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Water Scarcity & Droughts in the European Union

Building blocks: Water use in agriculture

In recent years, a growing concern has been expressed throughout the EU regarding water scarcity problems and the significant impacts on water resources by agricultural activities. In Europe, agriculture has been estimated to account for around 24% of total water abstraction1, although in parts of southern Europe, this figure can reach up to 80% (EEA, 2009). Irrigation of crops constitutes a considerable use of water, especially in southern Member States where irrigation accounts for almost all agricultural water use, and over-abstraction remains an issue. Agriculture has also been identified as the major sustainable water management issue in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD).

For this reason, managing water use in agriculture has been identified as one of the key themes relating to water scarcity and drought. Two key studies will explore water saving options in agriculture and what role water pricing and allocation could play in Europe, and will build upon information from previously completed studies on agriculture and water use related issues.

Water saving in agriculture

The importance of the issue of water saving in agriculture is highlighted by the numerous studies and assessments on water saving in agriculture that have been carried out so far. The objective of this study is to provide clarification on the current situation of agricultural water use in Europe, and to compile conclusions from this range of studies in order to provide input on what options need to be considered at EU level to maximise savings in agricultural water use.

Expected deliverables include a list of the different sources of data on water abstraction and use in agriculture, a summary report highlighting the main factors of relevance for water savings in each case study area and estimating the potential water savings to be obtained and a report detailing recommendations for maximizing the water saving potential of agricultural activities in Europe.

Water pricing in agriculture

This study will address the use of water pricing and water allocation policies in agriculture and assess the impacts of policies implemented in order to identify good practices and to draw EU-level conclusions of practical implementation. On the basis of these findings, the study will draw general recommendations for the European river basins in relation to water pricing and allocation policies.

The study will specify the theory behind water pricing policy and water allocation and what these imply for the agricultural sector, and provide a general overview on water pricing policies and water allocation policies in agriculture in the EU. The focus will be on a limited number of case studies (river basins) in Europe and in third countries in order to assess the local context relating to water pricing and water allocation in agriculture and to identify the effects of these policies.


Information from previously completed studies will also serve to clarify numerous agriculture-related water issues:

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 is 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 de 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.

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.