1. Introduction

1.1.        Setting the scene

Water is vital for the three pillars of Europe’s sustainable growth: its society, its economy and its environment. All three depend on the adequate availability and supply of water of sufficient quality at the right time and in the right location.

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As it is, in many parts of Europe, a mismatch has evolved between the demand for water and the volume of available water, resulting in water stress. This report addresses the existing and future water stress conditions and risks in Europe, their impacts on the environment, society and economy, and the perspectives for action that are open for exploration.

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Box 1.1 Terms related to water stress

Water stress is the general term used in this report for the situation where the available water does not cover the local demand (including environmental demand). Water stress can be caused by a volumetric shortage, by insufficient water quality, by droughts or by insufficient accessibility. See the Glossary for further explanation.

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In southern Europe and in densely populated areas across the EU water stress is a permanent, year-round problem. In other parts water stress occurs only temporarily or even incidentally. This is a result of the varying water availability and demand in time, with meteorological conditions (average seasonal and year-to-year variability, extreme events in the form of droughts) and with economic activities.

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When water stress occurs structurally or frequently, the term ‘water scarcity’ is used. In water stressed regions the environment usually suffers first (from low river flows or low groundwater levels), but economic sectors may also experience shortages, at least during parts of the year.

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The term used for conditions of irregular or incidental water stress is water shortage. Droughts and water shortages hit hitherto unexpected locations, as occurred in Western and Northern Europe in 2018 (Box 1.2). Some more recent drought events in areas which are normally not perceived as prone to droughts are the Arctic circle and Siberia in 2020 and 2019, the Elbe river basin in summer of 2015 and the Black Sea area in 2007.

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Box 1.2  The drought of 2018 in Central and Northern Europe

During the spring and summer of 2018, central and northern Europe experienced severe drought conditions, a combination of exceptionally warm temperatures and low precipitation (Map 1.1). Indeed, many Member States in these areas recorded one of their three hottest and driest summers, ever. In contrast, southern Europe and particularly the Iberian Peninsula recorded a wetter than usual spring and summer (Eurostat, 2019b).

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Map 1.1 The Combined Drought Indicator (CDI) for the last dekad of July 2018 (left) and the second dekad of September 2018 (right)

 

Source: (JRC, 2020a)

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The 2018 drought has impacted farmers throughout Northern Europe. The 2018 yields of cereals, potatoes and sugar beets, crops in which northern European countries have a large share, showed a marked decline compared to 2017. Drought also heavily affected pasture (generally not irrigated) with detrimental effects on the livestock/dairy sector.

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The drought also had severe impacts on other socioeconomic sectors (Toreti et al., 2019; Harris, 2018), for example, higher than usual death rates among elderly people, difficulties in power plant cooling, stability issues in the Dutch dike system due to lack of freshwater, extremely low river levels with negative impact on the transport sector industries dependent on water way transport and forest fires.

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According to the estimation of the water exploitation index (WEI+)([1]) about 13 % of the European territory suffers from all year round water stress conditions, and at least 120 million people are affected permanently by significant water stress in these areas. Assessments in this report underlines that the seasonal and structural water stress might be exacerbated in the future as well. Further information on the current state and future projections on water stress in Europe is provided in  Chapter 5 of this report.

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1.2.        Scope and outline of the report

The overall aim of this report is, in accordance with Article 1 of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), to promote sustainable water use based on a long-term protection of available water resources. The report overall addresses to the trends in water availability, water abstractions and water use efficiency, including their impacts on the environment and on the main water-dependent economic sectors (agriculture, electricity production, manufacturing and domestic water supply). The report also explores the decoupling[2] of sectorial water abstraction from growth, future water availability and water demand, and evaluates the potential of current responses to water stress.

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The DPSIR (Drivers-Pressures-State-Impact-Responses) framework has been followed as analytical framework in developing the report. Hence, the analytical framework followed in this report starts from climate change and socio-economic development as key drivers for water availability and water demand. An overview of water stress related EU policy responses is included in this report. Measures and policy responses can seize on any of the DPSIR steps. This is illustrated in a detailed schema in Section 4.10.

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This report has been built on 6 different chapters in line with the DPSIR framework to address various aspects of the water stress issues, impacts of multi-drivers on European water resources and EU policy responses (Figure 1.1)

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 Figure 1.1            Structure of the report

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Chapter 2 describes the European policy context, i.e. the policies implemented in the field of water scarcity and drought management, sectoral and environmental policies with a link to water use or management, and cross-cutting integrative policies. It also highlights some links between the European policy landscape and recent global policy developments.

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Chapter 3 presents climate change as the first of the two key drivers of water stress. The chapter addresses the meteorological parameters that have an impact on droughts and water availability and then illustrates how these are reflected in the stages of the hydrological cycle. The focus is given on precipitation and evapotranspiration patterns as determinants of water availability, and on the frequency and intensity of droughts. A drought starts with reduced levels of precipitation compared to normal. From there, a drought may propagate through the hydrological cycle and from there impact the environment and the economy. The time horizon varies around 2050-2100.

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Chapter 4 starts off with the current state of water abstractions. It then highlights how water abstractions are guided by socio-economic developments, including land-use changes. The chapter gives an overview of how water is abstracted and used in the major water-dependent economic sectors: energy, agriculture, households, tourism and industry, and for the environment. The socio-economic development at large determines how the economic water-dependent sectors are developing, as a result of such underlying trends as population growth, technological innovations, and market relations from local to global levels. The key issue in this report is, how this will eventually affect the water demand of the sectors. The chapter concludes with an overview of existing policies and measures.

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Chapter 5 provides a consolidated overview on the findings of Chapters 3 and 4 to sketch the future trend in water stress.

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Chapter 6 Ways of dealing with the future water stress include innovative technologies, policy responses, nexus approaches and nature-based solutions. These options are introduced and their relevance for water stress management is explored. The chapter concludes with an outlook.

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 Chapter 7 presents the main conclusions of this report.

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Primary stakeholders

Traditionally water stress concerns water users and water managers as they are the principal stakeholders. First at local to regional level, then at national level, and since the publication of the EU Communication on Water Scarcity & Drought in 2007 explicitly at EU level. In parallel, the diversity of the audience increases. Water stress and its expected adverse economic consequences increasingly draw the attention of the financing world and insurance companies (EEA, 2019c). The World Economic Forum has listed ‘extreme weather’ in its top-5 of risks with the highest likelihood since 2014, and in its top-5 of risks with the highest impact since 2017. The urgency and magnitude of the challenge is also stated in a recent World Bank report (World Bank, 2016) which, amongst others, indicates that water scarcity could cost some regions up to 6 % of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The adverse impacts of water abstractions on the environment have driven water stress and drought issues up the priority list of societal organisations such as Right2Water Citizen Initiative (Anonymous, 2020) and of nature protection NGOs such as the WWF and IUCN (Trémolet S. et al., 2019), while scarcity risk is addressed in the year plans of multinational companies such as Intel (Aquatech, 2019), Coca-Cola and Unilever. The Water Footprint Assessment has played an important role in raising awareness of the implicit role of water in global production and trade. Several networks of private enterprises (such as the WBCSD, the Carbon Initiative,  Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER)) have made steps to incorporate water as part of the scope of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, as does the European Water Stewardship scheme. All this goes to demonstrate that water stress is no longer the sole concern of water managing authorities and direct water users. The ‘newly involved’ stakeholders can have a crucial role in the design and implementation of nature-based solutions, as illustrated in the NAIAD project (Section 6.4).

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1.3.        Relevance to the EEA activities

This report builds on a long chain of earlier EEA assessments and reports. A prominent predecessor is the 2009 report on Water resources across Europe — confronting water scarcity and drought (EEA, 2009). The current report is the updated version of 2009 report, hence, titled Water resources across Europe — confronting water scarcity and drought-II. Compared to 2009 report, the current report adds recent data, an update of determining trends and of the cross-links with adjacent sectors and disciplines, updates of policies and measures, and proposals for solutions.

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Among many others, the following reports have been used as inputs in developing this report: Effectiveness of urban wastewater treatment policies in selected countries: an EEA pilot study (EEA, 2005), Towards the efficient use of water resources in Europe (EEA, 2012a),  Water resources in Europe in the context of vulnerability (EEA, 2012b) , Assessment of cost recovery through water pricing Economic instruments (EEA, 2013a), National adaptation policy processes in European countries – 2014 (EEA, 2014),  Water-retention potential of Europe's forests: a European overview to support natural water retention measures (EEA, 2015), Public participation, contributing to better water management: experiences from eight case studies across Europe(EEA et al., 2014),  Climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in Europe -Enhancing coherence of the knowledge base, policies and practices (EEA, 2017a), Water management in Europe: price and non-price approaches to water conservation (EEA, 2017g), European waters- Assessment of status and pressures (Kristensen et al., 2018), Landscapes in transition-An account of 25 years of land cover change in Europe (EEA, 2017e), Industrial waste water treatment: pressures on Europe's environment (EEA, 2019d), Climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in Europe(EEA, 2019a), State of nature in the EU (EEA, 2020f) and finally The European environment: state and outlook 2020 : knowledge for transition to a sustainable Europe (EEA, 2019j) presents a comprehensive analysis of the above elements and opens perspectives towards a systems approach.

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Over the past years the EEA has put a large effort into the organisation and collection of data for the development of water accounts and indicators supporting the assessment of the state of European waters (EEA, 2019l). Furthermore two important reports have been published by European Topic Centre of Marine and Inland Waters on the establishment of water accounts (ETC/ICM, 2016; Zal et al., 2017). This report makes ample use of the results of that effort, most notably the Core Set of Indictors (CSI) on Water and Climate change ([3]).

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Along with the above-mentioned reports, assessment from a number of the EEA water, climate, land and biodiversity related indicators have been intensively used in relevant chapters which have been referenced throughout the report.  Databases of State of Environment, EEA dashboards on various topics (EEA, 2018c, 2019i) and Eurostat database have also provided facility for quantified assessment on status and pressures around the European water resources.

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[1] WEI+: the Water Exploitation Index Plus. The WEI+ is defined as the total water net consumption (abstractions minus returns) divided by the freshwater resources of a region, including upstream inflowing water. WEI+ values have a range between 0 and 1. Values below 0.1 denote “low water stress”, values between 0.1 and 0.2 denote “moderate water stress”, “water stress” when this ratio is larger than 0.2, and “severe water stress” if the ratio exceeds 0.4 (Feargemann, 2012).

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[2] Decoupling refers to the ability to sustain economic growth while reducing the amount of resources such as water or fossil fuels used, delinking environmental deterioration at the same time.

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