Water resources across Europe — confronting water stress: an updated assessment

Key messages

Current status: water stress in Europe is significant.

 • Water stress affects 20 % of the European territory and 30 % of the European population on average every year, while droughts cause economic damage of up to EUR 9 billion annually and additional unquantified damage to ecosystems and their services.

• Southern Europe faces severe water stress problems, which occur throughout the year in many river basins, with water consumed by agriculture, public water supply and tourism being the key pressure on water resource availability. The pressures from these economic sectors reach a significant seasonal peak in summer.

• In other parts of Europe, water stress is usually not a permanent issue, as it mainly occurs occasionally and in specific hotspots, where the key pressures are water consumed by cooling processes in electricity and industrial production, public water supply and mining.

• Water use efficiency has increased in agriculture, electricity production, industry, mining, public water supply and tourism. Water consumption by these sectors was 16 % lower in 2017 (the last year for which EU-wide statistics are available) than in 1995 (baseline), while production in these sectors grew by 20 % in terms of net value added.

 • The 2000 EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) provides a suitable framework for acting on the policy options to reverse water scarcity and drought, as set out in the Commission communication on water scarcity and drought, but their implementation has been slow. The 2021 EU strategy on climate change adaptation could provide a new impetus to achieve this goal. Future prospects: water stress in Europe is expected to worsen.

 • Droughts are increasing in frequency, magnitude and impact.

 • Climate change is projected to cause seasonal reductions in water availability in most parts of Europe, except in north-eastern areas. The strongest impact is expected in southern and south-western Europe, with river discharge reductions in summer of up to 40 % in some basins, under a 3 °C temperature rise scenario. Large parts of western and central Europe will also be affected, albeit to a lesser degree. Changes in aquifer recharge follow roughly the same pattern.

 • Improved water use efficiency could deliver a further reduction in water abstraction of 0.7 % per year over the coming years in the agricultural, industry and mining, and electricity production sectors.

• Although helpful, this will neither offset the climate change impacts on rainfall-dependent nature and on agriculture nor offset any strong local increases in water demand (see next point).

• Continued urbanisation and growth in coastal tourism will further concentrate water demand geographically. A warmer and drier climate could increase irrigation requirements by 20 %, adding to a stronger concentration of water demand in already drought-prone regions of Europe.

Solutions: potential EU-level actions to reduce water stress

 The opportunity offered by the WFD to manage water stress needs to be urgently realised. In particular, continued efforts will need to be made by EU Member States to develop drought management plans and coordinate or integrate them with the WFD river basin management plans.

 • Drought management should be based on long-term strategies for proactive water management and should make the transition from crisis management to risk management by, for example, putting more emphasis on demand[1]versus supply-side measures.

 • Initiatives and actions under the European Green Deal should also be used to support water stress management, including: the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030, in particular with regard to the restoration of freshwater ecosystems, restoration of river continuity, revision of water abstraction permits and implementation of ecological flows; the new EU circular economy action plan; the 2020 EU Water Reuse Regulation incentivising efficient water use through water pricing and enabling water reuse; and the 2021 EU climate change adaptation strategy incorporating climate risk into investment and policy decisions.

 • Sectoral policy interventions must be coherent and coordinated with the WFD and EU water directives to ensure the effectiveness of the latter. This refers to aligning not only strategic objectives but also legal requirements as far as possible.

 • The impacts of water stress are felt at local and regional scales, while its drivers act from regional to global scales. Linking these levels of analysis requires systemic thinking.

 • Data collection and information flows must be further improved and tailored to the spatial and temporal scales at which water stress makes itself felt

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