3.3 Abstractions and water scarcity

3.3 Abstractions and water scarcity


Climate change, population growth, urbanisation and intensifying economic activities make water scarcity a critical concern in Europe. Water scarcity refers to long-term water imbalances, combining low water availability with a level of water demand which exceeds the supply capacity of the natural system.[1] In some areas of Europe, water abstractions are characterised by seasonality, adding up to the existing water scarcity drivers of weather phenomena, temperatures, and geographical location (EEA 2019b).

In the second RBMPs of WFD countries[2], around 8 000 surface water bodies (about 6 % of total) were affected by significant pressures from abstraction, with the highest share in Hungary, Spain, Cyprus, and Bulgaria. For around half of these surface water bodies, significant pressures from abstractions are linked to agriculture, while abstractions for public water supply and industry are also major pressures.

Over the last decades, groundwater aquifers have also been affected by overexploitation in many parts of Europe (EEA 2019a). In the second RBMPs, water abstraction was a significant pressure for 17 % of groundwater area in Europe with the highest share in Hungary, Malta and Cyprus. The reported groundwater water abstractions mainly serve public water supply, followed by agriculture and industry.

In 2017, the water consumption in Europe by different economic sector was made up as follows: agriculture (58 %), cooling water for energy production (18 %), mining, quarrying, construction and manufacturing industries (11 %) and households (10%) (EEA 2020).[3] Water consumption refers to the net water abstraction, which is estimated as the difference between the volume of water abstracted and the volume of water returned to the environment before or after use. The average return ratio of water used for cooling lies at around 80 %, while only about 30 % of the total water abstracted for agricultural purposes in Europe returns to the environment (ibid.). The low water return to the environment combined with high water consumption makes agriculture one of the sectors that cause significant pressures on renewable water resources (EEA forthcoming), especially in southern European countries which record up to 80 % of water use for agriculture (EEA 2018a).  

Between the year 2000 and 2017, the EU-28 could decrease water abstraction by 17 %, while increasing its Gross Added Value by 59 % in the same period (EEA forthcoming). Despite this positive trend, water scarcity remains a significant issue for many river basins across Europe, especially in the south. Furthermore, drought events are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change. They are also striking various areas all across Europe, spanning even up to the Arctic circle (EEA, 2020). According to recent projections, an intensification and a longer duration of water scarcity is expected under global warming in the EU, specifically in the Mediterranean countries (Bisselink et al., 2020) (see Figure 12).[4] By 2030, half of the EU’s river basins are expected to experience water scarcity and stress (Trémolet et al. 2019).    

Figure 12 Projected change in water scarcity in the EU under global warming

Notes: Projected  change  in water  scarcity days  (WEI+  > 20%)  in  a  year  compared  with  present  day  for  a  global temperature increase of (a) 1.5oC, (b) 2oC, and (c) 3oC. The results of both the 1.5oC and 2oC warming levels are based on the average of the 11 climate model simulations from both the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 emission scenarios, while the results of the 3oC warming level are solely based on the 11 simulation of the RCP8.5 emission scenario.

Source(s): Bisselink et al., 2020

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/quantity/about.htm

[2] Throughout this report, the term WFD countries has been used to cover the countries that implement the WFD: the 27 EU Member States, Norway and United Kingdom.

[3] EEA, 2020, Indicator Use of Freshwater Resources in Europe, https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/use-of-freshwater-resources-3/assessment-4

[4] JRC Peseta IV, Task 10 report, https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/sites/jrcsh/files/pesetaiv_task_10_water_final_report.pdf

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Impacts of abstractions and water scarcity

Water scarcity and drought events are an increasing problem in many areas of Europe, both permanently and seasonally. The environment needs water to sustain aquatic ecosystems and ecosystem services. Low water availability affects surface and groundwater, altering the hydrological regime, degrading ecosystems and leading to severe ecological impacts that affect not only biodiversity and habitats, but also the quality of water and soil (e.g. affecting water temperature, reducing the dilution capacity of pollutants or causing saline intrusions) (EEA, 2018).

In particular, (over-)abstraction of surface water bodies can cause the drying-out of water courses and wetland areas in Europe and the lowering of river water levels (EEA 2018c). This is a common problem in areas with low rainfall and high population density and in areas with intensive agricultural or industrial activity (EEA 2018c). The drying out or low flow of river courses can have adverse ecological affects, such as the decline in species richness and vegetation encroachment. For example, water abstraction converted naturally perennial-flowing rivers to intermittently flowing rivers in Spain, leading to a decline in fish species richness by 35 % (Benejam et al., 2010).

In addition, the (over-)abstraction of groundwater bodies can cause the lowering of groundwater levels (EEA 2018c) with further impacts on groundwater-dependent aquatic ecosystems.  In coastal areas, saltwater can intrude into the groundwater aquifers from which freshwater is abstracted leading to salinization and rendering the aquifers unusable as a drinking water supply (EEA 2018a).

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Measures and management challenges

Water stress is caused when demand is relatively high and abstractions take up a significant share of annually renewable freshwater resources or even exceed annual water capacity with withdrawals from non-renewable reserves. In this sense, water scarcity and stress is a complex phenomenon which entails multiple causes that are often interconnected. Thus, an integrated water management approach appears most suited to attain the European and Sustainable Development Goals for water. This includes coherent and consistent policy instruments, education, economic tools, structural interventions where needed, and recourse to new technologies among others. At the moment, water scarcity and droughts policies are mostly legislated and implemented at national level. Several measures are used to address the adverse impacts of water abstractions and water scarcity. These can be roughly divided into demand-side and supply-side measures.

Various policies and measures put an emphasis on managing water demand (demand-side measures). These include disincentivising pricing mechanisms, enhanced awareness-raising, advanced metering, subsidies, and fiscal incentives. For instance, the introduction of water metering mixed with pricing and non-pricing instruments has already lowered the water consumption per capita in large parts of Europe (Dige et al. 2017). In some countries, however, especially in Southern Europe, efforts to address over-abstraction and to secure long-term sustainability remain inadequate (Trémolet et al. 2019). Permit and licensing mechanisms have not been fully effective in averting illegal abstraction and over-abstraction in certain European regions (Ross, 2016).

Supply-side measures include the creation of reservoirs, rainwater harvesting, inter-basin water transfers, desalination and water reuse. Some supply-side measures present their own challenges, e.g. by causing physical alterations in the water environment. Some other supply-side measures do not structurally impact water per se, but rather aim at its infrastructure thereof. These include leakage detection and improvement of irrigation techniques. The common agricultural policy of the EU (CAP) supports farmers to invest in water saving irrigation infrastructures and techniques. At the same time, water efficiency should be promoted across economic sectors in an integrated manner. Overall, further evidence-based exchange is needed among experts and countries on the kind of water supply-side options which are more sustainable and need further promotion.

All in all, both demand and supply-side measures have their advantages and shortcomings.  Relying on one type of measures only, is not enough to achieve environmental objectives. Instead, a combination of both sets is desirable to tackle the impacts of water abstractions and scarcity from a consistent and long-term perspective. Techniques may range from water pricing incentives to the reduction of network leakages rates for agricultural businesses (Trémolet 2019).

Strategic planning instruments have also been in use in European countries, such as drought management plans in Spain. These enable to plan, monitor, and mitigate water scarcity situations and enhance decision-making during periods of drought (Stein et al. 2016, 2020; EC 2007).

Preventive actions and recovery policies should be informed by identifying measures based on an ecosystem-based management approach (EEA forthcoming). This presupposes that ecosystemic preservation is just another goal to be pursued alongside production, employment and other policy targets, which have serious implications for water ecosystems in the EU. Integrated water management and nexus approaches to managing the complex system of water-food-energy-environment are becoming increasingly implemented to ensure cross-compliant policy responses to water abstraction challenges among others (ibid.). Both approaches have in common that they take into account environmental as well as sectoral needs (EEA 2018a).

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