Executive Summary

Water stress in Europe

Water stress occurs when there is not sufficient water available to meet the demands of the environment and of the water-dependent socio-economic functions, in terms of quantity or quality. Water stress is a general term combining drought, quantitative scarcity, water quality and water accessibility. Drought reflects the shortage of water due to short or long-term precipitation deficits, while water stress is a combined effect of drought and socio-economic pressures. Water stress occurs when the water demand is higher than the availability of water in the environment.

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There is a vast amount of fresh water on the planet, but it is not evenly distributed in space and time. In many areas short term abundance of water causes floods during parts of the year, while in other parts droughts may occur at the same location. Lack of water in other areas may result in desertification. Climate change is exacerbating the frequency, magnitude and geographical expanse of such events. In some cases, floods and droughts are experienced in the same area, due to increasing variability of hydro-climate conditions as result of the climate change impacts.

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Since decades, many areas on the planet have been suffering from the climate change impacts in different forms of the droughts and water scarcity. In some places water stress is experienced due to changing climate conditions, whereas in other areas simply society could not access to good quality of sufficient water because of socio-economic shortages.

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Droughts and water scarcity were not perceived as a Europe-wide problem until the early 2000s. It was regarded as a problem only occurs in southern Europe due to regional climate conditions. However, the improving information and data shows that droughts and water scarcity are no longer rarely experienced extreme events in Europe. Frequency and the area affected by either droughts or water scarcity are increasing and continuously expanding towards to central and western Europe as well as to those areas important for industry, electricity production and cities hosting millions of inhabitants. Today, on average, every year around 20 % of European territory and 30 % of total population is affected by water scarcity conditions (EEA, 2018b).

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Water stress has already become a limiting factor on human well-being in general, socio-economic life and ecosystems in Europe not only because of shortage in the volume of water available, but also due to deterioration of the water quality. Polluted water can’t be used for certain economic sectors e.g. for drinking.

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Water stress causes several adverse effects on the environment such as decreasing groundwater levels, salt-water intrusion, lowering river discharges and loss of wetlands.

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Water stress, overall, is a local or regional issue limited where it occurs. But drivers causing water stress are usually a combination of geographically wider factors such as climate change, tourism, food production and consumption chains, electricity production and population density. This cross-cutting nature of the water stress issue calls for coordinated actions among different policy areas.

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This report aims to update our knowledge on water stress in the European context to inform policy makers and interested stakeholders in regard to the current state of the art; and to present arguments for shifting from crise management to risk management by giving more emphasis on demand-side measures. The effectiveness of the implementation the policy measures for increasing the resilience of European ecosystems needs to be improved and more efficiency of socio-economy in order to prevent ourselves and our ecosystems from the unpredictable consequences of droughts and water scarcity. As pointed out in the SOER 2020 (EEA, 2019j) the tipping point for this transition has already been reached.

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Policy context

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) established a legal framework at the EU level targeting to prevent the further deterioration and achieve “good status” for all water bodies in Europe, taking into account the water needs of aquatic ecosystems, and promoting sustainable water use. The WFD supports integrated water management; and sets provisions to improve efficiency of water use and water services. Through specific provisions laid out in its Article 1, the WFD creates a flexible and suitable frame for action against water stress, underscoring the relation between water quantity, water quality and ecological status.

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Since 2000, overall, water use efficiency has improved and resulted in decreasing total water abstraction in Europe. However, issue of water stress continues escalating. Climate change drives seasonal variations in water availability. At the same time, water demand is increasing for sectors such as agriculture in certain periods of the year e.g. increasing irrigation demand in spring and summer, when water availability is at its lowest level, particularly in southern Europe. This causes increasing competition for water among the economic sectors, often pushing users to shift from surface to groundwater resources and ultimately exerting pressure on water bodies and the ecosystems depending on them.

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In order to properly respond to various aspects of water stress from the supply and demand side of water resources management, in 2007 the EU adopted a Communication on water scarcity and drought in an effort to bring clarity on policy priorities on how to tackle water stress. Implementation of the Communication was reviewed in several stages and in 2012 the Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources was published. Along with the policy provisions put forward by these two strategic documents, the EU resource efficiency roadmap, the CAP and the 7th Environmental Action Program also provided a number of policy mechanisms aiming to protect and enhance European natural capital and water resources.

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The implementation of those policies has resulted in some positive developments e.g. decreasing the total water abstraction at the European level. Nevertheless, policies addressing water stress remain scattered and overall progress has been slow. Building on a paradigm shift that originated in the 1980s, EU water scarcity and drought policy activated a transition from crisis management to proactive risk management approaches. Yet, this transition has been mostly a conceptual one, as in its implementation, the change of paradigm exposed a lack of institutional capacity across many Member States. So far, not in all river basins could water abstraction be reduced below 20 % of total water availability.

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Today, some Member States develop and implement flood risk management plans and drought management plans complementary to the river basin management plans under the EU WFD and Floods Directive. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the implementation of these plans remain questionable.

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The WFD recognizes the crosscutting character of water as a vital resource for social, environmental and economic systems, which places water policy in the middle of developments in other policy areas. Similarly, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has pointed to the need for systemic change that permeates recent EU policy, highlighting the importance of collaboration and policy integration and coherence. Concretely in this regard, SDG 6.5 promotes integrated water management and SDG 6.4 highlights the need to increase water use efficiency across all sectors and decoupling economic growth and water use. In this context, several new policy initiatives in Europe are at the eve of being implemented. The European Green Deal sets ambitious targets and objectives -among others- to protect, conserve and enhance the EU’s natural capital. The new Circular Economy Action Plan explicitly appeals to water stress and includes provisions for improving resource efficiency in the context of water resources management. Similarly, the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 acknowledges the importance of natural capital to industry and agriculture and sets quantitative targets for ecosystem restoration including 25 000 km of free-flowing rivers. The new Climate Change Law, Sustainable Finance, Farm to Fork Strategy, the new CAP Pillar II and the 8th Environmental Action Program -among many others- appeal to increasing resource efficiency, protecting the natural capital and improving the human well-being by means of transitioning the European economy to be more sustainable by 2030-2050.

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In the context of water stress, all these policy provisions and initiatives require strong coordination and collaboration at the implementation phase across sectors and ecosystems. So far, a major gap to achieve more effective implementation was the lack of adequate institutional frameworks and capacity to promote coordinated, cross-sectoral action and measure progress in tackling water stress. The European Green Deal and the upcoming new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change represent fresh opportunities to integrate water stress and drought policy objectives into other areas, increase coherence and propel implementation.

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Renewable freshwater resources under a changing climate

Climate change is a major factor influencing the availability of renewable freshwater resources. The last decades recorded a series of the hottest and driest years over the last centuries and the annual average temperature for Europe has already increased 1.6 to 1.7 °C above the pre-industrial level (EEA, 2018b). Temperature rise increases potential and actual evapotranspiration, causes more frequent extreme drought occurrences, intensifies heavy precipitation, attenuates snowpack build-up and triggers early snow melting. These effects have led to a decrease of the annual precipitation in parts of southern Europe (EEA, 2020c), which, combined with increasing actual evapotranspiration, leads to increasing water stress. In contrast, in north-eastern and northern Europe, precipitation and intensity of heavy precipitation in winter and summer increases (EEA, 2020c). Decreasing snowpack on the Alps and Carpathians and earlier snow melting in lower attitudes of the Alps are already observable, while recent summer droughts have struck areas reaching up to the Arctic circle.

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Monitoring indicates considerable shifts are already occurring in the frequency and the temporal and spatial distribution of precipitation in many parts of Europe. The consequences of these shifts are observable in decreasing river discharges in the south and an increase in the north(EEA, 2016g).

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Water demand for environment and economy

The population of European urban centres increases further, while the population in rural areas decreases. This leads to the development of more peri-urban land to meet the additional needs for residence and work space. Moreover, tourism in Europe has reached record-levels over the last decade and this has resulted in rapid land conversion for the development of touristic facilities and supporting transport infrastructure. Urban sprawl accelerates in coastal areas, which are also vulnerable to future sea level rise. The expansion of impervious areas and land sealing increases the risks of urban floods and drains away water that could otherwise recharge local aquifers.

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Every year about 230 000 million m3 of freshwater corresponding to 13 % of the available water is abstracted in Europe for socio-economic purposes. Agriculture (58 %), cooling water for electricity production (18 %), mining, quarrying, construction and manufacturing (11 %) and public water supply (10 %) are the major water users.

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After use, treated or untreated water is returned to the environment. The difference between water abstraction and return is regarded as water consumption (water use). The average return ratio of water by cooling is around 80 %([1]), while agriculture returns around 30 % of total water abstraction back to the environment.

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In many European basins, water is either over-abstracted with insufficient water left for environmental needs or returned with high pollution. Only three EU Member States (Cyprus, Hungary and the Netherlands) implemented ecological flows in all RBDs in 2016, whereas France implemented the ecological flows in 2 RBDs (EC, 2019b). In 2015, 58 % of river water bodies did not achieve good ecological status, for which water abstraction (8 %) has been reported as one of the main pressures  and groundwater levels have already lowered in some of the EU Member States (Kristensen et al., 2018). Groundwater is often seen as cheap buffer resources, which can be used to supply high quality drinking water, especially when local surface waters are not suitable for exploitation or at times of water stress. Insufficient legal enforcement and incomplete tariff systems in the agricultural sector are still responsible for unauthorised water abstractions, over-exploitation of groundwater, which leads to saline intrusion in coastal aquifers. Meanwhile, around 84 % of freshwater habitats in Europe was found in unfavorable conditions according to the EU habitats directive assessment in 2015 (EEA, 2020b).

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The EU27+UK has made substantial progress and has decreased water abstraction by 24 % in 2017 compared to the level of 2000, while in the same period its Gross Value Added (GVA) has increased by 52 %. Although the volumetric pressure on renewable freshwater resources has started to decline, significant improvements are not yet visible in the quantitative status of water bodies, partly because recovery can be a slow environmental process, and also because climate change and socio-economic development can offset volumetric gains and aggravate local pressures. The milestone set in the EU resource efficiency roadmap — i.e. water abstraction should stay below 20 % of available water resources in Europe — has not been achieved yet in 19 RBDs according to the estimate in 2015. According to estimations, 20 % of territory and 33% of permanent population were affected by water stress conditions in the summer of 2015, with water abstraction exceeding 20% of available water resources (EEA, 2018b).

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There is a significant water saving potential across all economic sectors, but large investments are needed to unlock it. Monitoring, metering and authorisation of water abstractions and understanding of environmental interactions in river basins has progressed overall. Environmental flow requirements (e-flows) are better defined than they were, even though still not to a satisfactory level. Enforcement has improved; yet, there is a long distance to cover until full implementation of WFD requirements regarding e-flows across all EU water bodies. Leakages in the conveyance systems are still higher than 25% of total water supply in many eastern and southern European countries(EC, 2013b). Furthermore, attention is needed to avoid rebound effects.

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As local water resources are getting more stressed or depleted, urbanisation also causes higher demand, which is often met by the implementation of storage and water transfer projects. Such projects have significant impacts on hydromorphology and environmental concerns have led to stricter permitting procedures.

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Promising approaches and measures

The analysis of the future gap between water availability and water demand points to increasing impact of the water stress issue in southern Europe, and in some parts of the other regions of Europe. This finding is consistent with earlier studies (JRC, 2020b).

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Increasing water demand of socio-economic activities under a changing climate forces Member States to explore additional measures for water supply and water demand. Innovative approaches to supply water using non-conventional resources (e.g. desalination, water reuse, rainwater harvesting) are already implemented in many Member States.

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The EU is dedicated to innovation as a means to tackle future challenges giving particular focus on better monitoring of the earth and its climate; better data management; better socio-environmental modelling; improvements in hydrological and drought forecasting; better technologies for increasing technical water efficiency; better tools for controlling water demand; and better technologies for enabling and promoting alternative water sources.

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For the analysis of water stress related issues, the water-energy-land-food nexus (WELF nexus) provides a holistic conceptual framework. Adopting this approach leads to the acknowledgement that the nature of water, energy, land and food systems is interdependent. This facilitates the identification of synergies and trade-offs between these resources, i.e. additional benefits from simultaneous management of both resources or necessary sacrifices to one resource to gain the benefits from the other resource (Psomas et al., 2018; Ringler et al., 2013).

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The application of nature-based solutions needs to be explored further. While the number of specific options for water stress is limited, the associated approach and stakeholder involvement offer a way forward for integrative solutions to complex problems. Natural water retention measures and aquifer recharge are promising options, but to be effective they must be implemented at sufficient scale. This requires precise assessments (models) and co-ordination.

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Needs for integrated policy responses

Mainstreaming water considerations into other environmental and sectoral policies and finding synergies across them are key to enabling sustainable water management and reducing society’s exposure and vulnerability to water stress. The recent WFD fitness check has highlighted that one of the key factors contributing to the effectiveness of the EU water directives in progressing towards their objectives were the (binding) cross-references to the WFD’s objectives in other EU policies.

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The recent adoption of the Water Reuse Regulation is a good example of integrated thinking. The new CAP programming cycle for 2021-2030 provides fresh opportunity to integrate more ambitious environmental safeguards that acknowledge local water resource limitations and scarcity situations.

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The new Farm-to-Fork Strategy illustrates how the Green Deal aims to support integrated and systemic thinking, and promote more sustainable food systems. Such systemic thinking to reduce Europe’s vulnerability to water stress still has to permeate policies of other economic sectors such as energy and industry, although some safeguards already exist.

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Several EU initiatives support the use of nature-based solutions to enhance Europe’s vulnerability to water stress and risk of droughts. The EU Adaptation Strategy 2013 (EC, 2013a), to be updated soon, recognises the importance of integrated solutions to tackle water stress, by scaling up environmental mainstreaming in sectoral policies and climate-proofing investments, and by improving the protection and restoration of European ecosystems. However, recent assessments indicate that synergies between water stress policies and climate change adaptation strategies are not fully exploited at Member State and river basin levels (EC, 2019e).

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[1] However, it is responsible for thermal pollution and risks for hypoxia due to its heat load

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