Europe’s demand for energy, fuels and food are placing a global strain on water and other natural resources that could have particularly devastating consequences for developing nations, warns a report published today (3 November) by a conservation organisation.
Friends of the Earth Europe’s report urges the EU to revamp “piecemeal and disjointed” policies to address resource threats in other regions, and calls on the European Commission and national governments to begin measuring the amount of water used in manufactured products and food imports.
“We are importing a lot of these products that have a huge water footprint without realising it, and at the same time we are wasting a lot of these products”, said Ariadna Rodrigo, a natural resource campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.
Domestic water consumption is more sparing in Europe than in other regions, the report says. Europeans use 1,500 litres per person daily, one-third the level of North America. The energy sector accounts for some 45% of water use, followed by agriculture (22%), public supply (21%) and industries (12%), the report says.
Indirect consumption exceeds domestic use
But European nations’ indirect consumption – water used in the production of imported goods and commodities – exceeds domestic consumption, Rodrigo said. When indirect consumption is added in, Europe’s per-person consumption rises to 4,750 litres of water per day, the report says.
The report – Under Pressure: How our Material Consumption Threatens the Planet’s Water Resources – was released a day after the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned that exploitation of water and other natural resources threatens sustainable development globally.
The UNDP’s 2011 Human Development Report says 60% of people in the world’s poorest countries lack access to clean water supplies, and that in wealthier countries, unsustainable farming practices and wasteful irrigation place a particular burden on rivers, aquifers and other supplies.
The UNDP document says European and other well-off nations are taxing resources in developing regions.
“Runaway growth in consumption among the best-off people in the world is putting unprecedented pressure on the environment,” the UNDP report says, noting that per-capita water consumption in much of sub-Saharan Africa and other least-developed regions is 67 litres per day.
Developing nations are particularly affected by resource scarcity because they are often leading producers of export goods.
Monitoring tools needed
Rodrigo says the EU and national government need to adopt measuring systems that track how much water – as well as fuels, land and raw materials – go into finished products imported into the 27-nation bloc.
Tracking systems would help inform consumers and industries, but also give policymakers a standard to apply when making environmental, trade and transport policies, Rodrigo told EURACTIV in advance of the report’s release. Such methods do not now exist outside pressure groups that follow resource consumption.
EU policy that calls for 10% of use of biofuels in transport by 2020 is one example that has come under fire. Plant-based fuels are a growing export from sub-Saharan Africa, where anti-poverty and environmental groups claim the industry competes with food crops and threatens water resources, especially in drought-prone regions of eastern Africa.
ActionAid, a South African campaign organisation, claims that the growing demand for biofuels in Europe has sparked major investments in Kenya’s eastern Tana River region that could result in crops grown for fuels diverting water supplies from homes and small-scale farms.
Kenyan conservation organisations earlier this year battled plans by an Italian renewable energy company, Nuove Iniziative Industriali, to develop a 50,000-hectare jatropha plantation in the country, arguing that it was threat to water and other natural resources. Some 80 percent of Kenya is arid or semi-arid.
“The problem with Europe is that we do not measure the amount of resources that we consume,” said Rodrigo of Friends of the Earth Europe. “Because we do not measure that, the biofuels policy is not taking into consideration the huge amount of water you need to meet those targets the EU imposed.”
Increased water demand, fuelled by population growth and economic development, is putting pressure on prices across the globe.
According to the Earth Policy Institute, municipal water rates have increased dramatically over the past five years, by as much as 27% in the United States, 32% in the United Kingdom, 45% in Australia, 50% in South Africa and 58% in Canada. In Tunisia, the price of irrigation water increased fourfold over a decade.
In terms of business, water can also be a huge source of revenue. A recent report by Transparency International estimates at $210 billion annually the total value of contracts and infrastructure projects in Western Europe, North America and Japan put together.
EU official documents
- European CommissionBiofuels and other renewable energy in the transport sector
- European CommissionA Blueprint to safeguard Europe's Waters
- United Nations Development Programme2011 Human Development Report