Europe must dramatically cut its water consumption and use water more efficiently if it is to avoid the worst impacts of water shortage, the European Environment Agency (EEA) warns in a new report, “Water resources across Europe—confronting water scarcity and drought”.
“The balance between water demand and availability has reached a critical level in many areas of Europe, the results of over-abstraction and prolonged periods of low rainfall or drought,” reads the report, which was launched at the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, in the run-up to World Water Day (22 March).
Visible signs of water loss include reduced river flows and lower lake and groundwater levels. As water levels decline, so do the populations of the plants and animals that rely on the water for their survival. Furthermore, as water levels fall, so does water quality, as there is less of it available in which to dilute pollutants. Looking to the future, Europe's water woes are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, which is predicted to increase both the frequency and severity of droughts.
Every year, Europe abstracts around 285 cubic kilometers of fresh water. Almost half of this (44%) is taken by the energy sector, mostly for use as cooling water. A quarter of the water goes to the agricultural sector, although in southern Europe this figure is far higher; in the driest areas, 80% of all water abstracted goes to agriculture. Most of the water taken by the energy sector is returned to the environment. Furthermore, technological improvements mean that the energy sector now requires less cooling water than in the past. In contrast, just 30% of water taken for use in agriculture is returned to the environment, with the rest either evaporating or being taken up by the crop.
Some 21% of water abstracted goes to the public water supply, and the remaining 11% goes to industry. The decline of heavy industry, combined with more efficient water use and greater on-site recycling of waste water means that the amount of water used by industry has declined over the past 15 years.
The EEA sets out a series of recommendations to reduce Europe”s water use. Top of the list is the need to price water according to the volume used, especially in the agricultural sector. There are many ways of reducing agricultural water use, the report notes. These include changing the timing of irrigation, using more efficient techniques, and changing crop types. In some areas, the illegal abstraction of water for agriculture is rife, and authorities need to put in place an appropriate system of fines to address the problem.
Many public water systems lose vast volumes of water through leakages; systems to detect and repair these need to be improved and networks should be upgraded, the report recommends.
In the home, technology has led to sharp improvements in the water efficiency of many appliances, but more could be done to inform the public of these issues, according to the report. Meanwhile, harvested rainwater and gray water (from showers and kitchen sinks, for example) could be used to flush toilets and water gardens.
Finally, if the appropriate guidelines and standards are followed, the use of treated municipal wastewater for the irrigation of crops and golf courses could be expanded Europe-wide.
We are living beyond our means when it comes to water. The short-term solution to water scarcity has been to extract ever greater amounts of water from our surface and groundwater assets. Over exploitation is not sustainable. It has a heavy impact on the quality and quantity of the remaining water as well as the ecosystems which depend on it. We have to cut demand, minimize the amount of water that we are extracting and increase the efficiency of its use.—EEA Executive Director Professor Jacqueline Mc Glade
EEA Report No 2/2009. “Water resources across Europe—confronting water scarcity and drought”