Meeting Europe’s water challenge

Europe’s water supplies are less abundant than they seem and drought, waste and climate change are taking their toll, says David Lloyd Owen.

At first glance, nothing seems to be wrong: a visitor to Europe, enjoying the sight of Europe’s rivers, would be likely to imagine that all was well with Europe’s fresh water: a continent of clean rivers, plentiful water supplies and advanced infrastructure. But the reality of Europe’s water resources is much more nuanced: a number of European countries are facing water scarcity; others are suffering the effects of two decades of chronic under-investment and an infrastructure that has been delivered at great cost.

In terms of water infrastructure, Europe has three distinct zones: 

1. Western Europe – which includes the 15 pre 2004 European Union (EU) members, plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland – countries that are not members of the EU.

2. Central Europe — which covers the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004, plus the applicant members Bulgaria and Romania, set to join in 2007.

3. Eastern Europe — which covers south east Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Some of these may join the EU in the longer term.

The question of EU membership is crucial to understanding the water situation in   Europe as it is the EU that determines the water and wastewater policy of its member states and funds compliance efforts amongst joining nations. The EU has been developing water legislation (called directives) since the early 1970s which have had an increasing impact since the mid 1980s and are now being enforced via fines and withdrawal of funding for non compliance.

The major European Union water directives

Urban Wastewater (1991/271): All towns with more than 2,000 population equivalent to have their sewage discharges treated to at least secondary standard, with higher standards for ‘sensitive waters’. 

Water Framework (2000/219): All inland waters are to be of ‘good ecological quality’ by 2015. With economic assessments due in 2007-08, its cost remains uncertain. From 2010, water and wastewater services will have to be charged on a cost-recovery basis, partly to fund the compliance work and also to encourage water conservation. Two ‘daughter directives’ cover ground and marine water. 

Drinking Water (1998/83): World Health Organisation standards are used as standards, with broad compliance by 2003, 2008 for Bromate and Trihalomethanes and 2013 for lead. 

Bathing Water (1976/160 & 2002/581): Revised in 2005, with progressively higher quality standards between 2015 and 2023 and real-time water quality monitoring.


Table 1: Percentage of all households connected to piped water and sewerage

  Water Sewerage
Western Europe 98% 80%
Central Europe  88% 43%
Eastern Europe  91% 17%
The lack of sewerage services is especially acute in rural areas, with for example, 4% of rural households in Poland connected to a sewerage network.
Table 2: Percentage of urban wastewater treated

  None Primary Secondary Tertiary
Western Europe 10% 9% 35% 46%
Central Europe 37% 17% 31% 15%
Eastern Europe 25% 49% 26% 0%

By 2010, effectively all of Western Europe’s urban sewerage will be treated to at least secondary standard as compliance work for the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive is completed. The difference between Central and Eastern Europe reflects preparatory compliance work by the new EU member states since the mid 1990s. (As new members join the EU they are obliged to bring their policy and practice into line with all existing EU regulations). The real numbers for Eastern Europe are appreciably worse as many facilities are not in operation and, outside Russia and most capital cities, sewage treatment is effectively non existent.

Water resources in Europe are very uneven and indeed, apart from Scandinavia and countries fed directly by major systems such as the Rhine (e.g. the Netherlands) and the Danube (e.g. Hungary) scarcity (less than 1,700 M3 per capita per annum indicates water scarcity, less than 1,000 M3 equals water shortage) is already an issue (Sources: European Environment Agency (2003). Europe’s water: an indicator based assessment and European Environment Agency (2005) The European Environment: State & Outlook 2005).


 Table 3: Water abstraction and availability in selected countries 


  Abstraction (% of renewable resources) Resources (M3 per capita per annum)
  1990 2002 2001
Sweden 2% 1% 21,104
Netherlands 9% 10% 7,391
France 21% 18% 3,329
England & Wales    20% 23% 2,724
Spain  33% 33% 2,703
Romania   41% 17% 1,711
Czech Republic 23% 12% 1,583
Denmark 8% 4% 1,141

Any country that uses more than 20% of its water resources is likely to encounter regional shortages, especially during the summer and when rainfall is below average. Water shortages are currently a serious issue for example in southern England and Spain. But as Denmark shows, countries in which water is scarce can manage their resources by avoiding agricultural irrigation and power station cooling, along with encouraging efficient usage by domestic and commercial customers. The fall in usage in the Czech Republic and Romania between 1990 and 2002 reflects the shift away from heavy industry during this time and the impact of water tariffs being introduced for non domestic customers.  (Once a customer pays for water, he is likely to use less of it.) These trends are highlighted in table 5 below.


Table 4: Water usage by sector, selected countries

  Irrigation Public Industry Energy
 Million M3 pa 1990 2002 1990  2002  1990 2002 1990 2002
France 4,900 4,536 6,091 6,276 4,444 3,822 22,267 18,530
Germany  616 143 6,503 5,409 7,574 5,374 28,766 24,837
Hungary 433 174 926 802 269 161 4,784 4,720
Romania 4,210 784 3,170 2,225 7,300 877 2,085 2,917
Spain  23,700 21,600 4,400 5,299 1,900 1,444 4,500 6,168
What we see is water usage being driven by the gradual shift towards post-industrial economies, along with the development of more efficient agriculture, while domestic and commercial (public) use is being boosted by lower household sizes (which gives a higher per capita usage), continuing urbanisation (but steady or even falling populations at the national level) and campaigns to encourage water conservation.
Domestic water tariffs across have risen and are now approaching cost recovery levels —  partly to comply with the Water Framework Directive and partly as a conservation measure. In the former East Germany, for example, water consumption has been driven down by 40% in the past 15 years as tariffs have risen. At the same time, much of Europe’s water distribution infrastructure is 50 or more years old and urgently in need of rehabilitation. In north London, for example, a distribution network that is already more than 100 years old  is losing 50% of its water through leakage.
 Table 5: Domestic water usage and urban distribution losses

  Leakage L/cap/day
Spain 21% 265
France 30% 165
Hungary 35% 140
Germany 6% 135
The need to lower water consumption is being made more urgent by climate change, which is already affecting water resources. Periods of warmer weather are boosting demand for water for agricultural and public use, while, at the same time, damaging inland water quality. The rainfall pattern is changing, too: overall rainfall is increasing in northern Europe, but it is falling in the south, especially during the summer months when rain is most needed.
The quality of inland and coastal waters is affected both by what is discharged by domestic, industrial and agricultural users and by how the discharged water is treated. Apart from the need to comply with EU standards, high quality beaches and rivers have an increasingly important recreational value. Table 6 below summarises inland water quality in terms of the biochemical loading in the water (the lower the loading, the cleaner the water).
Table 6: Inland water quality, selected countries
Mg O2/l  1992-95 1996-99 2000-02 Down Unchanged Upwards
Bulgaria 6.88 3.99 4.26 53% 42% 5%
Hungary 4.15 3.63 3.36 53% 40% 7%
France  3.23 3.11 2.69 35% 48% 17%
Denmark 2.35 2.15 1.74 31% 53% 16%
Austria 1.95  1.66 1.38 77% 23% 0%
While progress is being made, initial estimates across Europe show that 93% of rivers, 84% of lakes, 99% of coastal waters and 75% of groundwater are at risk of failing to achieve the standards needed to meet the Water Framework Directive and at the same time, the need to maintain river water quality means that new resources will have to be mobilised to provide water for other uses.
Europe’s progress to date has not come cheap.  Meeting the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive has cost western European countries over €152 billion (1.53 trillion Chinese yuan) and a further €50-150 billion (500 billion to 1 trillion yuan) will be needed to meet the Water Framework Directive, while central Europe will need  to spend €30-50 billion (300-500 billion yuan) to meet EU standards.
Europe’s progress towards sustaining the integrity of its water supplies provides many useful lessons. The most important are: 
Cost-recovery: all water users must pay for their water usage in a manner which reflects the true impact of their activities, so that they have a real incentive to minimise the amount of water they use and the pollution they discharge.
Integrated River Basin Management: rivers do not respect regional or national boundaries they need to be managed at the river basin level.
Metering and demand management: metering can be more than a tool to produce a bill. Properly and comprehensively used, metering can help  to identify water losses, to enforce cost-recovery and encourage the consumer to practice water conservation.  Managing demand is the other side to managing supplies – both are needed.
Water monitoring and manipulation: real time monitoring of water flow and quality both in rivers and in distribution systems to warn about shortages, leaks and contamination.
Affordability and public support: tariffs need to be structured to ensure that the less well off have access to water and sanitation. This is essential to ensure support for increased spending. Likewise tariff rises need to be met by measurable improvements in service quality so that people appreciate what they are paying for.
Private versus public operation: Innovative practices developed by private sector operators have seen the cost of capital works fall by 30-45% in England, Wales and Germany. 60% of Western Europe is served by the private sector. It is not a universal solution, but it certainly is part of the solution.
Output based management: Regulation needs to encourage efficient management of water resources and technological and operational innovation. Ways of delivering the desired treatment levels and so on for less must be rewarded.
Dr David Lloyd Owen is a member of the Advisory Board, Integrated Water Resources International.
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.