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Water Scarcity & Droughts in the European Union

About Water Scarcity and Droughts

Water scarcity and drought are different phenomena although they are liable to aggravate the impacts of each other. In some regions, the severity and frequency of droughts can lead to water scarcity situations, while overexploitation of available water resources can exacerbate the consequences of droughts. Therefore, attention needs to be paid to the synergies between these two phenomena, especially in river basins affected by water scarcity.

What is Water Scarcity?

Water scarcity occurs where there are insufficient water resources to satisfy long-term average requirements. It refers to long-term water imbalances, combining low water availability with a level of water demand exceeding the supply capacity of the natural system.

Water availability problems frequently appear in areas with low rainfall but also in areas with high population density, intensive irrigation and/or industrial activity. Large spatial and temporal differences in the amount of water available are observed across Europe.

Beyond water quantity, a situation of water scarcity can also emerge from acute water quality issues (e.g. diffuse or point source pollutions) which lead to reduced fresh/clean water availability.

Currently the main way of assessing Water Scarcity is by means of the Water Exploitation Index (WEI) applied on different scales (i.e. national, river basin). The WEI is the average demand for freshwater divided by the long-term average freshwater resources. It illustrates to which extent the total water demand puts pressure on the available water resource in a given territory and  points out the territories that have high water demand compared to their resources (1).

The following graphs show the WEI for the European river basins in 2000 and for a forecasted scenario in 2030.

What is Drought?

Droughts can be considered as a temporary decrease of the average water availability due to e.g. rainfall deficiency. Droughts can occur anywhere in Europe, in both high and low rainfall areas and in any seasons. The impact of droughts can be exacerbated when they occur in a region with low water resources or where water resources are not being properly managed resulting in imbalances between water demands and the supply capacity of the natural system.

Over the past thirty years, droughts have dramatically increased in number and intensity in the EU. The number of areas and people affected by droughts went up by almost 20% between 1976 and 2006.

Several indicators can be taken into account to illustrate the severity of a drought event. The level of precipitation may be one of these indicators. The following graph shows the observed changes in annual precipitation between 1961 and 2006.


(1) Water Scarcity and Droughts, Second Interim report (June 2007). DG Environment, European Commission