Europe’s water-related challenges


by Andrei Covatariu & Radu Dudău

A recent survey by the World Energy Council during Abu Dhabi’s 24th World Energy Congress indicated that water scarcity is seen as the biggest source of tension by 2040. This is unsurprising, as the UN has already estimated that about 5bn people will face either chronic or recurring water shortages by mid-century. The water-related issues are directly affecting multiple regions, because water is highly linked with many economic sectors – agriculture, energy, transport, and industry, to name just a few. Some problems are already visible in Europe, while others are affecting it indirectly. However, especially in Eastern Europe, little attention is paid to planning the future use of water resources.



The world population relies on just 0.75% of the planet’s available water. 97.5% of all water is salty, with the remaining 1.75% (still) frozen, mostly at the poles. Moreover, although most of the fresh water is subterranean, the surface water in lakes, soil moisture, wetlands or rivers sustains 59% of the world’s needs. Water access, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation are among the biggest concerns of the United Nations committed to developing awareness and support programs around the 6th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6): Clean Water and Sanitation.

How bad is the problem? 30% of humanity lack access to drinking water, while 60% have no sanitation facilities. Four out of five people responsible for collecting drinking water are women and girls. Globally, nearly 1,000 children die daily on account of preventable water and sanitation diseases. Access to fresh water also means access to nutrients needed to sustain a healthy life. Given that almost three quarters of the fresh water is used for irrigation, crops that do not benefit from high-quality water produce insufficient and low-quality food, hence negative health externalities and the need for food imports.

Control of water resources has been the cause of inter- and intra-state conflicts, and their occurrence rate is likely to increase. Most conflicts occur over freshwater to be used for drinking, irrigation or energy production. Major rivers such as the Amazon, Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Mekong, Indus and others are shared between many countries and supply billions of people. The world’s first-known water war happened more than 4.5 millennia ago, between the Lagash and Umma armies, over a decision of the Umma king to drain an irrigation canal leading from the Tigris. In contemporary history, tensions have simmered between India and Pakistan, despite the Indus Water Treaty, signed in 1960 under the mediation of the World Bank; Turkey and Syria, since Turkey’s constructions of the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates, commissioned in 1990 and followed by two other downstream dams; Egypt and Ethiopia, currently arguing over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the Nile. These are just some of the hotspots of global water-related tensions over the use of transborder flows. Just as often, though, common projects have been developed, typically on the back of joint monitoring and cooperation mechanisms.



The European continent is already facing challenges resulting from water-related issues in other geographies. EU’s policy instruments will thus be put to the test in foreign policy, development aid and overseas capacity building.

Scarce and deteriorated potable water is often an effect of protracted military conflicts, which are in turn a factor of international migration, of which Europe is a main destination. For example, geopolitical experts consider that Arab nations’ water scarcity dependence on grains imports – the Middle East is the biggest cereals importer in the world – were the main causes of the Arab Spring.

Multiple economic sectors in Europe rely on water as a primary resource. Agriculture uses 24% of the total freshwater for irrigation, while the energy sector (especially the cooling of thermal power plants) is responsible for 44% of the total freshwater consumed in Europe. The EU’s long-term vision has it that in spite of increased flood risk – as the mean annual river discharge is set to increase –water availability will become an acute issue in Southern Europe, the Mediterranean regions already facing serious signs of drought.

Among the higher risks faced by the European cities, which are more and more vulnerable to floods and sea level rise, are water scarcity, water pollution and droughts. For instance, the UK is set to face a serious degree of water scarcity in the next 20-25 years, on account of population growth, insufficient water management, and deepening effects of climate change.


The water-energy nexus in Europe

Often treated as part of the water-energyfood nexus, the water-energy equilibrium has always drawn the attention of academia and research institutes, governments, communities and companies. Water has a key role in electricity production – considering hydro power generation, but also the massive use of later in the production of power based on gas, coal, nuclear, and biofuels, not to mention the water use in the extraction and processing of those fuels. In turn, electricity is needed to pump, transport and use water, while also being required for the treatment of waste water and fresh water production through desalination.

As sweet water is unevenly distributed across the globe, the role of energy becomes critical. Communities facing water scarcity require significantly higher volumes of energy to bring water from the closest available source, treat it (including by desalination, in some regions) and store it. Often, the uses of water and energy are intertwined, especially when the energy source is nonrenewable and the water scarcity is high [1]. Indeed, an effect of water scarcity is increased pressure on thermoelectric power generation (nuclear included). This alarming issue has been analyzed in the Energy and Environment Science Journal for Asian developing economies, a region that aims to increase coal power plant capacity by more than 400 GW by 2030. The conclusions of several climate scenario simulations were straightforward: there is simply not enough water to cool all the planned coal-fired power plants.

The EU’s Long-Term Strategy (2018) foresees similar problems, especially for Southern Europe. Thermal power generation will suffer most from water shortage in the near future in the Mediterranean Basin, France, Germany, and Poland. As stated in the document, “while the magnitude of these impacts is not expected to jeopardize Europe’s long-term decarbonization path, it may entail higher costs and different regional energy mixes, unless adaptive measures are deployed such as increased plant efficiencies, replacement of cooling systems and fuel switches.”

Considered by the United Nations as a human right, water availability always carried many social and cultural meanings, being an indispensable ingredient of economic growth and human progress. Water bears significant symbolism in most of the world’s religions, being the origin of life in Islam, and an element of spiritual purification and regeneration in Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity.

While the planet’s water will remain abundant in the future, the misuse of thisvital resource can cause, sooner than anticipated, calamitous and irreversible damage on the availability of drinkable water and the environment. Climate change, population growth, economic development, and today’s infrastructure and technology are exerting massive pressure on the world’s aquifers and the planetary ocean. Decisive action is needed now.


Analysis first published in Energy Policy Group ( monitor.


[1] K. Conca and E. Weinthal et al., The Oxford Handbook of Water Politics and Policy, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 200-201

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