EU Faces Dwindling Water Resources Due to Climate Change and Insufficient National Action to Support EU Policies

Rating: B- Moderately Effective

The EU’s directives pertaining to water use are comprehensive and well thought out but lack effectiveness due to Member States’ national policies that diverge from these directives.


Over the past several years, climate change’s impact on the EU’s water resources has become abundantly clear. In May 2023, images of severe flooding in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy stormed the web as tens of thousands of individuals were forced to evacuate and were left homeless. In July 2021, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia were impacted by drastic floods that led 13 to be killed and many individuals to be evacuated from their homes.  The organization FloodList lists severe floods in Europe on its website and notes that severe floods have occurred in Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Spain, and France since mid-2022.

Floods aren’t the only water-related climate issue that the EU faces. According to data provided by the European Environmental Agency, there has been a trend of the sea level rising 1 to 3 mm per year in southern Europe since 1970 and a trend in the sea level decreasing by 2 to 4 mm per year in the Scandinavian region since 1970. According to the European Drought Observatory, more than a third of Europe is also under a drought warning, with 10% of the continent experiencing a severe drought. Droughts have been a notable issue in Europe since 2018, and It has been estimated that 84 billion tonnes of water are lost across Europe annually. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and France’s President Emmanuel Macron have stated that a lack of fresh water has become a critical national issue, with Macron launching a water crisis plan earlier this year as a means to conserve water.

Paired with rising temperatures, droughts pose a severe health risk to EU citizens and a significant agricultural problem. Rivers like the Rhine, the Po, the Danube, and the Guadiana are drying up and jeopardizing the EU’s energy and wildlife, trade, and transport. An example of this is the evaporation of the Rhine that occurred in 2022. This evaporation posed a significant issue for Germany, as the water level hit a height that was too low for ships carrying supplies of oil, coal, and gas to pass through, compounding Germany’s energy crisis caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Moreover, in the Po Valley, an agricultural region in northern Italy, 30% of national agricultural production was threatened by Italy’s severe drought in July 2022.

Farmers are some of the individuals who are hit first and the hardest by droughts, with insufficient water negatively impacting livestock farming and fruit and vegetable production. Irrigation accounts for up to 60% of Europe’s total water usage in spring, particularly in southern Europe, and a decrease in water resources has caused difficulties in agricultural production. For example, the UNESCO Doñana National Park wetland has dried up due to the intensive production of red fruits and insufficient water resources.

The industry is Europe’s largest user of water (45%), according to the 2023 UN World Water Development Report.  While the total abstraction of water has decreased in most EU countries within the past ten years, according to Eurostat water abstraction data and the EU’s overall use of water resources is sustainable in the long-term in most of Europe, current water abstraction in southern Europe is not sustainable. Countries like France, Italy, and Spain are agricultural production hubs requiring high water usage and abstracting more water than other EU countries. Given the increased prevalence of extreme heatwaves and droughts in the region, this puts them at high risk of water scarcity issues.

Water use and whether it has become mainly sustainable varies amongst Member States. It depends on whether water use is being analyzed at the household or corporate levels. For example, Greece’s household water use significantly increased in the last ten years while its water use in the manufacturing industry decreased in the last ten years. In some countries, such as Belgium, water use has decreased overall at both the household and manufacturing level in the last ten years.

The two main EU frameworks that pertain to the protection and management of the EU’s water usage are the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The WFD outlines a framework that supports the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters, and groundwaters and aims to reduce pollution, increase sustainable water use, and mitigate some of the effects of floods and droughts. Within the larger WFD, various directives have been implemented that target specific areas, such as the Groundwater Directive, the Bathing Water Directive, and the Environmental Quality Standards Directive. The MSFD is the environmental pillar of the EU’s Integrated Maritime Policy. It aims to enhance the sustainable development of the EU’s maritime economy while protecting its marine environment. The MSFD establishes European marine regions and sub-regions and facilitates the Member States to develop ecosystem-based strategies for their marine waters so that they reach “good environmental status” by 2020. These policies will be reviewed every six years.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) also notes provisions that are meant to protect the role that water plays in farming, food, and the environment, specifically within its focus area of rural development. Many of the CAP’s rural development programmes contribute to the EU’s improvement of water management and efficiency of water use, specifically by supporting farmers who outline agri-environment climate measures in which they agree to follow farming procedures that protect water quality and improve efficiency.

However, while the WFD and the MSFD cover the main policies pertaining to the protection and management of water usage, there are also a wide variety of individual programmes that the EU has put in place to help mitigate the EU’s water resource issues. For example, the EIT Water Scarcity Programme, co-funded by the EU, aims to enhance knowledge and overcome barriers to confronting water scarcity in Southern Europe. It does this through fostering innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting SMEs that offer solutions to specific water-related challenges, creating a community of experts that can progress in their mission to tackle water scarcity, and sharing knowledge that will allow individuals and businesses to increase the sustainability of daily activities.

Yet, the issue remains that Member States have largely failed to make use of the frameworks that the EU has created to assist with climate-related water loss. Member States have increasingly granted exemptions to individuals and corporations that have gone against the EU’s climate regulations, and national water management plans are frequently aimed at maintaining the status quo and focusing on adaptation measures instead of mitigation measures. For example, Spain and Italy issued water management plans this past spring primarily centered around installing desalination plants, constructing rainwater basins, and expanding water reservoirs. However, the use of many of these desalination plants is not sustainable in the long term, as they disrupt the natural balance of freshwater ecosystems. At the Llobregat desalination plant in Barcelona, for every 0.45 liters of fresh water that is desalinated, 0.55 liters of salty brine is produced as waste. This salty brine is then dumped into the sea, disrupting the natural ecosystem.

Thus, for the EU’s water frameworks to hold any weight, individual member states must craft water management plans that prioritize the creation of sustainable agriculture systems and focus on mitigation measures that decrease their country’s overall water usage instead of adaptation measures that have positive short-term benefits but unsustainable long-term effects. It would also be beneficial for additional investment to be made in educating EU citizens to lessen their meat consumption and in developing sustainable meat alternatives. The EU incorporated promoting plant-based diets in its 2020 Farm to Fork Strategy but did not cut funding for EU meat promotion. In the EU, 71% of agricultural land is used to feed livestock, and intensive agriculture causes the widespread contamination of surface and groundwaters with pesticides and nutrients. As a result, decreasing the EU’s total meat consumption through measures like cutting the EU’s funding for meat promotion and financial assistance for meat production will drastically reduce the strain that is being put on the EU’s increasingly limited water resources.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard EU Manager Brittany Demogenes.

Learn More Resources:,effects%20of%20floods%20and%20droughts.,According%20to%20the%20European%20Drought%20Observatory%2C%20more%20than%20a%20third,84%20billion%20tonnes%20per%20year.

UN-report: ‘Industry biggest user of Europe’s water’

Image Courtesy of:


Climate Scorecard depends on support from people like you.

We are a team of researchers providing information on efforts to reduce global emissions. We help make you better informed and able to advocate for improved climate change efforts. Donations of any amount are welcome.