Water and agriculture – an EU snapshot

Publication September 2015


The global water issue is both severe and widespread. Around 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical scarcity – without enough water to meet demand, and another 500 million are approaching this situation. A further 1.6 billion people face economic water shortages, with countries lacking the infrastructure to deliver water from rivers and aquifers. And, if current consumption patterns continue, two thirds of the world’s population will live in water stressed areas by 2025. Over and above this, where water is available, some sources estimate that as much as 80 per cent of global wastewater is discharged back into the environment untreated – a grim picture indeed.

The future of agriculture is closely bound to the resolution of these challenges as agriculture accounts for the major share of global water consumption and is one of the main contributors to ‘diffuse pollution’ (i.e. pollution originating from a variety of sources rather than a single point, like a factory).

In this article, we examine the relationship between water and agriculture within the European Union (EU) context.

Water consumption and management

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.


2015 has also been an important year for assessing the quality of the EU’s water bodies. In particular, one of the key targets of the Water Framework Directive is that all water bodies in the EU should achieve ‘good’ ecological and chemical status by 2015. In March of this year, Karmenu Vella (EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries) announced that around half of the EU’s water bodies will not reach this status in time. Gaps in monitoring the chemical status of surface waters were also acknowledged, with the chemical status of over 40 per cent of water bodies unknown.

However, although this sounds negative, relatively good progress has been made in reducing point source pollution (for example, from sewage or waste water treatment plants)..

More focus is now being given to tackling the question of diffuse pollution (such as nitrates that run off into water bodies from a number of different sources). An initial analysis of the March 2015 assessments suggests that EU member states do not feel that the basic policy measures (as outlined in the Water Framework Directive and the Nitrates Directive) are sufficient to tackle diffuse pollution. This is important in an agricultural context, because agriculture contributes most of the nitrogen load in European waters.

Thankfully, the agricultural sector itself is taking the lead. In the UK for example, farmers who want to invest in pollutionreducing infrastructure (like bio filters) can apply for grants under the country stewardship scheme, where water quality is one of its two top priorities.

At EU level, the CAP also provides policy incentives – a carrot through funding and policy support for green architecture and farming techniques to mitigate diffuse pollution (e.g. promoting buffer strips to act as natural water retention areas); and a stick by means of cross-compliance. Which effectively means that direct payments to farmers under CAP are now linked to compliance with certain environmental standards – for example those under the Nitrates Directive.

Managing water in the future

While current issues – the EU’s economic performance and prospects, Grexit, Brexit and the like – take regional headlines, water management in all of its aspects remains a huge challenge and an emotional issue.

In 2012, the EU introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative, a legal framework for citizens (with a sufficiently large amount of support) to propose legislation directly to the EU. Last year, the first European Citizens’ Initiative application, currently with almost 2 million signatures was from an organisation called Right2Water calling on the EU to recognise the right to water as a human right.

And in April this year, thousands marched in protest at the Irish government’s introduction of water charges which started as part of Ireland’s agreement to reform its water sector under its IMF/EU bailout terms.

The EU has made significant progress to date and water management and innovation is one of the EU’s key Horizon 2020 strategic priorities, so we can expect more in this space. However, there is a considerable way to go, even discounting the potential effects of climate change. And the agricultural sector in the EU will play a key role in any future solution.

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