Data extracted in August 2017
Planned article update: June 2019
Among the EU countries, Croatia, recorded the highest freshwater resources (with a long-term average of 27 330 m³ per inhabitant) followed by Finland and Sweden with around 20 000 m³ each.
In 2015, freshwater abstraction by public water supply ranged across the EU from a high of 159 m³ of water per inhabitant in Italy down to a low of 31 m³ per inhabitant in Malta.
Share of external inflow from neighbouring territories in renewable freshwater resources — long-term annual average
Water is essential for life, it is an indispensable resource for the economy, and also plays a fundamental role in the climate regulation cycle. The management and protection of water resources, of fresh and salt water ecosystems, and of the water we drink and bathe in is therefore one of the cornerstones of environmental protection. This is why the EU’s water policy over the past 30 years is focused on the protection of water resources. A recent policy overview is provided in a document titled the ‘Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources’ (COM/2012/0673) which aims at ensuring that good quality water, of sufficient quantity, is available for all legitimate uses.
Water as a resource
Water resources refer to the freshwater available for use in a territory and include surface waters (lakes, rivers and streams) and groundwater. Renewable water resources are calculated as the sum of internal flow (which is precipitation minus actual evapotranspiration) and external inflow. Freshwater availability in a country is primarily dertermined by climate conditions and transboundary water flows (in other words, external flows). Therefore, there are significant differences among countries: the United Kingdom, Sweden, France and Germany had the highest amount of freshwater resources, with long-term annual averages ranging between 172.9 and 191.0 billion m³ (see Table 1). Note that among the EFTA and candidate countries higher long-term averages were recorded for Norway (371.0 billion m³).
A number of countries receive a significant proportion of their freshwater resources as external inflow (see Figure 1). Hungary and the Netherlands had the highest dependency on transboundary water resources, as external inflow accounted for 93.5 % and 88.8 % of their total freshwater resources respectively; the share in Serbia was also high, reaching 92.7 %. In absolute terms (in other words, the volume of water received), Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria had the highest external inflows among the EU Member States (108.9 billion m³, 92.0 billion m³ and 85.1 billion m³ respectively (see Table 1)), although Serbia had an even higher volume (162.6 billion m³).
Freshwater resources per inhabitant (see Figure 2) are considered an important indicator for measuring the sustainability of water resources. Among the EU Member States, Croatia, recorded the highest freshwater resources (with a long-term average of 27 330 m³ per inhabitant). Finland and Sweden had the next highest volumes of freshwater resources per inhabitant, at around 20 000 m³. By contrast, relatively low levels — below 3 000 m³ per inhabitant — were recorded in the six most populous EU Member States (France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Italy and Poland), as well as Denmark, Luxembourg, Romania, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Malta. According to the ‘World water development report’ of the United Nations, a country experiences ‘water stress’ when its annual water resources drop below 1 700 m³ per inhabitant; among the EU Member States, this was the case in Poland, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Malta (where the lowest volume of water resources was recorded, at 220 m³ per person).
There are considerable differences in the amounts of freshwater abstracted within each of the EU Member States, in part reflecting the size of each country and the resources available, but also abstraction practices, climate and the industrial and agricultural structure of each country. In 2015, total abstraction of freshwater ranged between 46 million m³ in Luxembourg and 32.6 billion m³ in Spain (2014 data). Between 2005 and 2015 — see Table 2 for the precise reference period covered for each EU Member State — the volume of freshwater abstracted rose at its fastest pace in Malta (+40 %), while the largest decreases were recorded in Slovakia (-37 %) and Lithuania (-83 %).
Table 2 also shows the considerable differences between EU Member States as regards abstraction from groundwater and surface water resources. In Finland (2006 data), surface water abstraction accounted for around 24 times the volume of water abstracted from groundwater resources, while the ratio of surface to groundwater resources was around 10:1 in the Netherlands (2012 data), Romania and Bulgaria. At the other end of the range, the volume of water abstracted from groundwater resources was at least fifteen times as high as the volume of surface water abstraction in Denmark (2014 data) and Malta.
France (2010 data), Germany (2010 data) and Spain (2014 data) recorded the highest amounts of groundwater abstracted, with 6.0 billion m³, 5.8 billion m³ and 6.3 billion m³ respectively. Looking at the development of groundwater abstraction during the 10-year period between 2005 and 2015 (see Table 2 for further information on the availability of data for each country), the volume of groundwater extracted generally decreased over time, although Latvia, Greece and Malta (with increases of 53 %, 49 % and 32 %) were notable exceptions, and to a lesser extent Denmark (with an increase of 17 %), while Estonia (-27 %) and Hungary (-17 %) were the EU Member States recording the largest decrease in their groundwater abstraction.
As for groundwater, the largest volumes of surface water abstraction among the EU Member States were recorded in France (2012 data), Germany (2010 data) and Spain (2014 data), with 24.4 billion m³, 27.2 billion m³ and 26.6 billion m³ respectively. Between 2005 and 2015 (see Table 2 for further information on the availability of data for each country), there was a considerable increase in surface water abstraction in Romania (+28 %). The largest decreases in the volume of surface water abstraction were recorded in Lithuania (-89 %), Slovakia (-53 %) and Denmark (-44 %), while there were also reductions of at least 20 % recorded in Latvia, Greece, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.
Non-freshwater (in other words, sea water and transitional water, such as brackish swamps, lagoons and estuarine areas) is also abstracted in some of the EU Member States (see Table 3). Sweden (11.8 billion m³; 2010 data), the United Kingdom (8.5 billion m³; 2012 data), the Netherlands (5.9 billion m³; 2014 data) and France (4.7 billion m³; 2013 data) recorded the highest volumes of water abstracted from non-freshwater sources.
In 2015, freshwater abstraction by public water supply ranged across the EU Member States from a high of 159.1 m³ of water per inhabitant in Italy (2012 data) down to a low of 31.3 m³ per inhabitant in Malta — see Figure 3. Some of the patterns of freshwater abstraction from public supply reflect specific conditions in the EU Member States: for example, in Ireland (135.5 m³ per inhabitant) the use of water from the public supply was still free of charge for many households, while in Bulgaria (120.7 m³ per inhabitant) there were particularly high losses from the public network. Abstraction rates were also high in some non-EU Member States, notably in Norway (169 m³ per inhabitant, 2014 data).
The development of freshwater abstraction by public water supply is shown for selected EU Member States in Figure 4. A comparison of the earliest and latest available annual data between 1990 and 2015 shows that there was a marked decrease in abstraction in many of the Member States that joined the EU in 2004 or 2007 (the examples of Bulgaria and Poland are shown in the figure). It is likely that the reduction in abstraction observed in many EU Member States is a result of various factors, including the reduction of water losses through improved maintenance of the networks, the introduction of water-saving household appliances and an increasing level of awareness concerning the cost or value of water and the environmental consequences of wasting it. Abstraction rates were relatively stable in the majority of the remaining Member States (see the examples of Belgium and the Netherlands).
The overall use of water resources can be considered sustainable in the long-term in most of Europe. However, specific regions may face problems associated with water scarcity; this is the case particularly in parts of southern Europe, where it is likely that efficiency gains in agricultural water use (as well as other uses) will need to be achieved in order to prevent seasonal water shortages. Regions associated with low rainfall, high population density, or intensive agricultural or industrial activity may also face sustainability issues in the coming years, which could be exacerbated by climate change impacts on water availability and water management practices.
Water is provided either by public water supply (public or private systems with public access) or is self-supplied (for example, private drills). While the share of the public water supply sector in total water abstraction depends on the economic structure of a given country and can be relatively small, it is nevertheless often the focus of public interest, as it comprises the water volumes that are directly used by the population.
At the European scale, the households and the manufacturing industry are both important users of water. However, their relative share varies a lot among European countries: While in Belgium and the Netherlands, water use by the manufacturing industry is about five times the use by households, it is almost equal in Germany, reflecting the dominance of manufacturing industry in the economy of these countries. In contrast, in countries with a dominance of the service sector and very little industry, the water use by households outweighs the use by manufacturing by far - the extreme cases being Luxembourg and Cyprus with a share of less than 5 % for manufacturing.
Variation is as well visible for the values per inhabitant, where for households Greece and Cyprus lead the field among EU Member States (94.0 and 91.7 m³, while the Netherlands and, outside the EU, Norway, record the highest values for water use in manufacturing (197.4 and 198.8 m³per inhabitant (2014 and 2009 data,respectively).
Table 4 provides further information on the use of water from public water supply, analysed by economic sector; it confirms that the main users of water from public supply in the EU were households.
A majority of the EU Member States for which data are available (see Table 5) reported values for water use by the domestic sector (services and households) more or less stable over time (2005 - 2015). However, a strong increase was recorded in France (+122 %; 2008–13, without public water supply for services), Lithuania (+76 %; 2008–15) and Greece (+65 %; 2005–15), while the only EU country reporting a marked decrease was Romania (-15 %) in only 4 years (2012–15).
Self and other water supply is a major source of water for the manufacturing sector in several EU Member States — see Table 6. In the Netherlands, for example, self and other water supply accounted for 3.5 billion m³ of water use in 2013, while public supply accounted for only 0.1 billion m³. Similar in Germany, where the figures were 3.9 billion m³ and 0.4 billion m³, respectively (2013 data). The volume of water use from self and other water supplies was 34 times as high as that from public supply in Poland, 26 times as high in the Netherlands (2013 data) and 18 times in Latvia.
Overall, there is a development towards a higher proportion of the population being connected to urban wastewater treatment plants (see Figure 6). Nowhere was this more true than in Malta, where coverage reached almost 100 % in 2011 — up from 20 % in 2010 — due to the construction of new wastewater treatment plants. Figure 6 shows six EU Member States (for which there is a complete time series covering the period 2005–15) with the highest growth in connection rates. Apart from the rapid increase in connection rates in Malta, the next highest rates of change were recorded in Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Slovenia. The highest connection rates in the EU-28 were recorded in the United Kingdom (100 %; 2014 data, estimated), the Netherlands (99.4 %; 2015), Malta (98.6 %, 2015 data), Luxembourg (98.2 %, 2015 data), Spain (96.9 %; 2014 data) and Germany (96.2 %; 2013 data).
Table 7 presents information on the proportion of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment plants. This share has also been generally increasing and was above 80 % in 15 of the EU Member States for which data are available (mixed reference years). The share of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment plant rose to above 95 % in the United Kingdom (2014 data), the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany (2013 data) and Austria (2014 data). At the other end of the range, less than one in two households were connected to at least secondary urban wastewater treatment plants in Romania and Croatia, while the same was also true in Iceland (2010 data), Turkey (2014 data), Albania, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The residual of wastewater treatment is sewage sludge. While the amount of sludge generated per inhabitant depends on many factors and hence is quite variable, the nature of this sludge – rich in nutrients, but also often loaded with high concentrations of pollutants such as heavy metals – has led countries to seek different pathways for its disposal, as illustrated in Figure 7.
Typically, four different types of disposal make up a considerable share of the total volume of sewage sludge treated: at least 70 % of the total was used as fertiliser for agricultural use in four of the EU Member States — Portugal, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Spain (data refer to 2012, except for Ireland where the latest information available is for 2015), sa well as Norway and Albania. By contrast, around two thirds of sewage sludge was composted in Estonia (2013 data) and Hungary (2015), rising to 88.6 % and 75.4 % of the total, respectively. Alternative forms of sewage disposal may be used to reduce or eliminate the spread of pollutants on agricultural or gardening land; these include incineration and landfill. While the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia and Austria (as well as Switzerland) reported incineration as their principal form of treatment for disposal, discharge into controlled landfills was practised as the principal type of treatment in Malta (where it was the sole form of treatment), Croatia, Romania and Italy, as well as Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Source data for tables and graphs
Many of the water statistics produced by Eurostat have been used in the context of the development of EU legislation relating to water, as well as for environmental assessments, which in turn can give rise to new data needs.
Water statistics are collected through the inland waters section of the joint OECD/Eurostat questionnaire which is an established data collection yielding long time series, but which can also be adapted to meet the demands of relevant policy frameworks. It currently reports on the following:
- freshwater resources in groundwater and surface water — these can be replenished by precipitation and external inflow (water flowing into a country from other territories);
- water abstraction — a major pressure on resources, although a large part of the water abstracted for domestic, industrial (including energy production) or agricultural use may be returned to the environment and its water bodies (although often as wastewater with impaired quality);
- water use — analysed by supply category and by industrial activities;
- treatment capacities of urban wastewater treatment plants and the share of the population connected to them — which gives an overview of the development status of the infrastructure, in terms of quantity and quality, that is available for the protection of the environment from pollution by wastewater;
- sewage sludge production and disposal — an inevitable product of wastewater treatment processes, its impact on the environment depends on the methods chosen for its processing and disposal;
- generation and discharge of wastewater — pollutants present in wastewater have different source profiles and, similarly, the efficiency of treatment of any pollutant varies according to the method applied .
National data are generally collected. However some variables are also requested for river basin districts (according to the EU Water Framework Directive, see 'Context' below) by means of a regional questionnaire for some of the categories above.
Water policies: floods, droughts and other challenges
The central element of European water policy is a Directive for ‘Community action in the field of water policy’ (2000/60/EC) — often referred to as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) — which aims to achieve a good ecological and chemical status of European waters. The WFD focused on water management at the level of (in most cases transboundary) hydrological catchments (river basins). An important step in the course of its implementation involved establishing river basin management plans.
The EU adopted in 2006 the Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration, which complements the WFD and sets groundwater quality standards and introduces measures to prevent or limit inputs of pollutants into groundwater. This Directive was under consultation for the review of the Directive’s annexes until October 2013.
In a Communication ‘Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts’ (COM(2007) 414 final), the European Commission identified an initial set of policy options to be taken regionally, nationally and across the EU to address water scarcity within the EU. This set of proposed policies, which was reviewed and further developed by 2012, aimed to move the EU towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy, as both the quality and availability of water are considered as major concern in many regions.
An increase of variability in weather patterns and catastrophic floods (such as those along the Danube and Elbe in 2002) prompted a review of flood risk management procedures in the EU. This process culminated in the adoption of the Floods’ Directive 2007/60/EC, which provides for an assessment of and the management of flood risks, setting out clear deadlines for: establishing preliminary flood risk assessments of river basins and coastal zones; developing flood hazard maps and flood risk maps; and developing flood risk management plans for areas likely to be affected by flooding, with particular emphasis on protection and prevention, as well as preparedness.
The sustainable use of water resources is a key priority and challenge in Europe, particularly in view of any potential changes in water availability and quality due to climate change. In 2009, the EU adopted a White Paper on ‘Adapting to climate change: towards a European framework for action’ (COM(2009) 147 final) which fosters the development of strategies for the management and conservation of water.
In May 2012, the European Commission proposed a European innovation partnership (EIP) on water, and this was endorsed by the Council the following month. The objective of the EIP on water is to support and facilitate the development of innovative solutions to deal with the many water-related challenges that are faced in Europe (and in a wider context across the world), as well providing economic support to encourage such ideas to reach the marketplace.
In an effort to reduce pollutants discharged into the environment with wastewater, the EU has implemented legislation on urban wastewater treatment (Directive 1991/271/EC). The pollution of rivers, lakes and groundwater and water quality is affected by human activities such as industrial production, household discharges, or arable farming; a report (COM(2007) 120 final) on the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources was released in March 2007.
Another aspect of water quality relates to coastal bathing waters. The European Commission and the EEA present an annual bathing water report. The latest of these — the 2017 report — covers information for 2016 and shows that 95 % of the EU’s bathing waters met the minimum water quality standards.
Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources
These policy developments were further developed in the ‘Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources’ (COM/2012/0673) which integrates the results of a policy review concerning: water scarcity and droughts; an analysis of the implementation of river basin management under the WFD; a review of the vulnerability of environmental resources (such as water, biodiversity and soil) to climate change impacts and man-made pressures; and a review of the whole of the EU’s water policy framework in the light of the European Commission’s ‘better regulation’ approach. The blueprint is closely related to the Europe 2020 strategy and, in particular, to the resource efficiency roadmap (COM(2011) 571). However, the blueprint covers a longer time span, through to 2050, and is expected to drive EU water policy over the long term. As part of the blueprint there are a number of policy reviews assessing implementation.
During the fourth European water conference in March 2015, policymakers stressed the improvements made in delivering improved water quality and better quantitative management of water, while underlining that progress in some areas had not gone far enough or been delivered at a rapid enough pace. The conference also underlined increased flood and drought risks that may be associated with climate change and the need to develop green infrastructure such as water retention measures, alongside more traditional engineering solutions. The conference also highlighted the need for priority investment for green and blue growth, with the goal of placing water centre stage as regards a set of new proposals for promoting the effective reuse of water. It highlighted that financial support for such initiatives could be available from the EU to help implement the Water Framework and Floods Directives (for example, the Rural and Regional Development Funds, the Cohesion Fund, Horizon 2020, LIFE and the EIP).
- Water statistics on national level (ESMS metadata file — env_nwat_esms)
- Jordi Raso, 'Updated report on wastewater reuse in the European Union', 2013
- Communication 'A blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources' (COM(2012) 673 final)
- Communication 'Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union' (COM(2007) 414 final)
- Directive 2007/60/EC of 23 October 2007 on the assessment and management of flood risks
- DWORAK T. et al, 'EU Water Saving Potential - Final Report', 2007
- Report on the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) of 23 October 2000 concerning River Basin Management Plans (COM(2012) 670 final)
- Directive 2006/118/EC of 12 December 2006 on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration
- Cosgrove, W.J. and Rijsberman, F. R.: World Water Vision - Making water everybody's business; Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 2000.
- Report on implementation of Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources
- Directive 91/271/EEC of 1 May 1991 concerning urban wastewater treatment
- Report on ‘Green Public Procurement Criteria for Waste Water Infrastructure’, EC, 2013
- Discharges from cooling water are not regarded as wastewater in water statistics.