In the EU, about one third of all fresh water (so-called blue water) withdrawals are accounted for by agriculture along with a significant portion of rainfall (green water). The generic tools commonly used to improve water management are to increase efficiency/reduce losses; use alternative sources of water; and ensure efficient allocation.
Improving irrigation techniques is a typical method of mitigating the problem of water inefficiency in agriculture. In fact, the 2014 to 2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) promotes certain more efficient irrigation methods.
The re-use of water (for example, grey water from waste water treatment or industrial installations, only present to a limited extent in the member states) has also emerged a serious option for EU agriculture. Given how effective this is in some countries – like Israel – re-use offers interesting possibilities. However, the European Commission believes that a potential obstacle is the lack of a common EU environmental/ health standard, which would result in restrictions on the free movement of agricultural products which have been irrigated with re-used water. A proposal for new legislation on this was promised during 2015, although the legislative process is still at preparatory stage. A public consultation was held in December 2014 and a working group to take this forwards last met in March of this year. So it appears this option is a work in progress for the time being.
Improving efficiency and providing alternative sources of water are both attempts to increase the available supply for agriculture. Another method is to regulate allocation more fairly, the classic tool being pricing. The basic rule under the Water Framework Directive (the primary EU-wide water legislation) is that the ‘user pays’ for water. In the EU, irrigation accounts for a large amount of water use in agriculture and the industry needs to address the questions of how to recover the high start-up costs of an irrigation scheme, monitoring groundwater use and – in some cases – unauthorised abstraction. The challenge is that charging the industry for the full external costs of agricultural use would imply pricing significantly higher than pure financial costs.
Some EU member states still disagree that agricultural irrigation or selfextraction should be a water service under the Water Framework Directive at all, and so argue there is no need to apply the principle of cost recovery. In fact, we see a half-way house in a number of member states who charge a flat tariff which is simple and transparent but arguably – especially in southern Europe where this is more popular – does not give the right incentives for efficient water use.
While the above offer interesting avenues for water management, Europe is aware of the complexity of these types of issues and that outwardly simple solutions can lead to inefficient and/or unexpected outcomes. To this end, the EU has launched a number of Innovation Partnerships of which Water and Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability is one.
In June 2015, a core group began making an inventory of water management practices in the EU at farm/local level; promising alternatives; the main challenges for farmers; and any knowledge gaps. While this is a positive start, the fairly recent establishment of these groups highlights how early the EU is in the process of understanding – let alone managing – the supply and demand of water in agriculture.