Water efficiency: Saving the blue gold


This article is part of our special report Resource Efficiency.

The European Commission is planning measures to rein in water use, with a particular focus on savings in agriculture, buildings and industrial processes.

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

According to a Commission-backed study (see part 1 and part 2), water efficiency in the EU could be improved by nearly 40% with technological improvements alone. Changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase savings, it noted.

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

Ideas put forward included improving land-use planning to take account of water issues, introducing more widespread use of pricing and metering technologies – in households and agriculture – as well as promoting water efficient devices. Education and communication campaigns are also in the works to help raise citizens' awareness about water.

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.

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

The water blueprint will draw from a review of the bloc's various pieces of legislation and initiatives on water:

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

The water blueprint will draw from a review of the bloc's various pieces of legislation and initiatives on water:

The aim of the Commission's policy review is to introduce "a water-saving culture" in Europe and create "a drought-resilient society" in the context of climate change.

The policy paper will focus on increasing water savings in all areas, with a particular emphasis on agriculture and improving water retention by making changes to land use and management. Other areas where efficiency gains are expected include water supply infrastructures and buildings.

This will be done by ensuring "demand management" of water – including pricing policies – in a bid to secure enough water for all essential uses.

Focus on managing demand

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 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 agency believes a number of simple practices can reduce water consumption, such as making sure people pay for the water they use according to volume. Other possible initiatives include raising awareness to change consumers' habits and lifestyles, installing water meters in homes and penalising illegal abstraction.

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 waste and related economic losses.

Some 21% of EU freshwater is abstracted for public water supplies but Commission studies show that water leakage from distribution networks is as high as 50% in certain areas of Europe.

According to the European Water Partnership, leakage rates in Germany are very low, whereas some Italian cities have leakage rates of up to up to 70% and London up to 35%.

Water performance of buildings

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

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

Meanwhile, according to the report, only a few EU member states have already included water-saving standards in national building regulations.

The Commission has said that "binding rules could be envisaged to promote water savings in public and private buildings". It 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.

Inspired by EU legislation on eco-design requirements for energy-using products, the EU executive is also planning to introduce efficiency standards for water-using devices.

An EU study on the topic was finalised last year, but the EU executive is still weighing up different policy options regarding the water efficiency of buildings and needs to conduct cost-benefit analyses of such proposals before actually tabling them.

The process could lead to a specific EU water efficiency labelling scheme (WELS).

Gray water

But water efficiency in buildings is also about reusing grey water (or roof water) to flush toilets or irrigate gardens. According to the Commission, the use of grey water can reduce the strain on rivers and lakes and thus help to save water in general.

A Commission study suggests that harvesting rainwater could meet up to 80% of the household needs of a typical family house in southern France.

However, installing such grey water systems "requires a certain level of behavioural change to adapt to these new systems," the Commission notes. In addition, whilst grey water systems are easy to install in new constructions, the cost and difficulties of retrofitting may render them less feasible for existing buildings, the study notes.

The reuse of waste water would also require large investment in treatment, which "may inhibit the development of direct domestic water use," it adds.

Industry focus on agriculture

According to EU data, water abstracted for cooling in energy production accounts for 44% of total water abstraction in Europe, while agriculture accounts for 24% (up to 80% in some southern member states)

However, the impact of agriculture on water reserves ends up much larger, 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 singled out agriculture as the priority sector in which water efficiency should be improved in order to avoid scarcity. The EEA suggests that educating farmers about making the right choices on crops and irrigation methods could be one way forward.

The EU executive also wants to integrate sound water management into environmental measures considered in the context of the post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It plans to address water pricing in agriculture at a special conference in Poland in 2011.

Some 11% of EU freshwater is abstracted by the manufacturing industry, around half of which is used for cooling and half for processing.

The chemical and petroleum refinement industries use about half of all the water abstracted by the manufacturing industry – the metals, paper and food processing sectors accounting for most of the remainder. According to the Commission, water use in manufacturing can be reduced by recycling and reusing water, changing production processes, using more efficient technology, reducing leakage and developing on-site treatment.

Janez Poto?nik, 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.

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