4th Mar 2024

Water scarcity stalking Europe north and south, says report

  • Water stress is not just a southern phenomenon anymore (Photo: EUobserver)

Europe's use of water is unsustainable and is facing water scarcity and drought, the European Environment Agency has warned in a new report. The solution is no longer expanding supplies, the EEA argues, but cutting demand and the introduction of water pricing across all sectors.

The EEA, the European Union's environment advisory body, says that it is no longer just southern European member states such as Spain and Italy that are experiencing water stress, but the phenomenon is growing in northern Europe as well.

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"We are living beyond our means when it comes to water," said Jacqueline McGlade, the agency's director. " The short-term solution to water scarcity has been to extract ever greater amounts of water from our surface and groundwater assets. Overexploitation is not sustainable."

Adding to the threat to already stretched supplies, climate change will increase the severity and frequency of droughts in the future, exacerbating water stress, especially in the summer.

Although the EEA says there is some room for expansion by authorities of the use of alternative water supplies, such as treated wastewater, greywater (domestic wastewater), and ‘harvested' rainwater, the agency says fundamentally, there needs to be a shift in policy focus from increasing supply to minimising demand.

"We have to cut demand, minimise the amount of water that we are extracting and increase the efficiency of its use," Ms McGlade added.

In response, the agency recommends that member states do a better job of implementing drought management plans and focus on the risk of water stress rather than waiting for a crisis and then attempting to manage it.

The report also warns against the use of bioenergy crops, whose cultivation is very water-intensive, in areas of water scarcity. The authors also say that desalination is no real answer, given its high energy requirements and brine by-product.

Elsewhere in agriculture, the agency says that a combination of crop selection and irrigation methods can substantially improve agricultural water efficiency if backed-up with farmer advisory programmes, and that national and EU funds including the EU's Common Agricultural Policy should be deployed in ways that promote sustainable water use in the sector.

Leakage in public water supply systems must also be addressed, argues the report, noting that in some parts of the continent, water loss as a result of leakage exceeds 40 percent of supplies.

The agency also recommends beefed up surveillance of water systems and stronger penalties for illegal water abstraction, a phenomenon it describes as "widespread" in some regions.

However, the major recommendation is that water pricing be introduced across all sectors, including agriculture.

The agency suggests that effective water pricing requires the implementation of water metering and needs to be based on the volume of water used, rather than adopting a flat-rate approach. At the same time, in order to guarantee universal access to clean water and sanitation, pricing should not result in anyone compromising their health in order to pay their water bill.

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