Causes of Water Scarcity in Europe

Much of the world is facing water scarcity as a result of intense drought conditions from climate change. Water scarcity occurs when a quarter or more of accessible freshwater resources has been withdrawn from a region, territory, or other types of area. The most prevalent cause of drought results from the overconsumption of groundwater reservoirs. Droughts can also lead to floods: when the ground is too dry, intense rain won’t properly absorb into the earth and instead, the water builds upon the surface. Additionally, droughts may increase the risk of fires due to dried-up trees and fauna. 

In line with global trends, Europe has been experiencing climate change-caused environmental disasters more frequently in recent years. However, one of the more under-reported types of disasters is increased water scarcity caused by a rise in temperatures and irregular rainfall. Although Europe is not typically associated with drought and water scarcity compared to drier regions, usable water is becoming more scarce.

As Europe has historically dealt with few intense droughts and disasters associated with forest fires and floods, the continent is less prepared to deal with the resulting water consumption issues. Recent fires in Mediterranean coastal countries and floods in low-lying areas have highlighted the drastic environmental changes caused by climate change, and the importance of water to combat wildfires and heat waves. To address these increased vulnerabilities, European countries will have to develop concrete policies and plans. 

Urban versus Rural Water Access

The effects of climate change are being felt differently across Europe. Countries in southern Europe with drier climates suffer worse drought-related consequences than those in the northern parts of Europe. Countries that produce key agricultural exports within the EU are affected by increasing water scarcity. For example, in Italy, desertification is a result of poor oversight and upkeep of public water transport that would collect water. This impacts the ability to produce key agricultural products needed to sustain national economies based on good growing conditions in the Mediterranean. 

Climate change also impacts urban and rural areas differently. A study indicates that 98% of European cities will experience record-high droughts by 2050, with cities in Spain and Portugal being the most affected. Consequently, these nations must start preparing for the worst-case scenarios. Populous cities should look to others that have taken measures to adapt to persistent droughts, such as Mexico City and Cape Town. Additionally, they should start investing in water recycling and transportation to limit the amount of water loss. Water recycling is an infrastructure technique that works to recycle used industrial water by cleaning and reusing it. Water transportation infrastructure would ensure that minimal water is lost during the process of water being delivered. In addition, governments would need to create messaging to city residents on how to minimize water usage to the bare necessities. 

In addition to the danger of droughts, cities are also more likely to be threatened by floods given that rainwater is less likely to be absorbed through pavement or bedrock. Northern Europe will see an increase in water precipitation with its own related problems due to flooding. For example, recent floods in Germany and Belgium were the result of a climate change-caused heat dome over Europe, causing both increased temperatures and rainfall. While flooding may be associated with more access to water, the ground is only able to hold so much water, meaning that floods can destroy water infrastructure meant to store freshwater for later use. If floods affect the water infrastructure that cities rely on for personal and industrial uses, then a breakdown of important systems will occur. 

Many rural areas are also affected by a lack of rainfall and increased wildfires. Two recent examples include Turkey and Greece, where entire communities had to abandon their homes in order to flee forest fires. In turn, displaced communities depend on water from other towns and consequently increase the strain on those towns’ water supply. In addition, many of the 16 million people in Europe recorded as unable to access daily drinking water come from rural communities. In short, both systemic lack of water access and the ramping up of climate change disasters affects rural communities in Europe. 

The EU Green Deal and Other Conservation Initiatives 

While many parts of the world experience water scarcity, improving water infrastructure can make the impacts of disasters, such as fire and floods, on water access less severe. A top-down approach to water management is important to ensure that no large organizations or businesses are abusing water use to the detriment of others. However, this strategy relies on good management which has not been present in the case of the EU. In response to the lack of oversight, the most prominent legislation of the European Green Deal has begun implementing new directives in order to work on water conservation policy. For reference, the European Green Deal is a piece of legislation that is aimed at addressing climate change and related issues.  

Recently in 2019, as part of the European Green Deal, a directive was passed to cut carbon emissions by implementing a more circular economy that works to recycle and reuse resources in order to minimize waste and provide more for underserved communities. The directive would provide water monitoring, cleaning techniques, and protection of water resources from businesses seeking to sell bottled water from it. The plan will also set new standards for water quality and new investments for water infrastructure for the next 20 years. 

Furthermore, the EU is attempting to become an environmental leader by helping neighboring countries deal with climate change. It is hoping to improve relations through investments in other countries and by sharing conservation techniques to stabilize neighboring countries’ water resources. Countries on the perimeter of the EU, such as Georgia, have also been working to revamp old infrastructure meant to treat and transport water. 

What Can Be Done About Water Scarcity?

As climate change decreases water access, rural and urban communities in Europe and around the world are being forced to find new and viable solutions for combating water security. Methods that have produced results to date include regulating water use by larger users, such as commercial farmers, more rigorously. Policies that designate areas to absorb rainfall would also help with water collection and the prevention of dangerous flooding that can lead to water scarcity. 

While historically Europe has not been associated with many natural disasters, climate change is causing warming and environmental disasters around the world. Once-lush areas are becoming drier and water access has become even more important due to dwindling sources. Therefore, implementing and enforcing plans and policies will be necessary to limit the damage done by climate change in Europe.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...