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Desertification in Europe

Water scarcity and droughts in Europe

While water scarcity and droughts may not be as severe in Europe as in many regions – in terms of impacts on human health and economic development – they do represent a serious and growing threat. In recent years droughts have had an estimated total price tag of around 6 billion Euros per year for EU countries.

Water scarcity and droughts are becoming increasingly important issues in Europe. Although the Mediterranean countries are particularly affected by water scarcity and droughts, due to their geographic and climatic characteristics, Northern Europe is not immune. Although they experience droughts less frequently, many Northern European countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of drought since they generally have plentiful water resources and thus less storage infrastructure. Recent drought episodes have affected central and northern European countries such as the UK, Norway and Hungary.

While drought means a temporary decrease in water availability due to, for instance, rainfall deficiency, water scarcity means that water demand exceeds the water resources exploitable under sustainable conditions. Water scarcity occurs where there are insufficient water resources to satisfy long-term average requirements. It refers to long-term water imbalances, combining low water availability with a level of water demand exceeding the supply capacity of the natural system. Droughts can occur anywhere in Europe, by definition in both high and low rainfall areas and in any season. The impact of droughts can be exacerbated when occurring in a region with already low water resources, with mismanagement of water resources, and/or with imbalances between water demands and the supply capacity of the natural system. In some regions, the severity and frequency of droughts can lead to water scarcity situations in the future, due to overexploitation of available water resources. In addition, climate change will most likely increase the frequency of droughts and increase water scarcity in some areas of Europe.

Impacts of water scarcity and droughts

During the past years, impacts that have been associated with drought episodes include: public supply restrictions, reductions in crop production, effects in water dependent ecosystems and loss of wetlands and decrease of recreational activities. Water scarcity results in the long-term need to assess and prioritise water demands.

Although environmental impacts are difficult to assess and quantify, the examples are numerous. Past droughts have decreased river flows and levels of aquifers, reservoirs and lakes and have impacted water dependent ecosystems. Increases in forest fires and fish mortality have been reported by several European countries during drought periods.

Climate change is expected to have an impact on water resources and directly affect water scarcity and droughts, which could, in turn, increase costs of water treatment and sanitation. Average runoff in Southern European rivers is projected to decrease with increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation. In particular, some river basins in the Mediterranean region may see decreases of 10% or more below today’s levels by 2030. Changing temperatures and precipitation patterns may also change the frequency and intensity of droughts, particularly in Southern Europe and parts of Central Europe.

To address water scarcity, which is predicted to increase in many European countries due to climate change, Europe needs to promote greater water efficiency and water awareness among its citizens and greater cooperation in the management of transboundary water resources.

In addition, to mitigate the impacts of droughts, countries and river basins need drought management plans that include threshold-based measures and water use priorities defined through participative processes. Europe is also working towards an early warning system and the definition of common indicators to monitor both water scarcity and drought.

Source: European Regional Document, 2009, 5th WORLD WATER FORUM, Chapter 6 “Water Scarcity and Droughts”

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