From Statistics Explained
- Data from September 2012. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.
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 article presents data on freshwater resources and the human use of water in the European Union (EU), and includes statistics on water abstraction and wastewater treatment and disposal.
Main statistical findings
The three main users of water are agriculture, industry and the domestic sector (composed of both households and services). The overall abstraction and use of water resources can be considered to be sustainable in the long-term in most of Europe. However, specific regions may face problems associated with water scarcity; this is especially the case in parts of southern Europe, where it is likely that efficiency gains in relation to 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 may be exacerbated by natural resource endowments, geographical characteristics and freshwater management systems. A number of EU Member States receive a significant proportion of their water resources as inflows from upstream rivers: this is particularly the case in the Danube basin and for the Netherlands, and is also true to a lesser extent, in Latvia, Germany and Portugal.
In absolute terms – see Table 1 – total freshwater resources were broadly similar in Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Italy, as each of these Member States reported a long-term average of annual freshwater resources of between 188 000 million m³ and 164 300 million m³. When expressed in relation to population size – see Figure 1 – 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 largest Member States (France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and Poland), as well as in Romania, Belgium and the Czech Republic, with the lowest levels in Cyprus (410 m³ per inhabitant) and Malta (190 m³ per inhabitant).
There are considerable differences in the per inhabitant 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. These differences are also apparent when looking at the breakdown of water abstraction between groundwater and surface water resources – see Table 2. In Belgium (2007), Bulgaria, Romania and the Netherlands (2008) surface water abstraction in 2009 accounted for around ten times the volume of water abstracted from groundwater resources, with this ratio exceeding 13:1 for Hungary (2008 for surface water abstraction) and Lithuania. At the other end of the range, larger volumes of water were abstracted from groundwater resources in Latvia (2007), Slovakia, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Denmark and Malta; older data for Portugal also indicate a higher proportion of abstraction from groundwater resources, as was the case for Iceland.
Germany, France (both 2007 data) and Spain (2008) recorded the highest amounts of groundwater extracted, each with 5 700 million m³ or more. Looking at the development of groundwater abstraction during the ten-year period between 1999 and 2009 (see Table 2 for footnotes concerning the availability of data for each country), the volume of groundwater extracted generally fell, although Malta (with an increase of 63 %) was a notable exception, as were Slovenia and Spain (increases of 20 % or more) and, to a lesser extent, Estonia, Greece and Belgium. Among the non-member countries presented in Table 2, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (200 %) and Serbia (294 %) both recorded very large increases in groundwater abstraction, while a more modest increase (27 %) was recorded for Turkey.
As for groundwater abstraction, Spain, Germany and France headed the ranking of Member States in relation to surface water abstraction, with more than 25 000 million m³ in 2007 or 2008. Fewer Member States recorded an increase in surface water abstraction levels than did for groundwater, with 11 % increases for the Czech Republic and Sweden and a 21 % increase for the Netherlands; the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (39 %) and Serbia (27 %) also recorded increases for surface water abstraction alongside their considerable increases noted for groundwater abstraction. The largest decreases in the volume of surface water abstraction were recorded in Slovakia (-60 %), Lithuania (-50 %), Denmark (-44 %) and Latvia (-40 %).
Public water supply
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 EU Member States had annual rates of freshwater abstraction of between 50 m³ and 100 m³ per inhabitant – see Figure 2. The extremes of freshwater abstraction reflect specific conditions: for example, in Ireland (141 m³ per inhabitant) the use of water from the public supply is still free of charge; while in Bulgaria (129 m³ per inhabitant) there are particularly high losses from the public network. Abstraction rates were also rather high in some non-member countries, notably Norway, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Croatia. At the other end of the scale, Estonia and Lithuania reported low abstraction rates, in part resulting from below-average connection rates to the public supply, while Malta and Cyprus have partially replaced groundwater by desalinated seawater.
An analysis of the development of abstraction rates over time is shown for selected EU Member States in Figure 3. A comparison of the earliest and latest available annual data between 1990 and 2009 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 commonly observed. Nevertheless, there was a substantial increase in abstraction in Ireland, Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal (see the example of Spain) and a smaller increase in Belgium. 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 consciousness concerning the cost or value of water and the environmental consequences of wasting it.
The proportion of the population connected to urban wastewater treatment covers those households that are connected to any kind of sewage treatment – see Table 3. This share was above 80 % in approximately half of the EU Member States for which data are available (mixed reference years), rising to 99 % in the Netherlands, 97 % in England and Wales, and 95 % in Germany and Luxembourg, while Switzerland (97 %) also recorded a high connection rate. At the other end of the range, less than one in two households were connected to urban wastewater treatment in Malta, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania as well as in Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; new treatment plants are under construction in Malta and it is expected that this will result in high connection rates soon.
In terms of treatment levels – see Figure 4 – tertiary wastewater treatment was most common (again mixed reference periods) in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Sweden and Greece, where at least four in every five persons were connected to this type of wastewater treatment. By contrast, no more than 1 % of the population was connected to tertiary wastewater treatment in Bulgaria.
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 5. 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 Spain and Ireland, while another eight Member States (Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Luxembourg, France, the Czech Republic and Latvia), as well as Norway, reported between one and two thirds of their total mass of sewage sludge being disposed of through agricultural uses. By contrast, more than two thirds of sewage sludge was composted in Estonia and Slovakia. 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, Slovenia, Belgium, 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 Greece, 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.
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.
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 efforts 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 issued 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 covers information for 2011 and shows that 93.1 % of Europe’s coastal bathing waters and 89.9 % 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 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.
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 European Commission adopted in November 2012 its ‘Blueprint to safeguard European waters’, 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
- 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)
- Communication 'Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union' (COM(2007) 414 final)
- Cosgrove, W.J. and Rijsberman, F. R.: World Water Vision - Making water everybody's business; Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 2000.
- 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 implementation of Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources
- WISE (Water Information System for Europe)
- European Commission - Environment - Bathing water quality
- European Commission - Environment - Water
- European Environment Agency - Water themes and data
- OECD - Environment - Managing Water for All
- World Health Organization - Water