The Last Drop of Water: The European Water Crisis

by Fatima Karimli

Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Water is one of Earth’s crucial elements and part of the human core, as adult women comprise 55% of water and adult men 60%. In addition, everyone needs enough water for a livelihood because 75% of all jobs and 90% of the global economy depend on it. A 2016 United Nations Report states that there are 1.5 billion workers employed in eight water-dependent industries that are primary or secondary in the World’s economies. 

As water carries immense importance for humanity, many problems arise with its scarcity. The World Resources Institute stated that European countries are not an exception to face water problems by 2040. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), water issues will affect 17% of the European people and 13% of Europe’s GDP by 2050. The lack of water also leads to water conflicts that begin with countries’ understanding of controlling water resources.  The European Union (EU) also grapples with water-related disputes. In fact, there were eighteen such conflicts on European soil in 2021. One example is the Oder River dispute between Poland and Germany in mid-August 2022 due to an environmental disaster. The Oder is Poland’s second-longest river and is situated on the German-Polish border. The two countries blamed each other when dozens of fish and other organisms were found dead due to human actions.

The water scarcity situation will not change until governments take action to mitigate the causes of these issues. Though current actions are not sufficient, as the situation has worsened since 2010. That is why the wider population should also understand the issue to help reduce the effects of water scarcity. As such, this article reviews the EU Member States’ water issues and their influence on their respective economies. Building on this, the article provides insights into the relevant actions that were taken by the EU and analyses the steps that could be taken for further improvements. 

The water crisis in Europe

According to the European Environment Agency, in 2019, the water in Europe was mainly utilised for agriculture (58%), energy cooling for buildings (18%), mining (11%), and households (10%). Based on these actions, Europe has lost 84 gigatons of water since the beginning of the 21st century. In addition, 29% of the EU’s territory was affected by the water scarcity problem in 2019 during at least one season, and the trends concerning water scarcity have increased after 2010.

The states in Southern Europe are mainly affected by water scarcity. In fact, 30% of the population of Southern Europe is affected by permanent water scarcity, and the other 70% by the temporary scarcity that happens during the summer season. In addition, Western Europe is also impacted by the lack of water, which mainly stems from the high population density in the urban areas and the socioeconomic decisions taken by the respective governments.

The EU Member States that were most affected by a seasonal lack of water in 2019 were Cyprus, Malta, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Italy, and Spain. The northern part of Italy was especially affected by droughts. It was later revealed that the water levels of the Po, the largest river in Italy, and also in Dora Baltea were the most affected as their water levels declined by a factor of eight.  As the rivers feed the local agricultural production, economic problems in that region also increased. These two rivers are located in one of the most important agricultural regions of Europe, accounting for  30% of Europe’s production. In Portugal, the situation is similar. The agricultural production of several regions of Southern Portugal, such as Silvea, Lagoa, and Portimao, was affected by droughts. Spain also experiences extreme drought problems since two-thirds of its territory is desertified. In addition,70% of its water use goes to agriculture, and it is the third-largest country supplying agricultural goods for Europe.

Future outlook

According to a 2022 WWF report, the population and GDP of Greece and Spain will be the most affected by 2050. In addition, 60% of the European rivers were found to be unhealthy as they face issues related to water scarcity and are not purified enough as a consequence. If adequate measures fail to be taken, serious economic problems will follow suit. An example is Northern Italy, a region heavily dependent on agricultural production, which can lose up to one billion euros due to the drought.

Ensuring a sufficient water supply can be challenging. Problems like climate change primarily affect Southern Europe, resulting in economic decline as this region depends on agricultural products in need of fresh water. The problem of increasing urban density in Western Europe is next in line. Although the EU has taken some measures, such as establishing the EU Water Framework Directive that protects the surface, ground, transitional and coastal water and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to protect the marine environment and signing some Regional Sea Conventions among the member states such as the Helsinki Convention of 1992 and the Barcelona Convention of 1995. 

In conclusion, while the EU has already taken some measures, it is still necessary to address water scarcity by investing in technologies that provide solutions to save water and energy or providing governmental support for start-ups using water-saving technologies. An example is bNovate Technologies in Switzerland, a company which improves water safety. Collaboration between municipalities and farmers can be beneficial as well. To illustrate, there is the ‘’La Mancha Aquifer’’ case in Spain. Lastly, government restrictions can also contribute to the solution. A relevant example is Portugal, where restriction on the use of hydroelectric power exists. All of the provided instances indicate that there is much more to realise, and if further actions are taken, progress is probable to come up.

Fatima is a third-year Political Science student at the Academy of Public Administration located in Baku, Azerbaijan. She is avid in a multitude of topics, including international relations, international law, and climate change. She is willing to pursue her Master’s Degree in peace and conflict studies.

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