Water resources across Europe — confronting water scarcity and drought

Speech Published 19 Mar 2009 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Professor Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director World Water forum, Istanbul 17th March 2009

Slide 1 - Intro


Historically, the economic and cultural development in regions throughout Europe has been underpinned by the availability of natural resources; especially water.

Today, as we keep squeezing our natural resources through technological advances, industrial development and rises in consumption, we are reaching waters natural limit.

In many regions we have already surpassed this point.

The economic crisis has taught us the fallacy of building an economy on debt; and climate change, with its changing frequency and intensity of rainfall, will nullify many of our technological advances unless we learn to use what we have more sustainably.

Predicting this sustainable use and consumption of water is of course a difficult task and varies significantly at the country, regional and local level. In Europe it has often been characterised by a north-south divide but, increasingly, the problems of water scarcity traditionally found in the south are also reported in parts of the North.

Achieving sustainable water management which will lead to more efficient use, and potentially availability, is inherently complex. However, we also know that many of the economic sectors that depend on water realise the need to conserve their natural resources.

As Benjamin Franklin said – “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water” (Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746)

It is our role to ensure that consumers and all sectors abstracting water do not push our resources to a point of no return. The ultimate goal for all of us should be to restore and enhance the environment in conjunction with the human management activities that may currently threaten them.

To achieve this we need robust and quality assured reporting and data to establish the current state and ensure the right policy responses are provided.

European Environment Agency

Slide 2 - EEA

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.

Today, as part of that mandate I would like to share with you some of the results from ‘Europe’s water - Water resources across Europe — confronting water scarcity and drought’ – a report which we are releasing today.

EU Water Stress

Slide 3 – water scarcity and drought

Drastic measures - such as the shipping of freshwater to Cyprus from Greece in the summer of 2008 – are now all too common and water shortages have reached a critical level in many areas of Europe.

Such lack of water is normally caused by a combination of both over-exploitation - typically through; agriculture, public water supply, industry and energy generation sectors - and drought - a natural phenomenon that has cost Europe about EUR 100 billion over the last 30 years alone.

National Scale WEI

Slide 4 - WEI

One measure of the pressure or stress on freshwater resources is the Water Exploitation Index (WEI), which is calculated as the ratio of freshwater abstraction to the long-term available resource.

Nationally aggregated data show that a number of member countries have a WEI either around or greater than the 20% stress threshold, including many in southern and south-eastern Europe.

River Basin WEI

Slide 5 – Regional WEI

Whilst the value of the National scale WEI’s is important it can also mask very high values at a regional or river basin scale.

Spain, for example, has a national WEI of about 34% whilst two river basins in the south of the country, Andalusia and Segura, have extremely high WEI’s of 164% and 127%, respectively.

Increasingly, river basins in more northerly regions are also experiencing significant water stress. In the south east of England, for example, the WEI now exceeds 30%.

These observations are significant when we consider the likely impact water scarcity (overexploitation) and drought has on the aquatic environment.

  • Flow in rivers decreases and, in extreme cases, ceases altogether, whilst lake and groundwater levels lower and wetlands dry up.
  • Water quality, due to the lower dilution of pollutants, decreases too. Reduced water of poorer quality damages freshwater ecosystems and thus fish and bird life.

Climate change of course will add to the problems we face and can no longer be disputed – observations by the IPCC are unequivocal, indicated by a global temperature increase of almost 0.8 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Key climate change trends

Slide 6 – Climate change

Last autumn the EEA, in conjunction with the Commissions Joint Research Centre and the World Health Organisation Europe, released our latest indicator report on climate change impacts;

  • We have observed increases in the number of hot and cold extremes, and the intensity and variability of precipitation extremes;
  • We have rapid melting of the European glaciers.
  • A significant change in the fluvial system and distribution across North and South Europe.

Importantly, the frequency and severity of droughts will also increase, reflected by the substantial increases in the number of consecutive dry days. Put simply; the current dry regions in Europe will become drier still.

Inevitably this change will have a significant impact on many of the industries in those areas; in particular agriculture, which accounts for a quarter of all water abstracted across Europe, looks vulnerable.

Unsustainable path - Agriculture

Slide 7 – Irrigation and abstraction

In parts of the south, however, this figure can rise to up to 80%, often through using inefficient techniques.

Agriculture’s position and environmental impact is confounded by its high ‘consumptive’ use - that is, only a small proportion of the water abstracted for irrigation is subsequently returned to a water body.

In contrast nearly 100% of the water used in energy production – mainly for cooling - is returned.

Supply-led management

Slide 8 – supply led management

Agriculture illustrates the major weakness in water use throughout Europe; traditionally, the management has focused only on ensuring more supply and reducing vulnerability to droughts.

Much of the focus on supply led management has been achieved through a massive growth in reservoirs, mainly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, together with inter-basin transfers of water and, more recently, the building of desalination plants.

Further all these projects raise other environmental concerns; desalination plants - for example - require huge amounts of energy which, until we build a low carbon economy, will only exacerbate climate change.

The disproportionate emphasis on supply provides no incentive to limit water use by any sector - promoting the excessive abstraction we see today.

When we also consider the future increases in the frequency and severity of droughts it is clear that a supply-led approach to water management is not sustainable.

Demand-led management

In clear and simple terms the status quo is not a viable option for the future.  Europe has to move away from a supply led water resource management to a demand-led approach.

Slide 9 – sustainable demand led

Focusing on conservation and a more efficient use across all sectors is not only more equitable – by accounting for the need of a healthy freshwater ecosystems - but will allow Europe’s water sector to adapt to climate change and contribute to lower energy consumption.

Importantly we can achieve this now as many of the policy tools necessary to develop a demand led approach already exist; in particular water pricing and efficiency.

Water Pricing

Slide 10 – water pricing

Water Pricing has a critical role to play in demand-led management since it has a clear impact upon water use; a fact recognised by the Water Framework Directive which requires that the pricing of all water services reflect their true costs.

Pricing needs to be implemented across all sectors and must be based on the volume of water consumed underpinned by a metering system.

Improving Efficiency – Public Water Supply

Slide 11 - Efficiency

There are many opportunities for improving the efficiency of water in the public water supply, where in some member countries leakage exceeds 30%.

Clearly, addressing leakage in distribution has the potential to yield significant water savings. To achieve this leak detection needs to be improved, leakage rates accurately quantified and networks upgraded and maintained.

But all of us consuming water have a role to play through the use of water efficient domestic appliances and fittings. Higher regulatory standards and improved consumer awareness have a key role to play in addressing the challenge - for all of us - to increase the use of these modern technologies across the whole of Europe.

Improving Efficiency – Industry

The picture I have painted so far is a challenge for Europe, but our report also provides illustrations where industry is responding to that challenge.

Examples of improved water efficiency are increasingly reported in the industrial sector, driven by the cost of discharging wastewater. This has led to the development of on-site treatment of wastewater, enabling water to be re-used.

In Swansea, (Wales - UK) for example, a drive through car wash has installed a closed loop water recycling system using reed beds to treat wastewater. The reed bed system has resulted in a 60% decline in water use and a comparable decrease in the discharge of wastewater.

Such systems, ultimately driven by appropriate water pricing, have led to ‘win-win’ outcomes, with reduced water use, less energy consumed and a decline in the volume of wastewater discharged.

Slide 12 – demand led agriculture

In agriculture the critical element to achieving demand-led water management is the provision of advisory, educational and information services for the farming community.

  • A growing number of such services exist in Europe including that of the Lake Van region, here in Turkey, where farmer training and an advisory programme have been successfully implemented regarding irrigation techniques. Or;
  • The establishment of an irrigation service for farmers in the Castilla La Mancha region of the Jucar river basin, Spain has led to the provision of advice to more than 2000 farmers which has led to reductions in water use.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can play a key role in driving agriculture to sustainable use of water. This can be achieved not only by supporting much greater implementation of advisory services in the agricultural community throughout Europe, but also in supporting agri-environmental measures that embrace water conservation and efficiency of use.

Concluding remarks

Slide 13 - Conclusions

The European Water Partnership’s (EWP) water vision is to;‘treat water as our common heritage with an economic, social, environmental and cultural value for our societies.’

However our report illustrates that the management of Europe’s water resources is unsustainable and still mainly focused on securing supply, offering no incentive to halt overexploitation.

Critical levels of water stress, together with a likely increase in the frequency and severity of droughts in the future, mean that substantial change is needed. The financial crisis has illustrated that we cannot turn a blind eye to unsustainable practices.

Demand-led management is urgently required, whereby the focus is upon conserving water and using it more efficiently.

We have made significant inroads in improving the quality of water across the EU, but now we must act on the pressing challenge surrounding its use and availability.

The EU and Governments throughout Europe can play a crucial role using public spending to maintain the necessary infrastructure, promote technological innovation and change consumption behaviour.

Improving information about Europe’s water resources will help the continent’s citizens engage more fully in the issue of water scarcity and drought, empowering them to question decision makers and influence the future management of water resources.

In addition, many of the tools and approaches detailed in our report could feature as elements of the ‘new Green Deal’ stimulus packages of public investment that many Governments are considering in response to the current financial crisis.

Through including businesses; ranging from water supply, sanitation and utilities; farmers and fishermen, and by evaluating ecosystem goods and services, will we be able to develop an integrated demand led management approach.

Europe’s water resources are too precious to let the well run dry, but we can no longer delay in taking action.


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