Archive:Agri-environmental indicator - water abstraction

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This article provides a fact sheet of the European Union (EU) agri-environmental indicator water abstraction. This indicator is still a subject to development. The article provides a summary of the current state of play and is complemented by definitions, measurement methods and context needed to interpret it correctly. The water abstraction article is part of a set of similar fact sheets providing a complete picture of the state of the agri-environmental indicators in the EU.

Figure 1. Annual water abstraction by sector (million m3 per year), 1990-2009, EU-28, IS, NO, CH and MK.
Source: European Environment Agency-European Topic Centre on Water (ETC/WTR) based on data from Eurostat (env_watq2)
Table 1. Annual water abstraction by sector - data availability (year), 1990-2009, EU-28, IS, NO, CH and MK.
Source: European Environment Agency-European Topic Centre on Water (ETC/WTR) based on data from Eurostat (env_watq2)

This indicator factsheet will be updated based on upcoming reports on water accounting, the work on the water exploitation index and environmental flows.

The indicator water abstraction estimates agricultural contribution to total freshwater abstraction.

Main statistical findings

Key messages

  • Agriculture is a significant user of water in Europe, overall accounting for around a quarter of total freshwater abstracted (excluding Turkey)[1] [2]. Predominantly this water is used for irrigation to enhance the yield and quality of crops.
  • Abstraction for irrigation is markedly higher in Southern and South Eastern Europe than elsewhere across the continent, accounting for about 60 % of total freshwater abstraction, although this figure is known to be as high as 80 % in certain River basin districts (RBDs). A small decline in water abstracted for irrigation has occurred in Southern Europe over recent years. Eastern Europe has experienced a marked decline since the early 1990’s, due to the political changes after the Soviet-era. Turkey has experienced a significant increase in water abstraction for irrigation over the same period and one that is projected to continue in future years[3]
  • In large parts of southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, irrigation enables crop production where water would otherwise be the limiting factor [4]. In more humid and temperate regions of Europe, irrigation helps regulating the seasonal variability in water availability to better match the agricultural needs.
  • By the expert group on water scarcity and droughts under the Common Implementation Strategy for the Water Framework Directive, water scarcity is defined as a man-made phenomenon. “It is a recurrent imbalance that arises from an overuse of water resources, caused by consumption being significantly higher than the natural renewable availability”[5]. The high rates of water use for agriculture in Southern Europe are a significant pressure, which combined with the typically naturally low levels of water availability in these regions (particularly in summer when abstraction for agriculture peaks) can cause significant water scarcity problems and lead to an over-exploitation of water resources.
  • The need for a more sustainable and integrated approach to managing water resources in Europe is reflected in the Water Framework Directive (WFD). This directive establishes an integrated approach to water management based on the functional boundaries of river basins and relies to some degree on economic instruments to reach its target of “good ecological status” in both qualitative and quantitative terms by 2015. WFD article 9 introduces the concepts of incentive pricing, cost recovery and the polluter-pays-principle. Member States are required to set up a water pricing policy which provides adequate incentives to use water resources efficiently and thereby contribute to the environmental objectives of the directive. Water pricing policies should ensure an adequate cost recovery of water services, taking account of the polluter pays principle.
  • For a better assessment of the pressure caused by abstraction for irrigation, the national level is too aggregated; hindering the detection of regional scale problems of over-abstraction and an indicator at River Basin District (RBD) or WFD Subunit (SU) is a more accurate representation for water abstraction. This means, that the collection of regional scale data should be further strengthened.


The total abstraction of freshwater across Europe (excluding Turkey) is around 182 billion m3 (182 km3) per year. Overall, 39 % of the total abstracted is for energy production, 22.5 % for agriculture, 26.5 % for the public water supply and 12 % for industry, although strong regional variations are apparent (Figure 1). In Eastern countries, the greatest abstractor is the electricity generation sector (more than 50 %), followed by public water supply (22 %), with irrigation now contributing only a small percentage. In western countries, abstraction for electricity production predominates, contributing more than 45 % of total abstraction, followed by public water supply (28 %) and industry (23 %), with agriculture playing only a minor role. In southern countries, however, the largest abstraction of water is for agricultural purposes, specifically irrigation, which typically accounts for about 46 % of the total abstracted, and is known to rise to 80 % in certain river basins. In Turkey, water abstraction is dominated by irrigation[6].

Sectorial trends in water abstraction are apparent over recent years including agricultural water use for irrigation (Figure 1). Abstraction for irrigation and industry has declined markedly in Eastern Europe (around 80 % reduction) since the early 1990s, triggered by political changes in the post-Soviet era, including the change from an agriculture based on large collective farms and very strict planning to a largely small-farm based system. The reduction trend is driven mainly by the decline of agricultural activities in Bulgaria and Romania during the transition period. In the remaining eastern EU countries the total irrigable area (which is closely linked to the irrigation water demand) has been declining. Additionally, the change of crop structure induced by the instability of agricultural product prices and the irregularity of water supply have contributed to the irrigation systems abandonment[7].This decline suggests the potential for a future increase in irrigated agriculture in this region. In Romania, for example, rehabilitation and modernisation of the irrigation system has been initiated[8].

A more detailed analysis of the information in Figure 1 can be found in the EEA core set indicator 018 ‘Use of freshwater resources’.

Water abstraction for irrigation has decreased in Western Europe (north and central) by an average of over 60 %. This decrease is mainly driven by Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and England & Wales, while it is observed that in Austria and Belgium there is on contrary an increasing trend (matched with a respective increase of the irrigable area). The overall decreasing trend can be attributed partly on a respective decrease of the irrigable area (e.g. Germany[9], Netherlands, Finland) and partly on the more efficient use of water in countries where the irrigable area has actually grown (e.g. Denmark, Sweden, England and Wales).

Water abstraction for irrigation slightly decreased (about 4 %) in southern Europe. In Turkey the use of irrigation water has increased with over 35 % from the 1990 level and it is projected to continue in future years. The use of recycled water and desalination are becoming more spread (e.g. Spain)[10]. Although the main source of irrigation water is surface water, unregulated/illegal water abstractions mainly from groundwater should be added to the high figures on water abstraction for irrigation in many southern European countries (e.g. Italy)[11].

The largest water abstractions for irrigation per country were obviously in southern and south-eastern Europe. Of these, Spain reports the highest abstraction rates in 2009 (approximately 20 000 million m3), followed by Greece (8 500 million m3), and France (3 900 million m3). However, no information is available for Portugal or Italy; but other sources indicate that abstraction for irrigation is substantial in these countries too.

By combining information describing area equipped for irrigation with a soil-water and crop growth model, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre has predicted irrigation water demand for the EU and Switzerland[12]. The findings reflect the importance of irrigation to agriculture in much of southern Europe and illustrate the approximate volume of irrigation water demand within a defined spatial unit (a 10 km x 10 km grid cell). But this report also illustrates the importance of irrigation in specific locations elsewhere in Europe, including northern Europe. Complementary to the JRC results, water abstraction can be calculated at NUTS 2 scale by weighting national values by irrigable area (Eurostat data), with the aim to derive some trends. Until recently, this was not possible in practice given lack of water abstraction data for countries with other sources, as this study gives Europe-wide coverage but no trends but indicate that water abstraction cannot be neglected.

Data sources and availability

Indicator definition

The indicator water abstraction estimates agricultural contribution to total freshwater abstraction.


Main indicator:

Water abstraction for irrigation

Links with other indicators

The indicator water abstraction is linked with following other indicators: 

Data used and methodology

This indicator fact sheet will be updated to include information on the level on River basin districts rather than country level (too coarse) when EU-wide results become available during 2013 and where possible on a monthly scale instead of yearly averages as especially agricultural demand is higher during summer when availability is in general lower. Methodological discussions and work done so far can be found here.  

The Survey on agricultural production methods (SAPM) will provide estimates of water use for irrigation on farm level. SAPM is a unique survey carried out by Eurostat in 2010 to collect data at farm level on agri-environmental measures. With reference to irrigation, Member States were asked to provide estimation (possibly by means of models) of the volume of water used for irrigation on the agricultural holding. The EEA also started the collection of regional data at River Basin District (RBD) and WFD Subunit (SU) level under the WISE-SoE#3 reporting on Water Quantity (questionnaire repeated on a yearly base). Data on water abstraction for irrigation are collected through this reporting, but cannot yet provide a pan-EU coverage. The feasibility of creating maps on RBD scale filled in with information from country level scale in cases of gaps needs to be further explored.

To set up management plans, related concepts like water use or consumption can give additional insights. For more information about relevant indicators for assessing agricultural water use, we refer to the IRENA indicators[13].

For completeness, we also refer to 'Rural Development in the European Union - Statistical and economic information'[14] where under Environment an indicator called “Water Use” is described referring back to the Eurostat data and the Agri-Environmental Indicators.


Water abstraction by each sector cannot be translated in water consumption equivalents, since the volume of water returned to a receiving water body after use varies significantly amongst sectors. A large share of water abstracted for energy generation (cooling water[15]) is returned. Evaporation and crop uptake in irrigated agriculture result in a much lower proportion of returned water by percolation (typically in the order of 30 %)[16].

The actual amount of water received by a crop depends primarily upon the efficiency with which the water is transported to the field (conveyance efficiency), including the transport losses (as an example for Greece, average conveyance efficiencies are estimated around 70 % for earthen channels, 85 % for lined channels and 95 % for pipes[17]), and the type of irrigation installation (application efficiency) (average efficiency numbers are around 55 % for furrows, 75 % for sprinklers and 95 % for drip systems[18])[19]. Water abstraction by agriculture provides only one element of the potential for water scarcity which is a function of water demand across all sectors on one hand and, water availability on the other hand.

This analysis does not account for illegal water abstraction for irrigation, which is thought to be significant in some areas of Europe[20]. Finally, data reported can depend strongly upon meteorological conditions in any given year.


European citizens do not suffer from the acute water shortages experienced in other regions of the world. In general, water is relatively abundant with only 13 % of the total resource being abstracted, suggesting that there is sufficient water available to meet demand. In many locations, however, overexploitation by a range of economic sectors poses a threat to Europe's water resources and demand often exceeds availability. As a consequence, problems of water scarcity are widely reported, with reduced river flows, lowered lake and groundwater levels and the drying up of wetlands becoming increasingly commonplace. This general reduction of the water resource also has a detrimental impact upon aquatic habitats and freshwater ecosystems. Furthermore, saline intrusion of over-pumped coastal aquifers is occurring increasingly throughout Europe, diminishing their quality and preventing subsequent use of the groundwater.

Historically, the problems of water scarcity have been most acute in southern Europe and while this is generally still the case the spatial extent and severity of water stress is growing in parts of the European mid-latitudes too. The impacts of water scarcity are likely to be exacerbated in the future, with predicted increases in the frequency and severity of droughts, driven by climate change.

Agriculture is a major user of water, primarily for irrigation in order to enhance the yield and quality of crops. This factsheet aims to quantify agriculture’s share of total freshwater abstraction, enabling comparison with other sectors both Europe-wide and regionally, preferable with river basins, river basin districts and/or subunits as in the Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC). In addition, water abstraction for irrigation is quantified, enabling an illustration of where this particular sector exerts greatest pressure on available water resources. Broad trends in water use for irrigation are also explored.

Policy relevance and context

The need for a more sustainable and integrated approach to managing water resources in Europe is reflected in water-related policy and legislation. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) for example, requires the ‘promotion of sustainable water use based on long term protection of available water resources’. Furthermore, a balance between abstraction and recharge of groundwater must be ensured, with the aim of achieving good quantitative status with respect to groundwater. According to the WFD, EU member states were expected to set up ad hoc water pricing policies by 2010 and implement them in a way they provide adequate incentives for the efficient use of water resources.

The European Commission has also recognised the challenge posed by water scarcity and droughts in a 2007 Communication COM/2007/0414 final. This outlines the severity of the issue and presents a set of policy options to address the issue including water pricing and a focus upon water efficiency and conservation. With respect to agricultural water use for irrigation, improved efficiency and conservation can be realised through various means including: changing the timing of irrigation so that it more closely follows crop water requirements, adopting more efficient techniques such as the use of sprinkler and drop irrigation systems, implementing the practice of deficit irrigation and, changing crop type to reduce water demand or shift peak demand away from the height of summer. The rural development regulation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can play an important role with respect to the implementation of such on-farm measures.

Besides water allocation, water pricing in agriculture is an important issue for sustainable water management. A summary can be found in the EEA report 1/2012 ‘Towards efficient use of water resources in Europe’ (p. 33–35), including the results of the ‘Conference on Water pricing in agriculture: on track for a fair and efficient policy in Europe?’ organised on 14 September 2011 in Warsaw during the Polish presidency of the European Union Council.

Where irrigation water, accounting for most of the agricultural water use, is provided by public or private sector suppliers or via collective irrigation systems, tariffs are typically reflecting the operational and maintenance costs only[21]  with governments often subsidising capital costs like the investments for the setting up irrigation schemes[22] as well as difficulties monitoring groundwater use and unauthorised water abstraction[23][24].

Although the pricing structure for irrigation water varies considerably across Europe, and can differ within a single Member State, the water charges imposed on the agricultural sector have rarely reflected water scarcity or other environmental and resource costs. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) bears part of the responsibility, having in some cases provided subsidies to produce water-intensive crops using inefficient techniques[25].

It has been discussed extensively, the European Commission and some Member States still disagree on whether agricultural irrigation or self-abstraction should be considered as a water service under the Water Framework Directive, implying application of the principle of cost recovery (requiring that prices include environmental and resource costs). In their assessment of draft river basin management plans[26] determine that cost recovery is only rarely applied in agriculture. Not including the full costs into water prices means, however, that agricultural water use and impacts are cross-subsidised by the rest of society because farmers do not pay the full price associated with their water use[27].

In 2012, the European Commission came with a Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s water resources. The 'Blueprint' gives an outline for actions focussing on better implementation of the existing water legislation, integration of the objectives expressed in the different pieces of water legislation and detecting gaps in the current legislation like on water quantity or efficiency. It makes a synthesis of water policy recommendations, and although closely related to other strategic documents like the Europe's 2020 strategy or the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, its horizon covers a time span up to 2050. The “Blueprint” is accompanied by different reports and studies, including:

  • 3rd implementation report of the Water Framework Directive: River Basin Management Plans 2009-2015
  • review of the EU policy on water scarcity and droughts - 'Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts' Communication COM/2007/0414 final and
  • knowledge base and supporting background documents.

These knowledge base and supporting background documents include the different EEA assessments made in 2012 as well as the Commission Staff Working Document Fitness Check on EU freshwater policy and the Executive summary of the Assessment of policy options for the Blueprint study report.

Agri-environmental context

The balance between water demand and availability has reached a critical level in certain areas of Europe, the result of over-abstraction and prolonged periods of low rainfall or drought. Reduced river flows, lowered lake and groundwater levels and the drying up of wetlands are widely reported alongside detrimental impacts on freshwater ecosystems, including fish and bird life. Where the water resource has diminished, a worsening of water quality has normally followed because there is less water to dilute pollutants. In addition, salt water increasingly intrudes into over-pumped coastal aquifers throughout Europe, diminishing their quality and preventing subsequent use of the groundwater. Climate change will almost certainly exacerbate these adverse impacts in the future (in the absence of appropriate measures), with more frequent and severe droughts expected across Europe.

While enhancing the yield and quality of crops, agricultural water use for irrigation also contributes to the high water stress observed in parts of Europe and the associated impacts. The effects of over-abstraction upon water resources vary considerably depending upon the volume and seasonality of the abstraction, the volume of returned water, the sensitivity of the ecosystem and specific local and regional conditions. Of key importance is the timing of abstraction, with peak agricultural abstraction typically occurring in the summer months when water availability is generally at a minimum. In addition, compared to other sectors (e.g. cooling water for energy production), agriculture has a high consumptive water use, with little returning to a water-body after use.

Traditionally, the management of water resources across Europe has focused on a supply-side approach. Regular supplies of water have been ensured using a combination of reservoirs, inter-basin transfers and increasing abstraction of both surface water and groundwater. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, were characterised by a rapid growth in the number of large reservoirs, many of them supplying water for irrigation purposes. Problematically, the historically disproportionate emphasis on supply provided no incentive to limit water use in any sector, leaving the major driving forces of use unchanged.

See also

Further Eurostat information



Water (env_wat)
Water statistics on national level (env_nwat)
Annual freshwater abstraction by source and by sector (env_wat_abs)

Dedicated section

Source data for tables, figures and maps (MS Excel) 

Other information

Legislation: Commission Staff working document accompanying COM(2006)508 final
Corresponding IRENA Fact sheet 34.3

External links

  • Publications:
  • Other external links:
  • European Commission


  1. EEA, 2012, Towards efficient use of water resources in Europe, EEA Report No 1/2012, European Environment Agency.
  2. Given the increase in total freshwater abstraction for irrigation in Turkey over the last 2 decades, in the overall picture for the EEA 32 countries, the abstraction for agriculture is close to one third of total abstractions.
  3. EEA, 2012, Environmental indicator report 2012 - Ecosystem resilience and resource efficiency in a green economy in Europe, European Environment Agency.
  4. EEA, 2012, Towards efficient use of water resources in Europe, EEA Report No 1/2012, European Environment Agency.
  5. Schmidt, G., Benítez, J.J. and Benítez, C., 2012. ‘Working definitions of Water scarcity and Drought’, European Commission, Intecsa-Inarsa s.a. and Typsa.
  6. Relative fractions of water abstraction for Turkey make little sense as water abstraction for energy purposes is not reported. (see also note under Figure 1).
  7. Penov, I., 2002, The use of irrigation water during transition in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Region, CEESA Discussion Paper No.7/2002 ( accessed 22 January 2013.
  8. World Bank, 2003, World Bank Supports Irrigation Rehabilitation And Reform In Romania, Press Release No:2004/38/ECA, January 8 (,,contentMDK:20121976~menuPK:64282137~pagePK:41367~piPK:279616~theSitePK:40941,00.html) accessed 22 January 2013.
  9. Siebert, S., Hoogeveen, J. and Frenken, K., 2006, Irrigation in Africa, Europe and Latin America: Update of the Digital Global Map of Irrigation Areas to Version 4, Frankfurt University, (
  10. OECD, 2007, Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries Since 1990: Country Chapters, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( accessed 23 January 2013.
  11. OECD, 2007, Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries Since 1990: Country Chapters, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( accessed 23 January 2013.
  12. Wriedt, G., Van der Velde, M., Aloe, A. and Bouraoui, F., 2008, Water Requirements for Irrigation in the European Union, JRC Scientific and Technical Reports JRC 46748 EUR 23453 EN, European Commission – Joint Research Centre ( accessed 24 January 2013.
  13. EEA, 2006, Agriculture and environment in EU-15 - the IRENA indicator report, EEA Report No 6/2005, European Environment Agency.(
  14. EC, 2011, Rural Development in the European Union - Statistical and economic information – 2011, European Commission (DG for Agriculture and Rural Development) ( accessed 23 January 2013.
  15. With large differences for a ‘once through-system’ and wet cooling towers. For a once-through the abstraction is much higher than for wet cooling towers but almost all water is returned back, for cooling towers significant volumes are evaporated.
  16. Molle, F. and Berkoff, J., 2007, 'Water pricing in irrigation: mapping the debate in the light of experience', in: Molle, F. and Berkoff, J. (eds), Irrigation water pricing the gap between theory and practice, CABI, Wallingford, United Kingdom and Cambridge, USA.
  17. Karamanos, A., Aggelides, S. and Londra, P., 2007, Water use efficiency and water productivity in Greece, OPTIONS méditerranéennes Series B No 57 ( accessed 22 January 2013.
  18. Dworak, T., Berlund, M., Laaswer, C., Strosser, P., Roussard, J., Grandmougin, B., Kossida, M., Kyriazopoulou, I., Berbel, J., Kolberg, S., Rodriguez-Diaz, J.A. and Montesinos, P., 2007, EU Water saving potential, European Commission Report. Ecologic together with ACTeon, National Technical University of Athens and Universidad de Córdoba, ( accessed 22 January 2013.
  19. EEA, 2012, Towards efficient use of water resources in Europe, EEA Report No 1/2012, European Environment Agency.
  20. Gómez Gómez, C.M. and Pérez Blanco, C.D., 2012, ‘Do Drought Management Plans Reduce Drought Risk? A Risk Assessment Model for a Mediterranean River Basin’, Ecological Economics, 76 (0) (April) 42–48.
  21. Molle, F. and Berkoff, J., 2007, 'Water pricing in irrigation: mapping the debate in the light of experience', in: Molle, F. and Berkoff, J. (eds), Irrigation water pricing the gap between theory and practice, CABI, Wallingford, United Kingdom and Cambridge, USA.
  22. OECD, 2010, Pricing water resources and water and sanitation services, OECD Studies on Water, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( accessed 22 January 2013.
  23. OECD, 2009, Managing Water for All: An OECD Perspective on Pricing and Financing, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( accessed 23 January 2013.
  24. Bogart, S., Vandenbroucke, D., Dworak, T., Berglund, M., Interwies, E., Görlitz, S., Schmidt, G. and Herrero Álvaro, M., 2012, The role of water pricing and water allocation in agriculture in delivering sustainable water use in Europe, Arcadis together with InterSus, Fresh Thoughts Consulting, Ecologic and Typsa for European Commission (DG Environment), ( accessed 23January 2013.
  25. EEA, 2009, Water resources across Europe — confronting water scarcity and drought, EEA Report No 2/2009, European Environment Agency.
  26. Dworak, T., Berglund, M., Thaler, T., Fabik, E., Miguel Ribeiro, M., Laaser, C., Matauschek, M., Amand, B. and Grandmougin, B., 2010, Assessment of agriculture measures included in the draft River Basin Management Plans - Summary Report, Ecologic together with ACTeon and VITO for European Commission (DG Environment), ( accessed 23 January 2013.
  27. Jordan, J.L., 1999, ‘Externalities, Water Prices, and Water Transfers’, JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 35 (5) 1007–1013.