Water savings often hampered at national level

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Efforts to improve water efficiency and avert scarcity are hampered by illegal wells, lack of metering, and in some cases national opposition to tougher European Union standards, analyses of water allocation in agriculture show.

Without better oversight and water pricing strategies, scarcity could grow in European countries and even threaten the future of groundwater supplies in some regions, the analyses say.

Improving water efficiency is a central issue in the EU executive’s current review of the Water Framework Directive, with recommendations on improving implementation and enforcement expected by November.

The Commission has also proposed new efficiency and conservation measures in its draft of the 2014-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

One such proposal calls for requiring that new irrigation systems achieve a minimum 25% of water savings in order to qualify for EU funding, replacing the current open-ended compensation scheme.

National opposition

The European Commission's agriculture directorate "has proposed that they are only funding irrigation projects where at least 25% of the water is saved,” said Thomas Dworak, a Vienna-based consultant and contributor to one recent analysis of agricultural water use.

"And now member states are against it because they would lose a lot of subsidies.”

Sources in both the Commission and European Parliament confirmed that the measure faces an uphill battle in the co-decision process involving EU national leaders and the Parliament.

The report on water use in agriculture – and a separate study prepared for the Commission’s environment directorate – underscore challenges across Europe but especially in groundwater use.

Sarah Bogaert, a lead author one study, says pricing is not an easy issue but “it’s important that you give the right signals” to farmers and other consumers.

In some southern regions of the EU facing the most dire water challenges, “there is just no price for abstracting water by the farmer … they do not pay any environmental costs of abstraction.”

The study was prepared by the ARCADIS consultancy for the European Commission. It cites the need for more comprehensive metering, monitoring and enforcement of water use and calls for a “paradigm shift” in the CAP and Cohesion Policy to promote sustainable consumption.

Big consumers

Globally, agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater consumption while in the EU, the average is 24%, according to UN and EU figures. But in several southern countries, the figure approaches 90% – leading to rationing of supplies in the driest months.

Desperation also forces farmers to turn to from dry streams to groundwater, risking gradual depletion. 

Despite the challenges, farmers and national leaders are not standing still.

The ARCADIS report cites awareness efforts in Cyprus, France and Spain – where several regions face scarcity – as making strides in reducing irrigation waste.

Despite apparent opposition to setting efficiency standards for new irrigation systems, Romania does just that – farmers are required to achieve a minimum 10% in water savings to get rural development funding for new watering systems.

Malta is using satellites to monitor illegal boreholes on farms.

“It’s a good way of enforcing legislation because they say, ‘OK we have a map of where the registered boreholes are, so we just take a photo put that over the map, and every green spot that doesn’t match with a registered borehole, we know it’s illegal,” said Dworak, director of Fresh Thoughts Consulting and a contributor to the ARCADIS report.

The report also recommends steps to improve metering and put agricultural water pricing more in line with use.

But dearer water prices come at a risk. A separate prepared for the Commission warns that “illegal abstraction may increase with higher prices and/or monitoring,” with farmers turning from public supplies to boreholes or channels off streams.

The report shows there are 50,000 boreholes in Cyprus, many illegal, compounding the country’s declining groundwater reserves.

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of the Copa-Cogeca, representing farmers and agricultural cooperatives in the EU, welcomed the theme of this year’s World Water Day which focuses on water and food security. “Achieving food security and stability in a sustainable way will be a major global challenge over the coming years.  We are being confronted with more and more constraints like declining resources of productive land and fresh water as well as climate change which are threatening food supplies. It will become more important than ever to increase productivity.

"Copa-Cogeca’s is committed to optimising agricultural productivity at the same time as improving resource efficiency and in particular water efficiency. This in line with our views on encouraging green growth in agriculture."

The European Environment Bureau says the Water Framework Directive "has been unsuccessful in tackling water pollution by nutrients and chemicals and the over-abstraction of surfacewater and groundwater by agriculture."

“Europeans are paying twice: once when subsidising polluting agricultural practices through the CAP and the second time through their water bills for removing the pollutants from drinking water. This malpractice has to stop,” said Sarolta Tripolszky, EEB water policy officer.

On the eve of World Water Day, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said: "With the growing world population and increasing urbanisation, the world's consumption and demand for water is constantly growing and we are failing to manage this vital good fairly and efficiently.

"Clean water improves public health, generates wealth and contributes to reducing poverty. Access to clean water and sanitation should be considered as a basic right - and as the European Parliament resolution stated - it should not be a source of illegitimate profit. I am happy to see that some states have made concrete progress to protect this right in their legal system."

Farmers tap multiple sources for irrigating crops and water livestock – rainwater storage, buying from public systems, or drilling wells or diverting from streams.

Globally, some 70% of water goes for agriculture, but in Europe the figures vary widely. Overall, 24% of water consumed is for farming, second only to power generation (44%), figures from the European Environment Agency show. But most water used for hydroelectricity is returned to waterways, while much of the water taken to irrigate farms is consumed by plants.

In Greece, Portugal and Spain, more than 90% of water consumed is for farming – an amount analysts say is unsustainable. In Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Latvia and Romania, the figure is 50%-90%, a recent EU report says.

Spain, Italy, France and Greece – countries with regions facing worsening arid conditions - lead Europe in the amount of irrigated land – more than 3 million hectares in Spain alone. But Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland and Romania all extract far more water than they actually use, indicating high levels of waste.

  • 22 March: World Water Day
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • November 2012: European Commission expected to release review of Water Framework Directive

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