The common agricultural policy (CAP) supports investments to conserve water, improve irrigation infrastructures and enable farmers to improve irrigation techniques. It also helps to protect water quality.

Agriculture can impact in different ways on the good chemical and good quantitative status of groundwater and surface waters.

Water quality may be negatively affected by the presence of pesticide residues, nutrients from fertilisers, or sediments from soil erosion.

In terms of quantity, on average, 44 % of total water abstraction in Europe is used for agriculture. Southern European countries use the largest percentages of abstracted water for agriculture. This generally accounts for more than two-thirds of total abstraction. In northern EU countries, levels of water use in agriculture are much lower, with irrigation being less important but still accounting for more than 30 % in some areas.

The amount of water used for irrigation depends on factors such as:

  • climate;
  • crop type;
  • soil characteristics;
  • water quality;
  • cultivation practices.

Irrigation helps improve crop productivity and reduce risks due to dry periods, making it possible to grow more profitable crops. However, irrigation is also the source of a number of environmental concerns, such as the excessive depletion of water from subterranean aquifers, irrigation-driven erosion and increased soil salinity.

On the other hand, traditional irrigation systems create diverse and intricate landscapes, which support a variety of wildlife and have important cultural and historic value.

In addition, protecting water quality is a key issue of the CAP. The central aim is to avoid water pollution through agricultural activity, mainly through a sustainable use of pesticides and fertilisers for avoiding, in particular, nitrate pollution.

The main CAP instruments promoting sustainable water management are:

  • certain rural development measures support investments for improving the state of irrigation infrastructures or irrigation techniques that require the abstraction of lower volumes of water, as well as actions to improve water quality; 
  • the cross-compliance framework includes statutory requirements related to water protection and management arising from the implementation of the groundwater directive and nitrates directive, as well as GAEC standards.

In addition, there is a range of initiatives of EU environmental policy that will contribute to promoting the protection of waters, including:

Legal bases

Directive 2000/06/EC – on establishing a framework for EU action in the field of water policy

Directive 2006/118/EC – on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration