Preventative action needed on Europe’s water vulnerability

Human-induced alterations to the environment such as land use, water abstraction and climate change are threatening Europe's natural cycle of water availability, according to a report published this week.

Released by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the report claims that a number of factors are exposing water ecosystems and societies to man-made shortages and excesses of water, in a situation known as ‘water vulnerability’.

To address the pressures on Europe’s water security, the EEA recommends a risk management approach which would tackle the problem with preventative action.

The report says that land use change adds to water vulnerability, pointing out that urban development usually leads to soil sealing by asphalt and concrete, meaning that rain cannot seep naturally into the earth.

Water abstraction is another major cause of water insecurity according to the paper, and agriculture does not always protect the soil and water beneath it. 

Agriculture, which is highly dependent on irrigation, accounts for 33% of total water use in Europe, and this dependence on water can reach up to 80% in parts of Southern Europe.

The report says the problem with this type of abstraction is that usually the periods of peak demand for irrigation come during the summer, when rainfall is already low and when regions are suffering from drought.

The EEA suggests that the synergies between water policy and agricultural policy should be taken advantage of by reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. In a measure known as ‘cross compliance’, receipts should be made of certain agricultural subsidies contingent on meeting objectives in the Water Framework Directive, according to the EEA.

Other agricultural measures to support sustainable water management include the cultivation of crops that can be sown earlier in the year to take advantage of early spring rain.

Climate change is the third major factor affecting water vulnerability argues the EEA.
Although climate change has a more indirect effect on water quantity than land use change or abstraction and its impacts are therefore also more difficult to discern, the effects are becoming increasingly visible.

The EEA predicts that climate change will exacerbate the frequency and severity of both droughts and floods in Europe over the coming decades.

The report recommends that water pricing and water metering are introduced and that other economic instruments such as taxes and subsidies can help discourage unsustainable water use.

Another important step, the EEA claims, is the creation of a system of water accounts, which would provide data on exactly what water is available for human use, and what water is needed for ecosystems at any given time.

Conor McGlone

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