16th Jan 2019

EU urges higher water prices as supplies dry up

Brussels has warned that Europe is facing water scarcity and droughts, and not just in the drier Mediterranean countries, with even the Czech Republic and Belgium at risk. However, the commission's main solution - higher prices for water - is already creating the new phenomenon of 'water poverty', researchers warn.

Describing the problem as "a major concern for many areas in Europe," a European Commission report published on Tuesday (18 May) said that even the greater rains in the south last year did not halt the dwindling of water stocks.

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Some EU member states have begun to suffer permanent scarcity across the whole of their territory. The Czech Republic has reported areas with frequent water scarcity, and France and Belgium have reported over-exploited aquifers.

In response, the EU executive reminded states of the need for "more efficient" water pricing, which they argue reduces demand, as well as water efficiency and water-saving measures.

Although most member states have introduced some form of water pricing, the commission notes that the EU goal of 'full cost recovery' - making people pay for the total cost of the provision of the service - "may result in citizens' water bills being increased, which makes the changes difficult to accept," and so governments have been adopting stricter tariff systems only gradually.

"For several years, the commission has urged member states to adopt policy options such as water pricing, improved water management tools, and efficiency and water saving measures," the commission report said.

"Water is life – so water policy is our life insurance," added environment commissioner Janez Potocnik. "More than anything else, our water policies must be sustainable: we cannot afford to borrow water from the future."

Commission spokesman Joe Hennan told EUobserver: "We are encouraging water pricing whether there is scarcity or not. We consider water to be a commodity like anything else. The cost of delivering water is not really being taking into account."

Brussels at the same time urged people to use less water while showering, cooking and performing other household tasks.

"If all domestic water-using products were included [in mandatory eco-design requirements], this could lead to a 19 percent reduction in total water consumption – a 3.2 percent reduction in the total annual EU water abstraction," the EU executive said. "Reducing the water consumption of energy-related products such as taps, showers and baths can also result in a potential reduction of 20 percent in heating needs, while changes in showering time, bathing frequency or use of taps can result in savings of 20 to 30 percent."

People and Water, a Slovak water scarcity awareness NGO, echoed the concerns. Paul Varea of the group told EUobserver: "The Slovak Water Management Company - a state-owned firm, is tackling the problem by building more dams rather than by better management, looking to boost revenues even though consumption has been decreasing since the 1990s."

Emanuela Lobina, of the UK Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich, told this website that while there is no obligation on the part of member states to introduce water pricing, there is strong pressure to do so.

"And where it's implemented, as in the UK, the burden falls mainly on captive urban water service consumers - households - rather than industry or especially agriculture," he warned.

He said this has resulted in growing "water poverty" in the UK, where people can not afford the water they need for daily use: "And this is a phenomenon that until water privatisation, did not really exist."

"Water poverty is already happening as a result of water pricing, and it's increasing," he added. "The problem is that the EU sees water pricing as the main instrument for tackling scarcity without sufficient attention on the social costs."

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