acts as a form of clearing house mechanism which is essential as we come closer to the formulation and implementation of river basin management plans.

Water Watch

The EEA recently launched an online portal, with the working title of the Global Observatory for Environmental Change, that will gather together critical information, including European water, soil, air and ozone indicators, into one place.

It will provide this information — from the global perspective to the view from the street — at levels of detail previously unseen in environmental monitoring.

The Observatory will provide an easily accessible and understandable resource for governments, policy-makers and citizens to access meaningful data in real time.

Water watch is one illustration of this process, which we launched this summer in conjunction with Microsoft. With almost 265,000 visits in the first 3 weeks of August, there is a clear desire from EU citizens to access environmental information differently.

The Baltic

To implement this vision, we need a wide network and strong cooperation with partners from all sectors.

The Baltic region is an example for such a partnership, which we have developed in conjunction with Russia.

This is a network set up with business partners ranging from water supply, sanitation and utilities, with an aim to develop an integrated approach to evaluating ecosystem goods and services.

The ultimate goal is to restore and enhance the Baltic environment in conjunction with the human management activities that may currently threaten them.

Increasing water supply and improving water quality with increased energy inputs is not a sustainable trend. We have to aim to reduce the vulnerabilities of people and societies to increased climate variability, and extreme events.

Sustainable integrated solutions will protect and restore ecosystems that provide critical land and water resources and services. It is also vital to close gaps between water supply and demand by enhancing actions which reduce demand.

Information, which is accessible, up to date and relevant, is the key to helping us all make better informed choices on what actions we should take in our day to day lives to better protect the environment we live in.


Thank you


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