Water represents a societal challenge. On a planet where 70% of the surface is covered by water, only 1% of this amount is actually usable freshwater. In the European Union, water scarcity and droughts already affect one third of the European territory and yet, of the total abstraction of freshwater, 44% is used to cool thermal power plants and 24% for irrigation. As water scarcity and droughts regularly affect large parts of the European territory, water availability and its efficient use are also issues that need to be addressed in Europe.
The JRC supports several pieces of legislation including the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and its associated daughter Directives. In the context of the WFD, the JRC is actively involved in the Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources (the "Blueprint”) initiative. This initiative, which is part of the EU 2020 Strategy and the Resource Efficiency Roadmap, aims to ensure that good quality water is available in sufficient quantities for all legitimate uses.
The JRC provides scientific assessments to address societal and economic challenges deriving from the evolving vulnerability of the European and global water environment. In particular, it develops modelling tools to predict climate change impacts on water, assesses water governance in developing countries and carries out studies on the preservation of ecosystems.
Water and chemicals
Chemical compounds used in our daily activities can travel along rivers and lakes and end up in coastal and marine environments, where they can potentially threaten the health of humans and aquatic ecosystems. The JRC assesses and monitors the impact of pollutants and chemicals in aquatic ecosystems at regional and pan-European levels. To facilitate this, the JRC developed the Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) that set limits on allowable concentrations of aquatic pollutants.
The JRC carries out studies to assess the pressures of pollutants on aquatic ecosystems in Europe. In these studies, marine water bodies are the final recipients of pollutants. The JRC also performs modelling-based assessments which focus on inland freshwaters and on programmes of measures taken by decision makers in the drainage basin. The aims of these assessments are to identify the main sources of pollutants entering European marine waters, determine which activity sectors contribute to the transfer of pollutants from inland sources to coastal and marine waters, and evaluate the efficiency of various environmental directives on the transfer of pollutants.
The reliability and comparability of the analytical data produced by the monitoring exercise are crucial to the management of the environment. The JRC develops reference materials for substances on the priority list in fresh- and seawater and related matrices such as biota and sediment.
FATE – Fate and impacts of pollutants in ecosystems
EMIS – Environmental Marine Information System
Ecological water quality
In the early nineties, the increasing contamination levels of freshwaters led the European Commission to adopt a series of directives to reduce water pollution. The general objective of these directives is to achieve ‘good status’ for all surface waters by 2015.
‘Good status’ means both ‘good ecological status’ and ‘good chemical status’. The JRC has played a crucial role in providing scientific and technical support for the definition of good ecological status of water. It coordinates an intercalibaration exercise, which ensures that all EU Member States follow the requirements of the Water Framework Directive and that the results of measurements are comparable.
Assessing the ecological status of EU waters has revealed the need for more robust bio-indicators and reduction in the uncertainty of the results. The JRC carries out scientific research leading to the development of novel methods to fill in these gaps. Examples include a tool that quantifies the frequency of algal blooms and a tool that monitors invertebrate organisms in lake sediments to measure eutrophication pressure.
An important threat to ecosystems is the invasion of plants, animals and microorganisms from other parts of the world, that often have been introduced to the habitat by human activities. It is therefore important to track such invasions and prevent further occurrences. The JRC has created the online European Alien Species Information Network (EASIN) platform to provide easy access to complete information on alien species in Europe.
EASIN: European Alien Species Information Network
Ecosystems contribute to the supply of clean water by absorbing or filtering pollutants such as heavy metals, excess nutrients, and pesticides and storing water that could otherwise lead to floods. Many ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change, land use reclamation, and pollution. Their degradation and disappearance negatively affects our well-being and threatens our economies. The JRC supports EU nature and water policies by mapping ecosystem services, developing robust modelling approaches to simulate future ecosystem scenarios, and assessing the costs and benefits of conservation actions.
The JRC contributes to the mapping and valuation of ecosystem services by collecting data and delivering modelling-based scenarios and trade-off analyses. For example, the JRC carries out research to evaluate the role of water bodies (wetlands, lakes and rivers) in water purification services, using nitrogen levels as a common water quality reference. The JRC also combines data on coastal topography, habitats and geomorphology to identify areas vulnerable to flooding and erosion.
Ecosystems and biodiversity
Water Quantity and Efficiency
The JRC carries out several support studies and assessments for the EU’s Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources. It has developed an integrated modelling framework that links land-use, hydrological and resource-efficiency models in order to evaluate different scenarios and policy options in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
The JRC carries out baseline scenarios and a number of alternative policy and socio-economic scenarios for pilot river basins using a multi-model approach. This approach includes climate change simulation, a land use modelling platform driven by agricultural, forestry and population growth models, and a hydrological model.
The availability of water resources is evaluated in terms of human consumption, irrigation, environmental requirements, recreational needs, cost, energy consumption and pollution under global change.
Since land use management affects both water quality and its availability, several scenarios are evaluated for their ability to reduce surface runoff and inflow of pollutants into rivers, and their possible effectiveness in reducing flood risk.
LUISA - Land-Use-based Integrated Sustainability Assessment Modelling Platform
Extreme water events such as droughts, floods and tsunamis have enormous environmental, social and economic impacts. Local and transnational disasters have demonstrated that efficient risk management is of paramount importance.
The JRC develops early warning, monitoring and damage assessment systems for weather-driven natural hazards. It also develops tools for assessing the effects of climate and land-use change, risk mapping and adaptation to extreme events across Europe and worldwide.
Coastal and marine environments
The coastal and marine environment is a major provider of goods and services, such as food, fossil fuels, construction materials, transport and recreation. It also hosts invaluable biodiversity that forms complex ecosystems which are threatened by human activities such as agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, urbanisation and tourism. The JRC provides scientific and technical support for the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which aims to protect marine waters.
Coastal and marine environment
Water and Energy
While insignificant water quantities are consumed in renewable energy operations, carbon capture and storage requires higher amounts of water (for cooling and other processes) than conventional fossil fuel plants of similar capacities.
The transition to a low-carbon economy is one of the key priorities of the European Union. Essential to achieving this goal is the large-scale deployment of energy technologies with a low carbon footprint. Measuring the impact of such technologies on water resources is one of the JRC’s contributions to the EU’s Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources and the European Energy Roadmap to 2050.
The JRC is developing methods to assess the current and future potential of hydropower in Europe in relation to the availability of water. Water consumption in 2050 is projected to remain at current levels. This could be problematic since studies carried out by the JRC show that gross hydropower potential is projected to decrease in southern Europe by 2070.
Floods portal – climate change impact assessment
Water supply for agriculture
Water abstraction for irrigation purposes accounts on average for 24% of total water abstraction across Europe. Pressures on water resources culminate during the summer period when the irrigation demand from agriculture is highest. Intensive agriculture is also responsible for the degradation of the quality of surface- and groundwaters, including contamination from pesticides and nitrates. The JRC is actively involved on studying the impact of agriculture on the quantity and quality of water resources.
Water in development cooperation
EU policies promote an integrated framework for water resource management, drawing on European experience of managing river basins and transboundary rivers, and a whole range of European approaches to water and sanitation services.
The JRC provides scientific support to partners in developing countries for the sustainable development of the water sector by carrying out research on knowledge management, evaluating the impacts of climate change on water resource management and food production, studying the water-energy-agriculture nexus and assessing the impacts of water resource management on ecosystem services. The JRC global approach to these issues is fundamental to building a thorough scientific understanding that supports policy and decision makers.