Data extracted in December 2020
Planned article update: September 2021
Among the EU countries, Croatia recorded the highest freshwater resources (with a long-term average of 28 800 m³ per inhabitant) followed by Finland (20 000 m³) and Sweden (19 300 m³).
Freshwater abstraction by public water supply ranged across the EU in 2018 from a high of 157 m³ of water per inhabitant in Greece down to a low of 30 m³ per inhabitant in Malta.
Total water use by the manufacturing industry in the EU varied from 193 m³ per inhabitant in the Netherlands (2018 data) to 4 m³ per inhabitant in Cyprus (2017 data).
The main sewage sludge treatment method varies within the EU: use as fertiliser for agriculture (Spain, 80 % of total dry mass, 2016 data), composting (Estonia, 84 %, 2016 data), incineration (Netherlands, 87 %, 2018 data) or landfill (Malta, 100 %, 2018 data).
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. The last complete policy overview is provided in a document titled the ‘Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources’ (2012) which aims at ensuring that good quality water, in sufficient quantity, is available for all legitimate uses. Some more recent insight is offered by the fifth implementation report (2019) of the Water Framework Directive (2000), the central piece of environmental legislation concerning European waters.
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 determined by climate conditions and transboundary water flows (in other words, external inflows), while for total amounts, the size of the country matters. Therefore, France, Sweden and Germany had the highest amount of freshwater resources, with long-term annual averages ranging between 206 236 and 188 000 million m³ (see Table 1). Note that among the EFTA and candidate countries higher long-term averages were recorded for Norway (246 106 million m³) and Turkey (234 300 million m³) . Freshwater resources per inhabitant are considered an important indicator for measuring the sustainability of water resources. When broken down by population, most countries' water resources range between 1 000 and 10 000 m³ per inhabitant, but in water-rich countries an inhabitant's share can be as high as around 20 000 m³ (Finland and Sweden), 29 000;m³ (Croatia) or 46 500 m³ (Norway). According to the ‘World water development report’ of the United Nations, a country experiences ‘water stress’ when its annual water resources are below 1 700 m³ per inhabitant; among the EU Member States, this was the case in Poland, Czechia, Cyprus and Malta (where the lowest volume of water resources was recorded, at 178 m³ per inhabitant).
A number of countries receive a significant proportion of their freshwater resources as external inflow (see Figure 1). Among the EU Member States, Hungary and the Netherlands had the highest dependency on transboundary water resources, as the long-term average of external inflow accounted for 93.5 % and 88.8 % of their total freshwater resources respectively; the share in Serbia was also very high, reaching 92.2 %. In absolute terms (in other words, the volume of water received), the highest values are recorded for countries in the Danube basin: Hungary (108 897 million m³), Croatia (93 782 million m³) and Bulgaria (83 731 million m³) had the highest external inflows among the EU Member States (see Table 1), although Serbia recorded an even higher volume (158 330 million m³). At the other end of the scale, some countries have no or only negligible external inflow of water: the islands of Malta and Cyprus, as well as Spain and Denmark.
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. Among EU Member States, total abstraction of freshwater ranged between 41 million m³ in Malta (2018 data) and 31 260 million m³ in Spain (2016 data). Turkey recorded an even higher total amount, namely 61 094 million m³ (2018). Between 2008 and 2018 — see Table 2 for the precise reference period covered for each EU Member State — the total volume of freshwater abstracted rose at its fastest pace in Denmark (+54 %) and Turkey (+45 %). The largest decreases were recorded in Lithuania (-87 %, due to a reduction of cooling water needs in electricity production), Gemany (-25 % from 2007 to 2017) and the Netherlands (-24 %).
Table 2 also shows the considerable differences between EU Member States as regards the ratio between abstractions 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 between 8 and 9 to 1 in Romania and Bulgaria (2018 data). Beyond the EU, Kosovo (this designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence) recorded a ratio of ca. 15:1. At the other end of the range, the volume of water abstracted from groundwater resources was around 15 times as high as the volume of surface water abstraction in Malta (2018 data, estimated) and 4.3 times in Denmark (2018 data).
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 2). Sweden (11 832 million m³; 2007 data), the Netherlands (6 165 million m³; 2016 data) and France (5 212 million m³; 2017 data) recorded the highest volumes of water abstracted from non-freshwater sources. In Malta, the volume of non-fresh water abstracted even dominates and reaches 5.4 times the volume of fresh water abstracted (2018 data, estimated).
In 2018, freshwater abstraction for public water supply ranged across the EU Member States between a high of 157 m³ of water per inhabitant in Greece (2017 data) and a low of 30 m³ per inhabitant in Malta — see Figure 2. Some of the patterns of freshwater abstraction for public supply reflect specific conditions in the EU Member States: for example, in Ireland (127 m³ per inhabitant, 2017 data) the use of water from the public supply was still free of charge for many households, while in Bulgaria (119 m³ per inhabitant, 2018 data) there were particularly high losses from the public network. Abstraction rates were also high in some non-EU Member States, notably in Norway (155 m³ per inhabitant) and Switzerland (112 m³ per inhabitant, both 2018 data).
The long-term development of total freshwater abstraction per inhabitant is shown for selected EU Member States in Figure 3. A comparison of the earliest and latest available annual data between 1990 and 2017 shows that there was a marked decrease in abstraction in many of the Member States, especially those that joined the EU in 2004 or 2007. 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. In smaller countries, the removal of large abstractors, such as the closing-down of the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania at the end of 2009, can have a marked effect on the curve of total abstraction. The level of abstraction per inhabitant is primarily determined by the dominance of sectors requiring large amounts of water, such as irrigation in agriculture or cooling in electricity generation.
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 European level, households and the manufacturing industry (as defined by section C of the classification NACE Rev. 2) are both important users of water. However, their relative share varies greatly among European countries: while in the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium there is a clear (2-5 fold) dominance of water use by the manufacturing industry compared to the use by households (reflecting in part the relative importance of manufacturing industry in the economy of these countries), it is almost equal in Bulgaria, Germany, and Croatia. In contrast, in countries with a dominance of the service sector and less industry, the water use by households can outweigh the use by manufacturing by far.
Variation is likewise visible as regards the level of water use from public supply per inhabitant, where for households Greece and Cyprus lead the field among EU Member States with 107 m³ per year. On the other hand, Lithuania and Romania manage to get along with just less than a quarter of this top amount. The Netherlands and Sweden recorded the highest values for water use in manufacturing (193 and 176 m³). Overall, the water use by households is much more uniform across Europe than the use by manufacturing, as basic water needs of the population are the same, while the industrial structure, and with that the water intensity of production, varies greatly.
Most EU Member States for which data are available (see Table 3) reported per inhabitant values for household water use from public water supply to be more or less stable over the last decade (2008-2018). Among the EU Member States, a marked increase could however be observed in Belgium, Greece and Cyprus. While there is no EU Member State with a clear decrease, this could be seen in Switzerland and Albania.
Self and other water supply is a major source of water for the manufacturing sector in several EU Member States as highlighted in Table 4. In the Netherlands, for example, self and other water supply accounted for 3 183 million m³ of water use in 2018, while public supply only accounted for 132 million m³. Similarly in Germany, where the figures were 4 036 million m³ (2017 data) and 338 million m³, respectively (2014 data). Likewise, the volume of water use from self and other water supplies was 39 times as high as that from public supply in Poland (2018 data), 28 times in Latvia (2018), and 38 times in Turkey (2018).
Wastewater treatment and disposal
Overall, there is a development towards a higher proportion of the population being connected to wastewater treatment. Table 5 presents information on the proportion of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment plants, which typically is an acceptable level on environmental protection unless the receiving waters are in a sensititve area. This share has been generally increasing over the past decades and was above 80 % in 16 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 even rose to above 95 % in 6 Member States (Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden (mixed reference years)), as well as Switzerland and the United Kingdom. At the other end of the range, less than one in two households were connected to at least secondary urban wastewater treatment plants in Cyprus (2006 data), Malta, Romania and Croatia (all 2018 data), while the same was also true in Iceland (2010 data), Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Over the time span shown (2000 - 2018), several countries managed to achieve a drastic increase in the coverage of their wastewater treatment, e.g. Hungary (from 29.8 % to 80.4 %) and Slovenia (from 12.3 % to 68.9 %).
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 5.
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;
- the share of the population connected to wastewater treatment plants — 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 .
In general, Eurostat collects national data. 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. Together with its daughter legislation (Directive 0118/2006 and Directive 0060/2007), 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 latest state of play is summarised in the Commission's implementation report of February 2019 (COM(2019) 95 final).
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.
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 on the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources (COM(2007) 120 final) 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 always covers information of the preceding year and shows that more than 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.
- Water statistics on national level (ESMS metadata file — env_nwat_esms)
- The Water Framework Directive Directive 0060/2000, central piece of European water-related legislation
- Summaries of EU legislation: Good-quality water in Europe (EU Water Directive)
- Report on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) and the Floods Directive (2007/60/EC) - Second River Basin Management Plans, First Flood Risk Management Plans COM(2019) 95 final
- Communication 'A blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources' (COM(2012) 673 final)
- Summaries of EU legislation: EU water resources protection plan
- Communication 'Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union' (COM(2007) 414 final)
- Summaries of EU legislation: Addressing water scarcity and droughts in the EU
- Directive 2007/60/EC of 23 October 2007 on the assessment and management of flood risks
- Summaries of EU legislation: Flood-risk management in the EU
- Directive 2006/118/EC of 12 December 2006 on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration
- Summaries of EU legislation: Protection of groundwater against pollution
- Directive 91/271/EEC of 1 May 1991 concerning urban wastewater treatment
- Summaries of EU legislation: Urban waste water treatment
- Discharges from cooling water are not regarded as wastewater in water statistics.