“Europe could achieve water savings of 40% through technical measures alone.”
Parched landscapes, empty rivers and forest fires are all visible indications of a dramatic rise in droughts and water scarcity across Europe. Besides having a negative impact on the environment and people’s daily lives, they cause great damage to economic sectors like agriculture and tourism. New research suggests that Europe could achieve water savings of 40% through technical measures alone – underlining the potential for policy action at EU level.
According to a recent Commission communication, the number of areas and people affected by droughts in the EU rose by almost 20% between 1976 and 2006. The severity of the problem is growing: in 2003, for instance, a widespread drought affected more than 100 million people and one third of EU territory. Experts predict that such events will become more frequent, mainly due to climate change, and that they will be exacerbated by the effects of accelerating economic development in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Communication on Water Scarcity and Droughts advocates tackling these problems by establishing a water-efficient and water-saving economy. This would require member states and regions to adopt what is termed a ‘water hierarchy’: this means that before contemplating the use of new water sources to meet their needs, they should begin by saving water, increasing efficiency and introducing effective water-pricing policies.
Huge savings are possible. According to a study done ahead of the communication, savings could be made without any need to change water production. The study looked at the four main water users: the public water supply, agriculture, industry and tourism. The first of these could make half of its water savings (some 150 litres per person per day in the EU) simply by reducing leakage in supply networks, encouraging the use of water-saving devices, and more efficient household appliances. The potential for water savings in the other three sectors is just as encouraging.
Using less water would bring Europeans a host of benefits, including lower water bills and reduced volumes of wastewater and sewage requiring treatment. The environment would gain too, as river basins would be placed under less stress from water extraction. Further advantages would include a fall in energy consumption, lower electricity bills and reduced CO2 emissions – in line with EU climate change and policy goals.
One issue singled out in the communication is the need for member states to implement fully the Water Framework Directive, since it offers ample scope for tackling both water scarcity and drought through the setting up of appropriate measures. More sustainable land planning is also identified as a priority area.
Another recommendation concerns the development of standards for water-using devices in homes and in agricultural irrigation equipment. These could be modelled on existing standards that rate the energy use of household appliances. The communication also calls for better use of EU and national funds to improve the management of water demand, and looks forward to the creation of a European Drought Observatory and drought early-warning systems by 2012.
In September 2008 the Commission will present a follow-up report to Parliament and the Council. The report will also be presented to stakeholders in Zaragoza, Spain, at the international exhibition on water and sustainable development to be held there next year. The follow-up report will set out a water action plan and a timetable for implementing the measures presented in the communication.
Total EU water extraction: 247 billion cubic metres/year.
Abstraction breakdown: energy production: 44%; agriculture: 24%; public water supply: 17%; industry: 15%.
Consumption breakdown: agriculture: 69%; public water supply: 13%; industry: 10%, and energy production: 8%.
Total cost of droughts in EU, 1976 to 2006: €100 billion