Over-exploitation, pollution and climate change are all impacting on Europe’s fresh waters, forcing the EU to re-think the way it values and manages this vital resource. Current legislation, including the Water Framework Directive, provides a solid legal foundation for improving the environmental quality of water. But the sustainable management of water as a resource demands a much wider perspective, and policies that take into account every major user – agriculture, industry, energy, public suppliers, transport and leisure – as well as the interactions between water, land and energy. It is no longer enough to look at water in isolation; it must be seen in the broad context of building a resource-efficient, low-carbon, green economy.
Many of the links between water, energy and food production are well known: food needs water to grow; water treatment takes energy; energy is needed to desalinate water, etc. Food and energy production might pollute water bodies, damage ecosystems and public health alike, while growing demand for energy places additional pressures on water resources, and increases competition for land and water between food crops and biomass in many parts of the world. This water-energy-food nexus means that to achieve an efficient use of water resources, we have to redesign our energy, transport and agricultural policies as well as our cities.
The EU’s longer-term goals for resource efficiencies are presented in the flagship Europe 2020 strategy, but there are many opportunities for short-term gains as well, first and foremost through better implementation of existing water legislation. Economic instruments, such as tariffs, taxes, subsidies and permit schemes, are also available to policymakers. Measures could also be applied to stop leaks and illegal abstraction, while market and government mechanisms could help establish a pricing system that reflects the environmental and potential social costs of unsustainable water use. A more ‘appropriate’ price for water would drive innovation and send a strong signal to consumers that they have to change their levels and patterns of water use.
Jacqueline McGlade is Executive Director of the European Environment Agency.