From Statistics Explained
- Data from March 2014. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: May 2015.
Water is essential for life, it is an indispensable resource for the economy, and also plays a fundamental role in the climate regulation cycle. The management and protection of water resources, of fresh and salt water ecosystems, and of the water we drink and bathe in is therefore one of the cornerstones of environmental protection. This is why the EU’s water policy over the past thirty years is focused on the protection of water resources. The more recent policy document is the ‘Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources’ (COM/2012/0673) which aims at ensuring that good quality water, of sufficient quantity, is available for all legitimate uses.
- 1 Main statistical findings
- 2 Data sources and availability
- 3 Context
- 4 See also
- 5 Further Eurostat information
- 6 External links
- 7 Notes
Main statistical findings
Water as a resource
Water resources refer to the water available for use in a territory and include surface waters (i.e. coastal bays, lakes, rivers, and streams) and groundwater. Freshwater availability in a country is determined by climate conditions, geomorphology, land uses and transboundary water flows (i.e. external inflows). Therefore, there are significant differences among countries, with Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and the UK being the Member States with the highest amount of freshwater resources, with a long-term annual average between 164 300 and 188 000 million m3 (Table 1).
A number of countries receive a significant proportion of their water resources as external inflow - see Figure 1. Hungary, Serbia and the Netherlands are the countries with the highest dependency on transboundary water resources, as external inflow accounts for 93.5 %, 92.7 % and 88.8 % of their total freshwater resources respectively. In absolute terms (water volume) Serbia, Hungary and Bulgaria receive the highest external flow (162 600 million m3, 108 900 million m3 and 89 100 million m3 respectively, see Table 1). Important transboundary rivers  are the Danube (EU Member States sharing the basin: Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia), the Elbe (EU Member States sharing the basin: Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland), the Meuse (EU Member States sharing the basin: Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands), and the Rhine (EU Member States sharing the basin: Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands).
A significant water-related indicator is the freshwater resources per inhabitant (Figure 2). Among the EU-28 Member States, Croatia, Finland and Sweden recorded the highest freshwater annual resources per inhabitant (around 20 000 m³ or more). By contrast, relatively low levels per inhabitant (below 3 000 m³) were recorded in the six most populous Member States (France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and Poland). An area is experiencing water stress when annual water supplies drop below 1 700 m³ per person (UN World Water Development Report 4, 2012). Poland, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Malta present the lowest values with between 200 and 1 600 m³ per person.
There are considerable differences in the amounts of freshwater abstracted within each of the EU Member States, in part reflecting the resources available, but also abstraction practices depending on climate as well as on the industrial and agricultural structure of the country. Total abstraction of fresh water ranged between 33 million m3 in Malta (2006 data) and 38 006 million m3 in Germany (2001 data) (Table 2). From 2001 to 2011, total abstraction of fresh water recorded the highest increases in Latvia (45 %) and Estonia (27 %); while the highest decreases were recorded in Lithuania (-77 %) and Slovakia (-48 %).
Differences among countries are also apparent when looking at the breakdown of water abstraction between groundwater and surface water resources, as shown in Table 2. In Belgium (2009), Bulgaria (2011), Hungary (2008), Romania (2011) and the Netherlands (2010), surface water abstraction accounted for around ten times the volume of water abstracted from groundwater resources. At the other end of the range, larger volumes of water were abstracted from groundwater resources in Latvia (2010), Slovakia (2011), Cyprus (2011), Denmark (2010) and Malta (2010).
Germany (2001 data), Spain (2010) and France (2010) recorded the highest amounts of groundwater abstracted, each with 6 000 million m³ or more. Looking at the development of groundwater abstraction during the ten-year period between 2001 and 2011 (see Table 2 for footnotes concerning the availability of data for each country), the volume of groundwater extracted generally decreased over time, although Latvia (with an increase of 132 %) was a notable exception, and to a lesser extent Spain (with an increase 15 %), Lithuania (11 %), Estonia ( 10 %), Cyprus (10 %), Greece (8 %)and Malta (5 %). Among the non-EU Member States presented in Table 2, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (160 %) and Serbia (595 %) both recorded very large increases in groundwater abstraction, while a more modest increase (27 %) was recorded for Turkey.
As for surface water abstraction, Germany, France, and Spain headed the ranking of Member States, with more than 26 000 million m³ in 2004 and 2010, respectively. Some Member States recorded an increase in surface water abstraction, such as Estonia (with a 31 % increase), the Netherlands (22 %), Czech Republic (15 %), Sweden (14 %), and Bulgaria (14 %). The largest decreases in the volume of surface water abstraction were recorded in Lithuania (-83 %), Denmark (-68 %), Slovakia (-64 %), and the United Kingdom (-30 %). Non-fresh water (i.e. sea water and transitional water, such as brackish swamps, lagoons and estuarine areas) is also used in some countries - see Table 3. Sweden is by far the country with the highest abstraction of non-fresh water (around 12 000 million m3), followed by the Netherlands (around 4 300 million m3), Malta and Croatia (around 500 million m3).
In terms of water abstractions per inhabitant, EU Member States had annual rates of freshwater abstraction between 30 m³ and 150 m³ – see Figure 3. The extremes of freshwater abstraction reflect specific conditions: for example, in Ireland (141 m³ per inhabitant) the use of water from the public supply was still free of charge in 2011; while in Bulgaria (124 m³ per inhabitant) there are particularly high losses from the public network. Abstraction rates were also rather high in some non-EU Member States, notably Norway and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. At the other end of the scale, Lithuania and Malta reported low abstraction rates.
An analysis of the development of abstraction rates over time is shown for selected EU Member States in Figure 4. A comparison of the earliest and latest available annual data between 1990 and 2011 shows that there was a marked decrease in abstraction in many of the Member States that joined the EU in 2004 or 2007 (the examples of Bulgaria and Poland are shown in the figure). Abstraction rates were relatively stable in the majority of the remaining Member States (see the examples of Belgium and the Netherlands), with a pattern of gradually decreasing abstraction rates. Nevertheless, there was a substantial increase in abstraction in Ireland, Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal (see the example of Spain) which may be attributed to the development pattern, population increase and water management framework in these countries. This in turn would emphasise supply management over water demand management. It is likely that the reduction in abstraction observed in many EU Member States is a result of various factors, including the introduction of water-saving household appliances and an increasing level of awareness concerning the cost or value of water and the environmental consequences of wasting it.
The overall use of water resources can be considered sustainable in the long-term in most of Europe. However, specific regions may face problems associated with water scarcity; this is the case particularly in parts of southern Europe, where it is likely that efficiency gains in agricultural water use will need to be achieved in order to prevent seasonal water shortages. Regions associated with low rainfall, high population density, or intensive industrial activity may also face sustainability issues in the coming years, which could be exacerbated by climate change impacts on water availability and water management practices.
Water is provided either by public water systems or is self-supplied (e.g. private drills). While the share of the public water supply sector in total water abstraction depends on the economic structure of a given country and can be relatively small, it is nevertheless often the focus of public interest, as it comprises the water volumes that are directly used by the population. Most of the water supplied by public systems is used in households. Water use by all NACE activities is higher compared to household use in Latvia, Slovakia and Malta. In terms of per capita water use from public water supply systems (Figure 5), Cyprus reports the highest value (in total 163 m3 per capita) and Lithuania the lowest (in total 33 m3 per capita). Iceland is the non-EU Member State with the highest value (in total 228 m3 per capita). Particularly for per capita water use by households, values range between 19 and 102 m3, while for the total NACE economic activities they range from 6.5 to 126 m3.
The main users of water are the domestic sector (composed of both households and services), agriculture, the manufacturing industry and construction – see Table 4. Water is used in agriculture mainly for irrigating crops and the highest use values are reported in southern countries (Greece, Spain, and Cyprus). Water use for cooling purposes in the manufacturing sector accounts from 1 % (Hungary, 2009) to almost 60 % (Latvia, 2007) of total water in this sector, while for cooling in the sector of electricity production the same proportion ranges from 2.5 % (Austria, 2008) to 94 % (Latvia, 2007).
Particularly for the manufacturing sector, self and other water supply is the main source in some countries (see Table 5). In Germany for example self and other water supply for economic activities accounts for about 4 000 million m3 while public supply accounts for about 300 million m3. Water use from self and other water supply is 49 times greater than from public supply in Poland, 20 times more in the Netherlands and 18 times more in Sweden. Smaller ratios are reported in Lithuania (3 times more), Spain (2 times more), while in Cyprus the ratio almost equals one.
Eurostat also collects data on water uses per activity at the sub-national level (i.e. NUTS2 level regions) and at the River Basin District level, in line with the provisions of the Water Framework Directive. Data on water users are available for 51 River Basin Districts, but the datasets are not complete. Some indicative data are given in Table 6. Industry is the main water user, with energy production dominating in Northern European countries (e.g. the Netherlands). Regional data on inland freshwater (resources, abstractions, use, wastewater treatment, generation and discharge of pollutants) are available also in the Statistics Explained article on ‘Environmental regional data introduced’.
The proportion of the population connected to urban wastewater treatment covers those households that are served by any sewage treatment plant– see Table 7. This share has been gradually increasing and is above 80 % in eleven EU Member States for which data are available (mixed reference years), and is exceeding 90 % in some countries (i.e. highest rates in Malta, the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Spain, and Luxembourg). At the other end of the range, less than one in two households were connected to urban wastewater treatment in Romania, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Tertiary wastewater treatment is the most common in the EU Member States (see Figure 6), exceeding 90 % in Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, and Austria (mixed reference periods). Secondary wastewater treatment is most common in Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia (mixed reference periods).
The residual of wastewater treatment is sewage sludge. While the amount of sludge generated per inhabitant depends on many factors and hence is quite variable across countries, the nature of this sludge – rich in nutrients, but also often loaded with high concentrations of pollutants such as heavy metals – has led countries to seek different pathways for its disposal, as illustrated in Figure 7.
Typically, four different types of disposal make up a considerable share of the total volume of sewage sludge treated: more than two thirds of the total was used as fertiliser in agriculture in eight Member States (Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain, Cyprus, United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Ireland). In contrast, more than two thirds of sewage sludge was composted in Finland and Estonia. Otherwise, alternative forms of disposal may be used to reduce or eliminate the spread of pollutants on agricultural or gardening land; these include incineration and landfill. While the Netherlands, Belgium, Slovenia, Germany and Austria (as well as Switzerland) reported incineration as their primary pathway for disposal, its discharge into controlled landfills was practised as the primary pathway in Bulgaria, Italy, Greece and Romania, and was used exclusively in Malta.
Data sources and availability
Many of the water statistics produced by Eurostat have been used in the context of the development of EU legislation relating to water, as well as for environmental assessments, which in turn can give rise to new data needs. Water statistics are collected through the inland waters section of a joint OECD/Eurostat questionnaire which is frequently adapted to meet the demands of relevant policy frameworks. It currently reports on the following:
- freshwater resources in groundwater and surface water — these can be replenished by precipitation and external inflow (water flowing into a country from other territories);
- water abstraction — a major pressure on resources, although a large part of the water abstracted for domestic, industrial (including energy production) or agricultural use is returned to the environment and its water bodies, but often as wastewater with impaired quality;
- water use — analysed by supply category and by industrial activities;
- treatment capacities of urban wastewater treatment plants and the share of the population connected to them — which gives an overview of the development status of the infrastructure, in terms of quantity and quality, that is available for the protection of the environment from pollution by wastewater;
- sewage sludge production and disposal — an inevitable product of wastewater treatment processes, its impact on the environment depends on the methods chosen for its processing and disposal;
- generation and discharge of wastewater — pollutants present in wastewater have different source profiles and, similarly, the efficiency of treatment of any pollutant varies according to the method applied.
Data are mainly collected at the national level. However some data are also available at the sub-national level (i.e. NUTS2 regions and River Basin Districts) for all data categories above, with the exception of sewage sludge production and disposal.
Water policies: floods, droughts and other challenges
The central element of European water policy is a Directive for ‘Community action in the field of water policy’ (2000/60/EC) — often referred to as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) — which aims to achieve a good ecological and chemical status of European waters by 2015. In this respect, the Directive focuses on water management at the level of (in most cases transboundary) hydrological catchments (river basins). An important step in the course of the implementation of this legislation involved establishing river basin management plans in 2010. However only 17 countries adopted a river basin plan by the end of 2010 and, according to the latest report on the implementation of the WFD (COM(2012) 670 final), only 23 Member States have adopted and reported all their plans, while 4 Member States (Belgium, Greece, Spain and Portugal) have either adopted no plans or only adopted and reported some plans.
The EU adopted in 2006 the Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration, which complements the WFD and sets groundwater quality standards and introduces measures to prevent or limit inputs of pollutants into groundwater. This Directive was under consultation for the review of the Directive’s Annexes until October 2013.
In a Communication addressing ‘water scarcity and droughts’ (COM(2007) 414 final), the European Commission identified an initial set of policy options to be taken at European, national and regional levels to address water scarcity within the EU. This set of proposed policies aims to move the EU towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy, as both the quality and availability of water are of major concern in many regions.
In an effort to reduce pollutants discharged into the environment with wastewater, the EU has implemented legislation on ‘urban wastewater treatment’ (Directive 1991/271/EC). The pollution of rivers, lakes and groundwater and water quality is affected by human activities such as industrial production, household discharges, or arable farming; a report (COM(2007) 120 final) on ‘the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources’ was released in March 2007.
Another aspect of water quality relates to coastal bathing waters. The European Commission and the EEA present an annual bathing water report. The latest of these — the 2013 report — covers information for 2012 and shows that more than 95 % of the EU-27’s coastal bathing waters and 91 % of its inland bathing waters met the minimum water quality standards. It is anticipated that legislation concerning the ‘management of bathing water quality’ (Directive 2006/7/EC) will provide for a more proactive approach to informing the public about water quality; it was transposed into national law in 2008 but EU Member States have until December 2014 to implement it.
An increase of variability in weather patterns and catastrophic floods (such as those along the Danube and Elbe in 2002) prompted a review of flood risk management. This process culminated in a Directive (2007/60/EC) of the European Parliament and Council on ‘the assessment and management of flood risks’, which aims to reduce and manage risks to human health, the environment, cultural heritage, and economic activity.
The sustainable use of water resources is a key priority and challenge in Europe, particularly in view of any potential changes in water availability and quality due to climate change. The EU adopted in 2009 the White Paper on ‘Adapting to climate change: Towards a European framework for action’ (COM(2009) 147 final) which fosters the development of strategies for the management and conservation of water.
In May 2012, the European Commission proposed a European innovation partnership (EIP) on water, and this was endorsed by the Council the following month. The objective of the EIP on water is to support and facilitate the development of innovative solutions to deal with the many water-related challenges Europe and the world are facing, as well as to support economic growth by bringing such solutions to the market.
The water blueprint
The European Commission adopted in November 2012 its ‘Blueprint to safeguard European waters’ (COM(2012) 673 final), a new strategy to reinforce water management in the EU. The Blueprint integrates the results of a policy review concerning: water scarcity and droughts; an analysis of the implementation of river basin management under the WFD; a review of the vulnerability of environmental resources (such as water, biodiversity and soil) to climate change impacts and man-made pressures; and a review of the whole of the EU’s water policy framework in the light of the European Commission’s ‘better regulation’ approach. The Blueprint aims to ensure that good quality water is available across Europe in sufficient quantities for all legitimate uses. In order to achieve this, it focuses on changes required to the EU’s water policy framework through to 2020 as it is closely related to the Europe 2020 strategy and, in particular, to the roadmap for resource efficiency.
Further Eurostat information
- Energy, transport and environment indicators pocketbook, 2013 edition
- Euro-Mediterranean statistics pocketbook, Eurostat 2013 edition
- Environmental Statistics and Accounts in Europe, Eurostat 2010
- Environment (t_env), see:
- Water (t_env_wat)
- Environment (env), see:
- Water (env_wat)
Methodology / Metadata
- ESMS metadata file (env_wat_esms)
Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)
- Jordi Raso, 'Report_Water Reuse_April 2013.pdf Updated report on wastewater reuse in the European Union', 2013
- Communication 'A blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources' (COM(2012) 673 final)
- Communication 'Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union' (COM(2007) 414 final)
- Directive 2007/60/EC of 23 October 2007 on the assessment and management of flood risks
- DWORAK T. et al, 'EU Water Saving Potential - Final Report', 2007
- Report on the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) of 23 October 2000 concerning River Basin Management Plans (COM(2012) 670 final)
- Directive 2006/118/EC of 12 December 2006 on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration
- Cosgrove, W.J. and Rijsberman, F. R.: World Water Vision - Making water everybody's business; Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 2000.
- Report on implementation of Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources
- Directive 91/271/EEC of 1 May 1991 concerning urban wastewater treatment
- Report on ‘Green Public Procurement Criteria for Waste Water Infrastructure’, EC, 2013
- European Commission - Environment - Bathing water quality
- European Commission - Environment - Water
- European Environment Agency - Water themes and data
- OECD - Environment - Managing Water for All
- WISE (Water Information System for Europe)
- World Health Organization - Water
- European Federation of National Associations of Water Services
- AQUASTAT database on water resources and uses
- Transboundary Cooperation Fact Sheets: Part of ‘Comparative Study of Pressures and Measures in the Major River Basin Management Plans’, Task 1 – Governance, Final Report, 2012.
- Discharges from cooling water are not regarded as wastewater in Water Statistics.