Water and agriculture in the EU

Agriculture is heavily reliant on water, requiring a steady and safe supply to ensure the health and wellbeing of crops, livestock, and all forms of life within an agricultural ecosystem. However, water is vulnerable to a number of challenges, often associated with unsustainable management practices. Such challenges include:

  • pollution from pesticide residues, fertilisers, and chemicals;
  • heavy sedimentation caused by soil erosion;
  • overuse, unsustainable abstraction.

Rising global temperatures bring additional challenges for agricultural water use, with heightened risks of drought in some areas and flooding in others.

Through the common agricultural policy (CAP), the European Commission aims to ensure that agriculture makes a strong contribution to the EU’s water policies. Safeguarding water is also a key aspect of the European Green Deal, particularly with regard to the zero pollution ambition for 2030 and the achievement of a sustainable food system, as set out in the farm to fork strategy.

Current CAP actions

The CAP promotes sustainable agricultural systems in the EU, enabling farmers to

  • provide safe, healthy, and sustainably-produced food for society;
  • earn a stable and fair income, taking into account the full range of public goods they provide;
  • protect natural resources, enhance biodiversity, and contribute to the fight against climate change.

By ensuring compliance with EU rules and encouraging good management practices, the CAP protects the role of water in sustainable agricultural systems.


Under cross -ompliance rules, all beneficiaries of the CAP have their payments linked with a set of statutory management requirements (SMRs) and good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs). Cross-compliance rules of particular relevance to water include:

  • the nitrates directive (linked with payments through SMR 1);
  • buffer strips along water courses (GAEC 1);
  • compliance with authorisation procedures for irrigation (GAEC 2);
  • protecting groundwater against pollution (GAEC 3).

Green direct payments

Under current CAP rules, farmers must comply with three mandatory practices in order to receive green direct payments, all of which can bring benefits to water. Crop diversification and permanent grassland both help to improve soil structure and strengthen its ability to retain water, while restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilisers on ecological focus areas (such as buffer strips and field margins) cuts the risk of pollution.

Rural development

Improving water management and increasing efficiency in water use are two key focus areas for rural development (the so-called “second pillar” of the CAP). Through their rural development programmes, EU countries can contribute to these focus areas by supporting farmers who make extra steps towards sustainable water use:

  • through agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs), in which farmers commit to adopting actions that protect water quality and improve efficiency;
  • investment measures can be used to cover the costs of capital-heavy changes, such as more efficient irrigation installations;
  • Water Framework Directive payments support farmers who adapt their land as part of river basin management plans.

The European network for rural development advances knowledge and cooperation on sustainable water use through thematic areas on resource efficiency and water and soil management.

The new CAP: 2023-27

Due to start in 2023, the new CAP will include stronger protections for water, increased support for sustainable practices, and put agriculture closer in line with the goals of the European Green Deal.

  • CAP specific objective

Based on the Commission’s proposals, one of the nine specific objectives of the new CAP will focus on the sustainable management of natural resources, including water. In essence, the sustainable management of water is essential for all nine of the new CAP’s social, environmental and economic objectives.

  • CAP strategic plans

In designing their CAP strategic plans, EU countries will have more flexibility to apply interventions that effectively tackle local and regional challenges related to agricultural water use, whilst also contributing to EU goals for safe water.

  • New green architecture

The new CAP will include a new green architecture, with stronger rules and more opportunities for eco-friendly farming. To increase support for voluntary practices undertaken by farmers, a significant portion of the CAP’s budget will be set aside for eco-schemes. The Commission published an indicative list of eco-schemes, in January 2021, including several practices beneficial for water.

Monitoring progress

Through the common monitoring and evaluation framework, the Commission collects a variety of data indicators relating to water and facilitates a range of evaluations and external studies to measure the performance of the CAP.

The Commission’s agri-food data portal includes a dashboard displaying the most relevant indicators for water quality and availability, while an independent evaluation assessing the impact of the CAP on water was published in February 2020.

Under the Commission’s proposals, the new CAP will include a reinforced performance monitoring and evaluation framework, which will facilitate greater accountability and the transition to a performance-based delivery model.

Knowledge, research, and innovation

In order to develop new techniques and technologies that can contribute to the sustainable management of water, the Commission supports research and innovation on water, nutrients and waste in agriculture.

The farm advisory system spreads knowledge of new methods and technologies, while also providing advice to farmers on how to comply with water protection requirements.

Research in action: efficient irrigation

With support from Italy’s rural development programme, the Consorzio di Bonifica and Associazione Nazionale Bonifiche Italiane established the IRRINET - IRRIFRAME project in the Emilia-Romagna region. They developed an expert system to provide real-time irrigation scheduling,  with day-by-day information on how much water is required and when to irrigate farm crops. The service covers more than 40 000 farms, which is almost 40 % of the irrigated area in the region, and in 2007-13 it resulted water savings of more than 50 million m3.

Legal bases

Cross compliance is governed by rules on the financing, management and monitoring of the common agricultural policy EU regulation 1306/2013, EU implementing regulation 809/2014, EU delegated regulation 640/2014.

The rules for green direct payments are set out in EU regulation 1307/2013, EU delegated regulation 639/2014, EU implementing regulation 641/2014.

EU support for rural development comes from the European agricultural fund for rural development (EAFRD) – EU regulation 1305/2013