Water use in Europe — Quantity and quality face big challenges

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Article Published 30 Aug 2018 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
8 min read
Photo: © Artur Preciuk, WaterPIX / EEA
Europeans use billions of cubic metres of water every year not only for drinking water, but also for use in farming, manufacturing, heating and cooling, tourism and other service sectors. With thousands of freshwater lakes, rivers and underground water sources available, the supply of water in Europe may seem limitless. But population growth, urbanisation, pollution and the effects of climate change, such as persistent droughts, are putting a huge strain on Europe’s water supplies and on its quality.

Water shortages are increasingly making news headlines around the world with cities — such as Cape Town, South Africa, and Cairo, Egypt — already facing or expected to face severe shortages in water supply. With many major rivers and lakes scattered across its territory, Europe might appear unaffected by water shortages or water stress. This is not at all the case. In fact, water stress is a problem that affects millions around the world, including over 100 million people in Europe.

Similar to many regions in the rest of the world, worries over water stress and scarcity are increasing in Europe too, amid an increased risk of droughts due to climate change. About 88.2 % of Europe’s freshwater use (drinking and other uses) comes from rivers and groundwater, while the rest comes from Reservoirs (10.3 %) and Lakes (1,5 %), which makes these sources extremely vulnerable to threats posed by over-exploitation, pollution and climate change.

Water quantity under pressure

Like any other vital resource or living organism, water can come under pressure, especially when demand for it exceeds supply or poor quality restricts its use. Climate conditions and water demand are the two key factors that drive water stress. Such pressure on water causes a deterioration of freshwater resources in terms of quantity (over-exploitation or drought) and quality (pollution and eutrophication).

Despite the relative abundance of freshwater resources in parts of Europe, water availability and socio-economic activity are unevenly distributed, leading to major differences in levels of water stress over seasons and regions. Water demand across Europe has steadily increased over the past 50 years, partly due to population growth. This has led to an overall decrease in renewable water resources per capita by 24 % across Europe. This decrease is particularly evident in southern Europe, caused mainly by lower precipitation levels, according to an EEA indicator. For instance, in the summer of 2015, renewable freshwater resources (such as groundwater, lakes, rivers or reservoirs) were 20 % less than in the same period in 2014 because of a 10 % net drop in precipitation. More people moving to cities and towns has also impacted demand, especially in densely populated areas.

The EEA estimates that around one third of the EU territory is exposed to water stress conditions, either permanently or temporarily. Countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain have already seen severe droughts during the summer months, but water scarcity is also becoming an issue in northern regions, including parts of the United Kingdom and Germany. Agricultural areas with intensive irrigation, islands in southern Europe popular with tourists and large urban agglomerations are deemed to be the biggest water stress hotspots. Water shortages are expected to become more frequent because of climate change.

However, improvements in water efficiency and management of water supplies have resulted in an overall decrease in total water abstraction of 19 % since 1990. Recent case studies analysed in an EEA briefing found that the EU’s water policies encourage Member States to implement better water management practices, especially when it comes to water pricing policies in combination with other measures such as public awareness campaigns promoting water efficiency through using water-saving devices.

Water in the economy — Users and abusers?

All economic sectors use water — albeit in different ways and amounts ([1]). Access to sufficient freshwater is essential for many key economic sectors and communities dependent on those activities. Yet, the question remains: is the way we use water in the economy sustainable?

Economic activities in Europe use on average around 243 000 cubic hectometres ([2]) of water annually according to the EEA’s water exploitation index. Although most of this water (over 140 000 cubic hectometres) is returned to the environment, it often contains impurities or pollutants, including hazardous chemicals.

Agriculture accounts for the largest use of water: around 40 % of the total water used per year in Europe. Despite efficiency gains in the sector since the 1990s, agriculture will continue to be the largest consumer for years to come, adding to water stress in Europe. This is because more and more farmland needs to be irrigated, especially in southern European countries.

While only around 9 % of Europe’s total farmland is irrigated, these areas still account for about 50 % of total water use in Europe. In spring this percentage can jump to over 60 % to help crops grow after planting, especially highly sought after and higher priced fruits and vegetables such as olives or oranges, which require a lot of water to mature. The costs of irrigation are expected to rise in the years ahead if predictions of lower rainfall and a longer thermal growing season due to climate change hold true.

Surprisingly, energy production also uses a lot of water, accounting for around 28 % of annual water use. The water is predominantly used for cooling in nuclear and fossil fuel-based power plants. It is also used to produce hydro-electricity. Mining and manufacturing accounts for 18 %, followed by household use, which accounts for around 12 %. On average, 144 litres of water per person per day is supplied to households in Europe.

The sector with the largest water use differs from region to region. Overall, agriculture is the highest water user in southern Europe, while cooling in power generation is putting the most pressure on water resources in western and eastern Europe. The manufacturing industry is the largest user in northern Europe.

Impacts on the environment

All this water use is good for the economy and subsequently for our quality of life. However, local water resources in an area may face competing demands from different water users, which may result in nature’s water needs being neglected. Over-exploitation of water resources can harm animals and plants dependent on them. There are also other consequences for the environment.

In most cases, after the abstracted water is used by industry, households or agriculture, the resulting waste water can cause pollution through chemical discharges, sewage and nutrient or pesticide run-off from farmland. In the case of energy production, the use of water to produce hydro-electricity harms the natural water cycle in rivers and lakes, while dams and other physical barriers can prevent fish from migrating upstream.

Similarly, the water used for cooling in power plants tends to be warmer than the water in the river or lakes when it is released back to the environment. Depending on the temperature difference, the heat can have adverse effects on local species. For example, it can act as a heat barrier preventing fish migration in some streams.

European efforts to improve water quality

Over the past 30 years substantial progress has been made by EU Member States to improve the quality of Europe’s freshwater bodies, thanks to EU rules, in particular the EU’s Water Framework Directive, the Urban Waste Water Directive and the Drinking Water Directive. These key legislative texts underpin the EU’s commitment to improve the state of Europe’s water. The goal of EU policies is to significantly reduce the negative impacts of pollution, over-abstraction and other pressures put on water and to ensure that a sufficient quantity of good-quality water is available for both human use and the environment. Waste water treatment and reductions in the agricultural use of nitrogen and phosphorus have led in particular to significant improvements in water quality in recent decades.

One of the tangible achievements is the substantial improvement in Europe’s bathing waters at coastal and inland bathing sites over the past 40 years. More than 21 500 sites across the EU were monitored in 2017, 85 % of which met the most stringent ‘excellent’ standard. Thanks to the rules set out under EU legislation on bathing water and waste water, EU Member States have been able to tackle the contamination of bathing waters by sewage or water draining from farmland, which poses a risk to human health and water ecosystems.

Today, despite the progress achieved, the overall environmental health of Europe’s many water bodies remains precarious. The vast majority of Europe’s lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters struggle to meet the EU’s minimum ‘good’ ecological status target ([3]) under the EU Water Framework Directive, according to the EEA’s recent report European waters — assessment of status and pressures 2018.

A wider perspective — The blue economy

European efforts are not limited to inland and coastal waters. Sustainable use of water and marine resources is at the heart of new EU and United Nations’ ‘blue economy’ and ‘blue growth’ initiatives. The idea is to secure the long-term viability of fisheries, or economic activities such as maritime transport, coastal tourism or seabed mining, while ensuring the least disruption to ecosystems in terms of pollution or waste. In Europe alone, the blue economy already provides 5 million jobs and contributes around EUR 550 billion to the EU economy. The European Commission has called for stronger governance ([4]) to underpin such economic plans to improve the protection of the marine environment.

Future of water use in Europe — Efficiency is the key

Water use by most economic sectors has decreased in Europe since the 1990s, thanks to many measures taken to improve efficiency, such as better water pricing or technological improvements in appliances and machines.

But, still, according to the EEA’s water exploitation index, water will continue to be exploited by sectors such as agriculture and energy, as well as by consumers at home, to meet demand, which is expected to continue to rise. Climate change will continue to put additional pressure on water resources, and it is expected that there will be an increased risk of droughts in many southern regions. Demographic trends will also play a role. Europe’s population increased by 10 % over the last two decades and this trend is expected to continue. At the same time, more people are moving to urban areas, which will also put more stress on urban water supplies.

Certain sectors, mass tourism in particular, will amplify the demand for water in some regions during key periods. Every year, millions of people visit destinations across Europe, accounting for around 9 % of the total annual water use. Most of this use is attributed to accommodation and food service activities. Tourism is expected to put increased pressure on water supplies, especially in small Mediterranean islands, many of which see a massive influx of summer visitors.

The overall dilemma is clear. People, nature and the economy all need water. The more we take from its source, the more we impact nature. Moreover, in some regions, especially during some months, there is simply not enough water. Climate change is expected to aggravate this water deficit further. Given this, we all have to use water much more efficiently. Moreover, saving water will also help us save other resources and help conserve nature.

[1] There are various tools and methods, such as the water footprint, to estimate the overall amount of water used in products and by countries and people.

[2] One cubic hectometre equals 1 000 000 cubic metres.

[3] See the Signals section ‘Life under water faces serious threats’.

[4] See the Signals section ‘Water on the move’.


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