The EU needs a water resilience strategy


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Luke O’Callaghan-White
Luke O’Callaghan-White

Programme Manager for Climate, Energy & Sustainability at Friends of Europe

Europe has a water problem. For nearly five years, the continent has been enduring a sustained and severe drought. Since 2018, satellite data show that groundwater levels have remained consistently low. The availability of a reliable and high-quality supply of water is, of course, fundamental to human life. Drought conditions in Europe have far-reaching consequences and impact human health, energy, food supply, river systems, biodiversity and the economy. While drought conditions have multifaceted origins, climate change exacerbates this hazard.

Drought conditions on the continent vary greatly. Heavy rainfall in some parts of southern Europe this summer has helped to alleviate the drought burden, but data from the Joint Research Centre show that in the Iberian Peninsula, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea region, Germany, UK and Ireland, flooding and intense rainfall have been insufficient in counterbalancing the long-term lack of rain.

Scientists at the World Weather Attribution service have concluded that the general trend of low rainfall and water shortages, seen across the northern hemisphere, have been made 20-times more likely because of anthropogenic climate change. As global surface temperatures rise, abnormal weather events, such as droughts and floods, will continue to increase in frequency and intensity. This troubling phenomenon will touch a wide range of social and economic activities across the continent.

In 2023, following extremely dry winter and summer periods, a number of European governments introduced water management plans, primarily with the aim of curbing demand. Most of these policy responses are rooted in short-termism. For example, there are few proposals to address Europe’s failing water infrastructure – many of the continent’s pipes have been operational for more than a century and an estimated 25% of Europe’s water is lost through leaks.

Many of the digital industries expected to form the backbone of Europe’s digitalised economic future […] are dependent on large volumes of high-quality water

The mix of different actors – municipal governments, the private sector and national utilities – responsible for water distribution in Europe makes governance of this vital resource challenging. Nevertheless, the EU has a key role to play in strengthening the Union’s water resilience. Its strategy on adaptation to climate change recognises the importance of addressing water and the European Commission’s 2023 strategic foresight report anticipates the need for future ‘large-scale action’ to enhance water security.

EU leadership on water policy is needed as a matter of urgency, not just to remedy the current fallout of drought, pollution and the increasing demands of energy production and agricultures, but because, as highlighted in the European Investment Bank’s March 2023 report on water sector orientation, water “is the silent enabler for the transition to a green economy”.

The European Green Deal Industrial Plan is the Commission’s strategy to boost the competitiveness of Europe’s net-zero industry and expedite the transition to climate neutrality. Many of the digital industries expected to form the backbone of Europe’s digitalised economic future, such as microchips and semiconductors, are dependent on large volumes of high-quality water. Industry already accounts for 45% of the total European water use and with the continued growth of water-intensive data centres and other clean tech developments, demand for processed water will inevitably grow, all while Europe’s drought conditions persist.

There is an understandable public disconnect between Europe’s green industrial development and the fundamental role of water to its success. The nexus is not intuitive for the vast majority of the population. Sound water policy does not simply involve considerations of resources; it is also social.

Citizens need to be engaged in this process of such significant change. Indeed, while the troubling phenomenon of continued drought and water insecurity in Europe may be familiar to many, a recent OECD study finds that there is a significant lack of knowledge on water risks and their scale. Closing this information gap is fundamental to ensuring public support for future resilience measures and enhancing water security in Europe.

If the next EU mandate is serious about resolving its water problem, a resilience strategy will be included

For these reasons, the EU should develop a European water resilience strategy in 2024. It could play an important role in steering and coordinating efforts to address ongoing drought conditions and support the EU’s industrial development.

A European water resilience strategy would not be a panacea. However, it could help to structure the EU’s foresight and preparedness regarding the threats of persistent water insecurity, develop responses to support the most acutely affected groups in society and build the water architecture we will need for a green industrial future.

Drought and water stress cost €9 billion worth of damage every year, and this figure does not take into account the impact on ecosystems. According to a report from the European Environment Agency, an alarming 30% of Europe’s population is affected by water stress each year. Developing a water resilience strategy, therefore, is not simply a means to strengthen Europe’s green industrial future, but also an opportunity to curb the incidence of water stress on the population and help to enhance existing water management frameworks. As such, a European water resilience strategy can be understood as an important enabler of the just transition to an environmentally-resilient and net-zero future.

Furthermore, such a European strategy would position water as a policy at the core of the European Green Deal, clearly signalling its importance as a catalyst in reversing environmental degradation and achieving carbon neutrality.

Following the European parliamentary elections next June, attention will shift to the publication of the European Commission’s political guidelines for 2024-2029. If the next EU mandate is serious about resolving its water problem, a resilience strategy will be included.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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