Water & Enviroment

Water Scarcity & Drought: Europe is Taking Steps

One of the EU’s prime goals for the 2007–2013 period is to master the consequences of climate change. In mid-July, the Commission presented a paper with counter-strategies

According to the “Communication Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union”, which was submitted to the European Commission and Parliament in mid-July, these phenomena have meanwhile also become a major challenge in Europe and will gain further momentum as the climate continues to change.

Retrospectively, dry periods in the EU have dramatically increased in duration and intensity over the last thirty years. Between 1976 and 2006, the number of affected areas and humans has increased by nearly 20 percent. More than 100 million people, or one third of Europe, were affected by the centennial summer 2003, causing at least € 8.7 billion of economic damage. The total cost of damage caused by droughts over the past thirty years is estimated at € 100 billion, with the average annual cost of drought quadrupling during this period 1).

“Drought” as defined in the Commission paper is a temporarily reduced availability of water, which may be caused by e.g. lower precipitiation. “Water scarcity”, in turn, implies that water consumption outweights the resources usable under “sustainable conditions”. Currently at least 11 percent of Europeans, or 17 percent of the land, suffer from water shortage; this phenomenon is expected to spread further across Europe.

The Commission thus regards drought and water scarcity not exclusively as an issue for water managers. All sectors depending on water in one way or another – agriculture, tourism, industry, transport, and especially the CO2 neutral energy recovery from water power – are affected. Negative consequences on biodiversity and water and soil quality are expected, and the risk of forest fires will further increase.

In its most recent “Green Paper on adapting to climate change”, the Commission assumes that this trend will not only continue but become more pronounced. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2) predicts that in the wake of a temperature rise by 2–3° C,Abwaswater scarcity will eventually affect between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people worldwide. The expansion of drought-stricken areas is also likely. Against this backdrop, the EU’s main focus is on developing effective strategies to fight the drought risk.

The Commission has, for instance, approved an energy and climate change package on 10th January 2007 to foster a sustainable, competitive and safe energy policy within the EU. The idea is to favour a more efficient energy use over the exploitation of new resources. This approach also applies to water scarcity and drought. In this case, the goal should be to move towards a “waterefficient or water-saving economy”. A thrifty use of water also reduces energy consumption as water abstraction, transport and conditioning requires a lot of energy. The Commission therefore believes a better control of water demand is crucial.

The present Communication already contains some initial proposals on how to combat water scarcity and drought on a European, national and regional level. At the same time, the Commission has agreed to keep an eye on both phenomena in international debate – such as in the framework of the “UN Convention to combat desertification” and the “UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”. Below is a list of vital recommendations for a better water resource management:

  • Full implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which in this context should be especially addressed to the “mismanagement of water resources”. The latter often results from inefficient water pricing, which fails to reflect the real expenses of local water supply. It is therefore suggested to
  • introduce the “user pays” principle (beyond the sectors of water supply and wastewater treatment). In this case, the Commission explicitly supports the use of market instruments in the environmental sector 3), among other things referring to Articles 9 and 11 (systematic monitoring of water abstraction) of the WFD. Moreover, it underpins the importance of access to adequate water supply for private households irrespective of the means available to them.
  • Better land-use planning, especially in river catchment areas, to counteract the imbalance of water allocation among different economic sectors. Local water resources have become particularly burdened by agricultural irrigation systems, which shall be curbed through further GAP reforms. It also needs to be examined what impact the growing use of biofuels has on water availability.
  • Making use of the huge water savings potential, which in Europe is said to be at least 20 percent 4). Water saving is thus more important than exploiting new resources or building new utilities. Public water supply must always have priority over other forms of use. In various regions, water consumption could be reduced by up to 30 percent. In some cities water losses of over 50 percent were reached. Irrigation systems squander water in a similar way. In addition to better technologies, the modernisation of management processes is essential for all industries with high water consumption rates (especially agriculture, manufacturing and tourism).
  • A precondition for the creation of a watersaving culture is the large-scale integration of supply issues in the political strategies for sectors using water. Other priority factors include information (e.g. how much water is needed for the manufacturing of a specific product) and education.
  • Filling of knowledge gaps and data comparability: The existing European and national assessment/monitoring programmes have not been integrated nor are they complete enough to counter the problems of water scarcity and drought. The recently presented Water Information System for Europe (WISE) is said to be such a data integration and distribution platform.

The Commission regards water scarcity and drought as important ecological problems and believes that they are a prerequisite to sustainable economic growth in Europe. The Communication concludes by saying: “As the EU seeks to revitalise and reinvigorate its economy and to continue to lead on tackling climate change, the devising of an effective strategy towards water efficiency can make a substantial contribution.”

1) ec.europa.eu/environment/water/ pdf/1st_report.pdf
2) IPPC WGII Fourth Assessment Report, April 6th 2007
3) Green Paper on market-based instruments for environment and related policy purposes, COM (2007) 140 final
4) Ecologic, Report on EU water saving potential, June 2007

(Source: aqua press Int. 3/2007)

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