Meeting Europe’s water challenge: facts and figures

Want to read more about Europe's water challenge? David Lloyd Owen presents the facts and figures about water and industry in Europe and worldwide.

Water resources are unevenly distributed in Europe. Annual average run-off ranges from 3,000 mm in western Norway to 100-400 mm over much of central Europe and less than 25 mm in central and southern Spain.

Water resources in Europe have been profoundly influenced over the past century by human activities, including the construction of dams and canals, large irrigation and drainage systems, changes of land cover in most watersheds, high inputs of chemicals from industry and agriculture into surface and groundwater, and aquifer depletion. As a result, problems of overuse, depletion and pollution have become evident, and conflicts are developing between various uses and users.

In Europe, improved water supply coverage is high, with access provided for 97% of the population. 100% of the urban population has coverage, compared with 89% of the rural population.

In terms of sanitation, 95% of the population is totally covered: 99% of the urban population and 78% of the rural population.

Only 4 European countries reported not having full water supply and sanitation coverage in 2000, all of which are in Eastern Europe: Estonia, Hungary, Romania and the Russian Federation.

Improvements have been made in reducing water pollution, mostly through stricter controls on industrial discharges and more sophisticated and comprehensive sewage and stormwater treatment.

A majority of European rivers, particularly in their middle and lower reaches, are in poor ecological condition due to the impacts of canalization, dams, pollution and altered flow regimes.

About 12 million people have been affected in Europe by floods or droughts over the past decade, split about evenly between the two. There have been nearly 2,000 deaths from floods, approximately 0.5% of all flood-related deaths worldwide.

Half of Europe’s alpine glaciers could disappear by 2025. In 2003, extreme warm and dry weather conditions caused an average decrease in glaciers thickness in the Alps of about 3 metres water equivalent, nearly twice as much as during the previous record year, 1998, and roughly 5 times more than the average loss recorded during the exceptionally warm period of 1980-2000.

In the Russian Federation, 1,400 areas with polluted groundwater have been identified, 82% of them are west of the Urals mountains. In 36% of the cases, pollution is due to industry, in 20% to agriculture (fertilizers and wastes from farm animals), in 10% to municipal landfills and in 12% to mixed sources.

Information from World Water Development Report 'Water for People, Water for Life', from the ‘Freshwater in Europe – Facts, Figures and Maps’, from the Global Environment Outlook 2000 and from “Freshwater: Europe” of the GEO: Global Environment Outlook 3.

Facts and figures about water and industry

Water is used by industry in a myriad of ways: for cleaning, heating and cooling; for generating steam; for transporting dissolved substances or particulates; as a raw material; as a solvent; and as a constituent part of the product itself (e.g. in the beverage industry).

The water withdrawals for industry are:

World: 22% of total water use.

High-income countries: 59% of total water use

Low-income countries: 8% of total water use

Industries based on organic raw materials are the most significant contributors to the organic pollutant load with the food sector being the most important polluter.

The contribution of the food sector to the production of organic water pollutant is:

High income countries: 40%

Low-income countries: 54%

In developing countries, 70% of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters where they pollute the usable water supply.

The annual water volume used by industry will rise from 752 km3/year in 1995 to an estimated 1,170 km3/year in 2025.

In 2025, the industrial component is expected to represent about 24% of total freshwater withdrawal.

Of major concern are the situations in which the industrial discharge is returned directly into the water cycle without adequate treatment. If the water is contaminated with heavy metals, chemicals or particulates, or loaded with organic matter, this obviously affects the quality of the receiving water body or aquifer. The toxicity levels and lack of oxygen in the water can damage or completely destroy the aquatic ecosystems downstream as well as lakes and dams, ultimately affecting riverine estuaries and marine coastal environments.

Past mining activities caused heavy arsenic contamination of groundwater and topsoil over 40 km3 in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, Thailand. A study commissioned by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2000 concluded that the contamination would last for the next 30 to 50 years. Testing of 1,000 samples showed arsenic contamination in some groundwater wells to be 50 to 100 times higher than the World Health Organization's guideline value for drinking water (0.01 milligrams per litre).

In 1986 a fire destroyed a chemical store in Basel, Switzerland, near the borders of France and Germany. Chemicals reached the water in the Rhine River through the plant’s sewage system when huge amounts of water (10,000- 15,000 m3) were used to fight the fire. The store contained large quantities of 32 different chemicals, including insecticides and raw ingredients, and the water implications were identified through the presence of red dye in one of the substances, which turned the river red. The main wave of chemicals destroyed eels, fish and insects, as well as habitats for small animals on the riverbanks. The total eel population was destroyed for 500 kilometres downstream, from Basel in Switzerland down to Loreley in Germany. It took 3 months after the incident for the contaminant concentrations to drop to normal values.

Information from the 2nd United Nations World Water Development Report, 'Water, a shared responsibility' and from the ‘Water and Industry’ facts and figures’ section of the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) website.