Nov 28, 2012

Water Management in Europe: Rising Challenges as Ecosystems Weaken

Ecosystems must be maintained to protect biodiversity, enhance water filtration

europe, water management, ecosystem

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. 

A new report, “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 that often are overlooked, the report says. For example, restoring a wetland is not only good for biodiversity, but also for 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 we cannot continue to absorb limitless amounts of pollution without damaging the resources and ecosystems we rely on,” said Jacqueline McGlade, EEA executive director. “Farmers, planners and companies need to cooperate more, to make sure that the combined pressures on ecosystems do not pass harmful limits.”

·  Ecosystems are under pressure. Less than half (48%) of Europe's surface water bodies are likely to be in good ecological status by 2015, as specified by the Water Framework Directive (WFD). To meet this target, water bodies must further reduce nutrient pollution and restore more natural features.

·  Modification of water bodies is harming ecosystems. The extent of modification of water bodies is also a problem in 52% of surface waters. Artificial modifications such as dams or reservoirs can prevent plants and animals from migrating or reproducing.

·  Pollution problems in European waters. Nitrate pollution from agricultural fertilizers is the most long-term pollution problem for European surface waters. At the current rate of improvement, nitrate levels will still be too high for several decades to come, the report notes. Phosphates and ammonia pollution are reducing more quickly due to better wastewater treatment.

·  Agriculture and other sectors are using water inefficiently. Water scarcity is caused by human demands exceeding the available freshwater resources, adding to the water deficit during summer droughts in many parts of Europe.

·  Drought is increasing across Europe. The number of countries affected by drought per decade increased from 15 in the period 1971­–1980 to 28 in the period 2001­­–2011. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this problem.

·  Flooding is becoming more frequent, especially in Northern Europe. More than 325 major river floods have been reported in Europe since 1980, of which more than 200 have been reported since 2000. This is partly caused by increased building in flood prone areas. Projected climate change is expected to lead to more floods in many areas.


Looking ahead to responsive water resources management

Solutions to many of Europe’s water problems have been analyzed in the European Commission’s Water Blueprint document, published in 2012.

·      New incentives like reconsidering pricing structures for water use or domestic metering

·      Improving farming practices

·      Careful planning of energy production and extraction

·      Managing river basins

·      Asset management


Read the EEA report here.