The EU has been supporting water-related research through its research framework programmes (FPs) for more than two decades. The research has expanded in terms of both budget and scope since the first FP was launched in 1984. The many projects funded in this time by the EU have generated a wealth of experience when it comes to promoting the sustainable use of water resources and developing water-related technologies. This experience also helps inform our understanding of how to tackle future water challenges: as was the European Commission’s message at the European Water Research Day on 8 September 2008 at the Expo Zaragoza 2008 in Spain, flexible and integrated water management is needed to deal with issues like climate change.
In FP5 (1998–2002), water research was mainly carried out through projects under the key action Sustainable management and quality of water, worth some €250 million, along with several international cooperation activities and other water-related projects.
FP6 (2002–06) with many projects still ongoing at the time of writing) made an overall investment in water research of about €350 million. In FP6, additional emphasis was placed on concepts, strategies and tools for mitigating the impact of global change – including climate change – on water resources in Europe and worldwide. The aim was also to develop international scientific cooperation concerning integrated water resources management and sustainable water supply and sanitation.
The mainstream projects of FP6’s Global change and ecosystems programme make up what is the current backbone of EU-funded water research. Often backed by significant funding - frequently with an EU contribution of more than €10 million – these very large integrated projects or ‘clusters’ of smaller projects have addressed water problems of high policy relevance, including large-scale water issues, the functioning of water systems, integrated water management, new technologies and international cooperation. Meanwhile, supporting water policies, a specific group of projects has helped Member States with implementation of the EU’s Water Framework Directive.
Preparations for FP7 (2007–13) reflected the fundamental role of research in promoting innovation and the competitiveness of European industry. Among other things a group of industry-led Technology Platforms was promoted, including the Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform (WSSTP).
The European Commission has taken into account the research strategy proposed by the WSSTP in formulating the FP7 programmes, and activities are now underway. European water policies – and in particular the Water Framework Directive – are also an important factor in FP7 research, along with improving our understanding of the impact of global and climate change. Another significant feature of FP7 is the full integration of International Cooperation actions into most of the research activities, rather than these actions being a ‘stand-alone’ pillar.
The experience of EU-funded research projects tells us much about how we could or should deal with global developments and water resource issues in future. Managing water in a flexible and adaptable way is a top priority: the complexity of river basin environments and the inherent uncertainties associated with managing them have to be taken into account in policy development and implementation.
Climate change adds to the challenge, requiring water management strategies to be all the more robust and capable of performing under a range of possible - but initially uncertain - future developments. Climate change has exposed the vulnerability of current management approaches when it comes to dealing with extremes like floods and droughts. Changing this situation calls among other things for new forms of dialogue on uncertainties and risk management between science, policy and operational management.
Climate change could, for example, fundamentally alter the conditions for implementing the Water Framework Directive. Historical analogues for the good ecological state of freshwater ecosystems may become meaningless. More adaptable approaches are needed to deal with emerging uncertainties. This might include defining targets for the kind of ecosystem functions and services to be restored and/or maintained.
Climate change in fact poses major challenges for water governance not only in Europe but across the globe. Therefore solving the water crisis requires a global response and political leadership at international level. International cooperation should not promote technical and institutional ‘panaceas’ but aim for a diagnostic approach taking into account the cultural, environmental and political context. This requires stronger international collaboration on lessons learned - in particular concerning adaptation to climate change in the water sector.
In areas suffering from shortages of water, notably developing countries, alternative resources such as increased recycling of wastewater should be developed. Results from various EU-funded projects show that effective water demand management and re-use of the supplied water may be a sustainable way to reduce water ‘stress’.
Moreover, in many countries water management in urban areas is not as effective as it could be because of a fragmented institutional division of responsibilities. In the interests of a coherent and integrated approach, governments must be willing to change their institutional and regulatory arrangements to encourage new ways of managing urban water systems.