Policy loopholes mean EU farming is haemorrhaging water, say auditors

The European Court of Auditors has condemned weak, and poorly enforced policies that they say give farmers a free pass to abuse water use, levying damning criticism at EU’s farming subsidy programme.

The conclusions came after the publication of a new report, published on Tuesday (28 September), which specifically explored the sustainable use of water in agriculture.

Farmers are significant consumers of freshwater, with agriculture accounting for a quarter of all water abstraction in the EU. As well as quantity, the sector also impacts water quality, mainly from pollution from fertilisers and pesticides.

While it is true that farmers have made gains in water efficiency, with the sector using 28% less water than it did in 1990, auditors concluded that the amount of water used by the industry is still “unsustainable”.

“The impact of agriculture on water resources is major and undeniable,” the report pointed out.

Auditors pointed the finger at weak and unenforced policies as the main culprit.

“EU support for agriculture is not aligned with water objectives,” Joëlle Elvinger, the auditor responsible for the report, said during a press conference. “What do I mean by that? I mean that EU policies in their current form can’t ensure that farmers use water sustainably,” she added.

This means that, overall, the EU has “certainly funded farms and projects that undermine the sustainable use of water,” the auditors said.

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The EU’s current approach to managing water goes back to the 2000 Water Framework Directive (WFD), which introduced policies relating to sustainable water use. It included a requirement for member states to embrace the polluter-pays principle. But the implementation of this directive has been long delayed, auditors noted.

The common agricultural policy (CAP) also plays an essential role in water sustainability, offering tools that can help reduce pressures on water resources. These include linking payments to greener practices and financing more efficient irrigation infrastructure.

But auditors said these safeguards are not translated onto farmers’ fields.

“In theory, water quantity is pretty well protected in the EU. But in practice, it’s often a very different story,” Elvinger said, calling EU water policy in the area of agriculture a “leaky bucket”.

This is because member states currently offer “too many exemptions” to farmers from EU water policy, including water-stressed regions. The result is a hindrance for efforts to ensure sound water use, auditors pointed out.

At the same time, some national authorities rarely apply sanctions to the illegal water use that they detect, the report concluded.

“The result of these exemptions is that fewer costs are recovered in agriculture than in other sectors. In other words, what is cheaper for the agricultural sector in the polluter pays principle is left by the wayside,” Elvinger said, pointing out that farmers are often not billed for the actual volume of water they use.

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Rather than stemming the water flow, auditors actually accused the EU’s agricultural policy of “promoting and too often supporting greater rather than more efficient water use”.

Under the CAP, EU aid to farmers is contingent upon compliance with certain conditions.

But none of those conditions give them a compelling incentive to use water sustainably, Elvinger said, adding that, to the contrary, auditors actually found that some EU rules “can make water shortages worse”.

The auditors reserved particular criticism for the fact that CAP payments can support water-intensive crops, such as rice, nuts, fruit and vegetables. The report said that these payments are being issued without geographical restriction, including in water-stressed areas.

“In other words, you can use EU funding in dry areas to help you grow crops, which makes the lack of water worse,” Elvinger pointed out.

Although the report concluded that some measures, particularly in the rural development fund, can help farmers use water more sustainably, it found that farmers “rarely take advantage” of such opportunities.

Asked as to whether the auditors saw any change on the horizon with the coming CAP reform, which specifically sets out the efficient management of natural resources such as water as one of its key objectives, Elvinger said a “limited number” of areas were expected to improve regarding the previous CAP.

However, she pointed out that the ball was very much in member states’ courts, given that this new reform is designed to offer more flexibility to EU countries.

As such, the impact of the new CAP on water use will “very much depend on the national strategic plans and how member states are going to implement the new CAP,” she said.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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