Janez Potočnik, the EU's environment commissioner, underlined that the EU strategy on water scarcity and drought stresses the importance of a water hierarchy. "Water demand management should come first and alternative supply options should only be considered once the potential for water savings and efficiency has been exhausted."
"Integrated water policy management flows throughout the broader European policies too. The European Commission flagship initiative on resource efficiency, which is currently developing under the EU 2020 Strategy, makes water saving measures and increasing water efficiency a priority," he added.
Referring to the economic side of things, Karl Falkenberg, director-general of the European Commission’s environment directorate, noted that the total cost of drought episodes in the past thirty years amounted to approximately €100 billion and average yearly costs increased by a factor of four during the same period.
Falkenberg said the amount of water "lost" in the public supply system was as high as 50% across Europe, which he described as "simply financially disastrous". He stressed the need for waste reduction and mitigation measures, such as fixing leaking pipes and repairing the public supply system.
Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, said "the short-term solution to water scarcity has been to extract ever greater amounts of water from our surface and groundwater assets. Overexploitation is not sustainable. It has a heavy impact on the quality and quantity of the remaining water as well as the ecosystems which depend on it. We have to cut demand, minimise the amount of water that we are extracting and increase the efficiency of its use".
Peter Gammeltoft, head of the European Commission's water unit, noted that the EU is yet to address land use, land management and their impact on water availability. He drew attention to ineffective water pricing policies, wastage of water and only partial integration of water concerns in all sectoral policies, as well as the lack of comparable data across Europe, among the other main current challenges to water efficiency.
Derk Kuiper, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, an NGO, also believes that precise data on water usage will soon help farmers and policymakers to make better decisions on where to grow crops.
Kuiper suggests that the water footprinting methodology can help policymakers to draft better policies on different river basins, as better information on water use would help them to understand the water consumption of all economic sectors around a particular river or lake.
This method will in turn allow the comparison of "the socio-economic value different sectors bring to society" and help develop strategies to deal with water scarcity and pollution, he explained.
The European Water Partnership (EWP), a public-private organisation, is in the process of testing draft standards for sustainable water management in industrial production processes.
Friedrich Barth, vice-chairman of the EWP, said he hoped the Commission's 2012 blueprint on water will consider the group's Water Stewardship Programme, because it has concrete responses and tools that industry could apply to increase water efficiency.
However, water efficiency is not enough for Barth. "You need to look at water sustainability," he said. While farmers can use water efficiently, they can still be unsustainable, he explained, suggesting that high water-intensity vegetables should be grown somewhere other than southern Spain, where they need irrigating.
"One of the future issues that needs to be looked at more carefully is land-use planning," he said, which he counts among the most important responses to water management.
The EWP's water vision for Europe in 2030 stresses the role of pricing in achieving water efficiency, suggesting that by then water services must have a price. "We pay for services and for the uses and our pricing policies are guided by transparency, sustainability and efficiency as well as a social and environmental approach. We use water pricing and other economic instruments to achieve sustainable water use," the vision states.
Peter Erik Ywema, from the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI), a food industry platform, believes that sustainable water use in agriculture falls directly under the strategic topic of security of future supply. Companies are interested in water efficiency because "they want to buy agricultural products in the future as well," Ywema said.
The platform's member companies have streamlined their varying sustainability requests to farmers and are currently looking at what indicators farmers could use to show progress in saving water.
According to Ywema, the biggest problem facing sustainable water use in agriculture is that there is no immediate take-up to build on very promising results obtained from various pilot projects, including on the use of drip irrigation, for example, despite the quick returns on investments that rolling out such schemes would offer.
Eureau, the European federation of national associations of drinking water suppliers and waste water services, believes one of the key elements to be considered is "water recycling and reuse, as much as possible: this way of doing more with the same amount of water must be thoroughly studied and implemented wherever possible".
Antoine Frérot, chief executive officer of Veolia Environnement, a global private water services operator, suggests that to address the challenge of water scarcity, the world needs to 'de-hydrate' the economy, fight against waste and make better use of alternative resources like waste water.
He stresses the need to apply completely the EU framework directive, which says that all beneficiaries of good water policy need to contribute to its financing proportionally to its benefits. Also, the financing and pricing of water management and services could be based on performance-efficiency indicators of water usage, he said.
It is also possible to disconnect water withdrawal and consumption. "For example, if we reuse water, there is consumption of water, of potable water, but no withdrawal, so probably we need to pay more when we withdraw water than when we just consume it," Frérot said.
The WWF, an environmental NGO, highlights the role of recycling. "Innovative processes for recycling and reclaiming wastewater will play a vital role in relieving pressures from freshwater sources such as rivers and aquifers. For example, the city of Singapore meets 30% of its drinking water demand by using reclaimed wastewater. The process also consumes less energy, as the water is only purified once."
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an environmental NGO, believes in compulsory water pricing to help the pursuit of water efficiency. It also believes that water consumption should be aligned within environmental limits: one should not automatically always increase supply, but manage demand and tackle leakage.