Water management in Europe faces rising challenges as ecosystems weaken

Posted: Monday 7th January 2013

Water pollution and excessive water use are still harming ecosystems, which are indispensable to Europe’s food, energy, and water supplies. To maintain water ecosystems, farming, planning, energy and transport sectors need to actively engage in managing water within sustainable limits.

European waters – current status and future challenges’ brings together findings from nine other European Environment Agency (EEA) reports published during the course of 2012 and early 2013. The report shows a mixed picture for the status of Europe’s water bodies, while the findings are worrying when it comes to ecosystems’ ability to deliver essential services.

Strong ecosystems should be maintained, partly because they provide vital services which are often overlooked, the report says. For example, restoring a wetland is not only good for biodiversity but also water filtration, water retention and flood prevention. Although essential, these services are not accounted for in current financial and economic systems.

“Water is finite, and cannot continue to absorb limitless amounts of pollution without damaging the resources and ecosystems we rely on,” Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director, said. “Farmers, planners and companies need to cooperate more, to make sure that the combined pressures on ecosystems do not pass harmful limits.”

Looking ahead to responsive water resources management

Solutions to many of Europe’s water problems have been analysed in the European Commission’s Water Blueprint document, published in 2012. The EEA report, launched today at the Blueprint conference in Cyprus, underpins the Blueprint’s recommendations and provides a baseline for monitoring progress.

New incentives can help Europe reduce the amount of water that is wasted, according to the EEA report. Suggested measures include reconsidering pricing structures for water use or domestic metering. However, incentives introduced with other policy objectives in mind can also encourage wasteful behaviour, for example some governments subsidise water use or encourage water-intense crops in dry areas.

Farming remains one of the largest pressures on Europe’s water resources, so agriculture and the food industry are major actors in significantly improving the situation. In the future, payments to farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy should consider their overall effect on water resources, the report says.

Energy production is another sector with a high impact on water in Europe. Biofuel production can be water intensive, while hydropower plants often divert water used for other sources. Extracting non-conventional oil and gas resources can also lead to water pollution. Careful planning can balance these demands against the needs of ecosystems, the report says.

Overall, river basins need to be further managed with constructive dialogue between the many stakeholders in the area. Public participation and the development of a strong knowledge base are paramount to engage into this dialogue.

The report states that the river basin is the best geographical scale for making accurate ’water accounts’– in effect asset management to balance the incoming and outgoing resources. Upcoming challenges for water resource management can only be met when water managers have the right information at their fingertips.

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