Future EU water blueprint to focus on savings

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The European Commission will consider new measures to decrease water consumption in buildings, agriculture and other areas after a major review of current EU water legislation has been completed by 2012.

The Commission is expected to table a 'Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's Water' by 2012.

The blueprint will result from a review of the bloc's current strategy on water scarcity and droughts, a review of the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive and a review of the vulnerability of water resources to climate change and other man-made pressures.

It will examine member states' implementation of existing EU legislation and assess the potential for increasing water availability, savings and climate resilience.

Further studies are being conducted to assess where and when water scarcity is a problem and evaluate the magnitude of the problem.

Water hierarchy

A Commission communication on water scarcity, published in 2007, laid down a hierarchy under which "water demand management should come first, and alternative supply options should only be considered only once the potential for water savings and efficiency has been exhausted".

Janez Poto?nik, the EU's environment commissioner, appeared to follow the same line when he said earlier this year that the EU had not yet looked closely enough at demand-side measures like water pricing and efficiency.

While the EU's Water Framework Directive (WFD) already requires member states to introduce water-pricing policies with incentives for efficient water use, it does not otherwise address demand management issues.

In a 2009 study, the European Environment Agency (EEA) noted that Europe had so far concentrated on boosting water supplies rather than exploring ways to reduce demand for it. The agency is calling on European governments to adopt policies to control water demand, as rising living standards have pushed the use of water resources beyond sustainable levels.

The report lists a number of good practices to reduce water consumption, like making sure people pay for water according to volume. Others include raising awareness to change habits and lifestyles, installing water meters in homes, investing in better leakage detection systems, properly penalising illegal abstraction and educating farmers to make the right choices on crops and irrigation methods.

Leakage reduction

As part of its work towards the 2012 blueprint, the Commission is currently studying options for establishing a more efficient water distribution system to reduce water losses and related economic loss.

Indeed, Commission studies show that water leakages from distribution networks are as high as 50% in certain areas of Europe.

According to the European Water Partnership, a non-profit organisation, leakage rates in Germany for example are very low, whereas some Italian cities have up to 70% leakage rates and London up to 35%.

Buildings

The drive to save water also covers water savings in buildings.

According to the EU executive, up to 30% of the volume of water consumed in buildings in some regions could be saved. A study commissioned by the EU executive further claims that a number of specific technological and technical changes to taps, toilets, showers and water-using equipment such as dishwashers can reduce water demand and result in water savings of up to 80%.

The Commission is thus considering tabling a new EU directive on water efficiency in buildings similar to the one already adopted on the energy performance of buildings

The same applies for efficiency standards for water using products, along the lines of EU legislation on eco-design requirements for energy-using products.

An EU study on efficiency standards for water-using products was finalised last year, but the EU executive is still weighing different policy options regarding the water efficiency of buildings and needs to look at cost-benefit analysis of such proposals before actually tabling them.

Agriculture

According to the European Environment Agency, agriculture accounts for 24% of water abstraction in Europe – up to 80% in some southern member states – compared to 44% abstracted for cooling water in energy production.

However, the impact of agriculture on water reserves is much bigger in the end as almost all cooling water is returned to a water body. Only around a third of the water used in agriculture returns to a water body.  

Therefore, the Commission has identified agriculture as the priority sector in which measures to combat water scarcity need to be considered.

The EU executive is also mulling a specific study on water management in the post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and plans to address water pricing in agriculture at a special conference in Poland in 2011.

In 2006 and 2007, the European Commission carried out an in-depth assessment of water scarcity and drought in the European Union.

It later presented a set of policy options to increase water savings, highlighting the need to improve the financing of water efficiency in existing sectoral policies.

A December 2008 follow-up report and document summarised progress made and listed a series of potential EU-level initiatives to foster water-efficient technologies and practices in order to promote the emergence of a water-saving culture in Europe.

Ideas put forward included land-use planning, water pricing, water metering, promoting water efficient devices and practices, education, and information and communication to raise awareness.

A 2007 study (see part 1 and part 2) estimates that water efficiency in the EU could be improved by nearly 40% through technological improvements alone and that changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase such savings.

  • 2010-2011: Several EU studies expected on data collection and research activities to assess current situation and fill knowledge gaps on water scarcity.
  • 2011: Conference on water pricing in agriculture (Poland).
  • 2012: Commission expected to table 'Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's Water'.

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