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Water Scarcity & Droughts in the European Union

Building blocks for the Water Scarcity & Droughts Policy review

Previously completed studies 2007-2010


Assessment of agriculture measures included in the draft RBMPs


Assessment of inter-linkages between bioenergy development and water availability

Efficiency standards for water using products

Water performance of buildings

WFD & Agriculture linkages at the EU Level

Scenarios of water demand management – Impacts at regional levels


Assessment of four alternative water supply options


Guidelines for Drought Management Plans

Water saving potential in Europe



Assessment of agriculture measures included in the draft River Basin Management Plans (May 2010)

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) (2000/60/EC) has introduced a legal framework for sustainable management of water resources across Europe. According to this directive Member States (MS) had to prepare drafts of the river basin management plans (RBMPs) and respective programmes of measures (PoMs). As agriculture is identified as a major source of pollution, these plans and programmes have to address agricultural pressures to ensure the full implementation of the WFD and the concretization of WFD objectives. Important pressures from agriculture are diffuse pollution, physical modification of water bodies and overexploitation of water in particular in Southern Europe.  

Given this context, this assessment of the draft RBMPs covering 137 draft RBMPs in 22 EU countries, which were available by 1st September 2009, aimed to verify main agricultural pressures and measures to reduce them.


Assessment of inter-linkages between bioenergy development and water availability (July 2009)

This study analyses the different water needs and distribution of bioenergy crops grown or potentially grown in the next decades in the EU. The idea was to develop scenarios focusing on future bioenergy developments and related land use until 2020, assessing the impacts of increased bioenergy cropping on a river basin level on future water availability, and to support the European Commission in linking water scarcity issues to agricultural policies.

The study concludes that despite the current situation, which shows a limited impact of bioenergy on water consumption, this could change in the future depending on how policies will lead to increased or decreased irrigation. One of the main findings of the study is that stricter restrictions on water use in water scarce regions of the EU will not significantly influence the potential of the EU to produce large quantities of biomass. Alongside this, the report shows how a significant increase in biomass production in the EU will necessarily increase the total irrigation water consumption, being the stricter water use restrictions only needed in the most water scarce regions. Therefore, in order to reach bioenergy targets by 2020, the study considers it more efficient to stimulate the cropping of biomass in the northern and central regions of Europe, whereas in other areas alternative water supply options like wastewater reuse can be considered as potential solutions to reduce water scarcity.

Study on water efficiency standards (July 2009)

This study provides an overview of water using products and the existing policy instruments related to them covering also water efficiency standards for water-using devices used in Europe and some other countries outside Europe.

It analyses the potential of introducing water efficiency standards for Water-using Products (WuPs) at EU level, for the household, commercial, industry and agriculture sectors, and taking into account the use patterns, potential for improvement, water efficiency and market trends for each one of them. It shows that the most relevant products in this matter are those used for sanitation, laundry, washing and outdoor applications. At the industrial level it was noted that figures available are either scarce or too industry-specific, therefore the study focused on the products which are widely used across different industries (cleaning, steam generation, and cooling equipment). Concerning agriculture, difficulties were identified in determining how to measure the water efficiency of irrigation systems, due to the fact that this is dependent on user management practises.

The study identifies the need for an EU approach that could contribute to water efficiency across Europe, regardless of the variation in climate, population or land use practices in Member States.

Study on the water performance of buildings (July 2009)

This study analyses the need for the introduction of requirements for the water performance of buildings at EU level for discussing the potential advantages and disadvantages of such an approach, will feed into the current study.

After analysing the policy tools and the water performance of building assessment methodologies, the study reveals that EU action could bring benefits in terms of water savings in buildings. The report explains that most of the savings could be reached with the use of water efficient products and recommends developing efficiency standards for water-using products as a priority action, and taking several long-term initiatives towards higher water performance of buildings. In the course of the 2012 Policy Review, the Commission will undertake a further assessment of the regulatory and non-regulatory policy options identified in this study in terms of their technical, environmental and economic feasibility and will consult stakeholders on the way forward. 

WFD and Agriculture Linkages at the EU Level – Summary report and an in-depth assessment of RD-programmes 2007-2013 as regards water management (April 2009)

This study identifies how Member States have made use of their Rural Development (RD) funding to improve water status and what the strengths and weaknesses of existing RD programmes are in the light of national water problems including water quality, water quantity and hydromorphological issues. Furthermore, the study identifies the degree of consideration of the WFD in these RD programmes, as well as highlighting cases in which the application of RD measures bears the risk of increasing pressure on European waters.

Results of the report show that countries like Belgium, Greece, Spain and the majority of the eastern European new Member States are spending most of their public budget on improving the competitiveness of the agriculture and forestry sector, particularly on new farm investments. The main risk related to this finding is that it can lead to an intensification of agricultural production, which could be detrimental to water quality. The study found that despite RD programmes being an important tool that could have a significant impact on achieving the WFD objectives, the actions taken under their implementation will often not be sufficient to solve water problems and additional effort in the agricultural sector will be needed. Therefore,  financing sources for water protection measures need to be taken into consideration in the implementation of the WFD.

Scenarios of water demand management – Impacts at regional levels (April 2009)

This study explores different options of water demand management, considering alternatives beyond the introduction of new technologies, such as water pricing and land use planning. Based on five case studies, the socio-economic and environmental implications were assessed with a focus on the agricultural sector, public water supply for tourism and public water supply for households.

The study presents key findings of the case studies across Europe, with their related difficulties and presents several conclusions on the subject. For example, the study shows that a fixed quota for water abstraction across all River Basins affected by water scarcity would not contribute to achieving the local needs of a good water status in terms of WFD flows and abstraction reductions, not being enough in some cases and being excessive in other locations. Furthermore, the report highlights the importance of having in mind - when designing water prices - that economic impacts of quotas and water pricing on the agriculture sector depend on the type of crops, the farming system and the availability of alternative sources of income.

Regarding public water supply, the study has found that in general terms the required price increase to achieve significant savings would not be significant when measured against household income, although the cost increase may have an impact on low income groups. It is shown that it is mandatory to install and maintain low flow fittings and to perform a correct metering before implementing a pricing instrument.

Finally, the report identifies work that has to be carried out in the future in order to build a better understanding of the implications of water pricing and land use planning on water users. The impact of different policy options on global food markets, the issue of bioenergy crops, and the tools available to design water pricing policies are the main subjects that should be further assessed.


Assessment of four alternative water supply options: Local measures are needed for solving local problems (April 2008)

The presented case studies indicate that the potential problems and mitigation options for addressing water scarcity differ between locations and technologies – meaning that mitigation measures have to be designed to deal with local conditions. The case studies therefore do not provide a single set of best available mitigation options, but rather provide check-lists of potential problems and a catalogue of potential mitigation options, along with examples illustrations of successful applications.

The study reveals that alternative water supply options tend to be more expensive than conventional options, and the case studies illustrate that in these cases, promotion of alternative water supply options is likely to use subsidies to compensate for price differences. Although subsidies can help users in the transition towards more efficient use of water resources, the final goal should be to achieve sustainable water use where the price of water reflects its true cost, with improved efficiencies and reduced water demand.

  • Read the full report of the study on Potential impacts of desalination development on energy consumption
  • Read the Final Summary Report (extended Version) of the Assessment of alternative water supply options
  • Read the Final Summary Report (short Version) of the Assessment of alternative water supply options
  • Read the annexes of the Assessment of alternative water supply options


Guidelines for Drought Management Plans (November 2007)

A European network of experts on water scarcity and droughts produced a report in 2007 on drought management plans as part of the Common Implementation Strategy of the Water Framework Directive. This report was endorsed by the Water Directors of the Member States in November 2007.

The report sets out recommendations in preparing operational drought management plans to prevent and mitigate the impact of droughts on the environment, society and the economy. The report includes examples of drought management plans in place in some Member States such as Spain, the United Kingdom and Portugal.

EU Water Saving Potential (July 2007)

A study from 2007 on the water saving potential in Europe estimates that water efficiency could be improved by nearly 40% through technological improvements alone and that changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase such savings. In a business as usual scenario the study estimates that water consumption by the public, industry and agriculture would increase by 16% by 2030. Conversely, the use of water-saving technologies and irrigation management in the industrial and agricultural sectors could reduce excesses by as much as 43.

  • Read the full report of the study on the EU water saving potential: part 1 (pdf ~ 4.4MB) and part 2 (pdf ~ 812KB)