European Perspective on Water Use in Farming

Training Module 06


TR06: European Perspective on Water Use in Farming


  • Agriculture impacts water quality and quantity through fertiliser leaching and water quantity.
    • The decreased water flow will further reduce water quality with climate change as pollutants are less diluted; conversely, excess water in coastal areas can lead to saltwater infiltration into the water table.
  • Production is dependent on water
    • Irrigation brings  increased crop viability, yield and quality
      • surface water bodies, groundwater bodies, rainwater collection and reclaimed wastewater
      • 6% of farmland in 2016 was irrigated in the EU

1. Current Water Situation in Europe

17% ↓ Renewable Water

Over the last 50 years, there has been a European-wide decrease in renewable water.


  • Population Increase
  • Pressure from Economic Activity
  • Climate Change

Climate Change

  • Aggregates seasonal and year-long water security
  • Higher than average temperatures → and more frequent extreme weather events, including drought
  • Water stress is projected to increase by a significant amount by 2030

Cost of Climate Change

  • If global temperatures increase by 3 °C, it would see droughts occur twice as often.
  • Economically losses annually in Europe would increase to €40 Billion/annum
  • Climate change = higher average temperatures, more frequent and extreme weather events, including droughts. Making freshwater scarcer.
  • Water stress to increase significantly by 2030.
    • Increase demand for irrigation
  • In countries such as Malta, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, and Belgium, precipitation rainfall can not infiltrate into the ground because of agricultural drainage.

2. Water Intensity of Crop Production in Europe

3. Policy: Agriculture and Sustainable Water Usage

Balancing Agriculture and Sustainable Water

  • Current EU water policy favours farmers over sustainable water use
    • The policy promotes greater water use than efficient use.
  • Water Framework Directive targets good quantitative status for all EU water bodies by 2027
  • The CAP offers tools to help reduce pressure on water resources
    • payments for greener practices and financing greener infrastructure

4. EU Water Quantity Policy: WFD and CAP

EU Water Framework Directive (WFD)


  • Target: water abstractions should not lower groundwater levels so that it causes deterioration or non-good water status
  • In 2015 the quantitative status of groundwater bodies was 9% – this is considered poor.

Country Snapshot

  • Malta, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary and Belgium have groundwater abstraction of 20-40%
  • Rainfall in Belgium, despite good precipitation, water infiltration is next to none because of agricultural drainage.


  • Although the WFD has not reached its target as of 2022, it has contributed to higher levels of water body protections than without this policy.
  • 2019 review of the WFD stated that it ís essentially fit for purpose’ with recommendations and changes to improve the policy.

Status of Groundwater Bodies in Europe

This graph represents the 2015 groundwater status of European Countries.

This graph represents the WFD’s poor status, indicating that there is not sufficient water.

The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) & Water

Policy Objectives ‘14-’20

  • Sustainably managing natural resources (including water)
  • Viable food production
  • Balanced territorial developmen

Objectives after 2020

  • Fostering sustainable development and efficiently managing natural resources such as water, soil and air

Paths of Support for Water

  • Common Market Organisation- Fruit, vegetable, wine, and olive oil productions receive investment support for water impact measures
  • European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development- support practices and investment with water use impact
  • Reusing treated wastewater is part of circular economy support.
    • In May 2020, regulation enabled the reuse of “more than 50% of total water volume… for irrigation from wastewater treatment plants… resulting in 5% water stress reduction”.
  • There are different levels of incompatibility between the WFD and CAP policies.
    • Despite this, member states must have an individual responsibility to manage water.
    • Every country has positives and negatives to water management
  • In the ECA review for 11 EU states:
    • In 8 countries, water is significantly cheaper if used  in agriculture
    • In 6 countries, payment for water abstraction is not necessary
      • There are also large amounts of illegally extracted water in some countries!
    • Unlicenced water extractions accounted for up to 12% of water in Hungary, Bulgaria and France.
  • 6% EU Farmland irrigated in 2016 = 24% of all water abstraction


  • No funding for irrigation in dry areas where water is scarce.
    • Some subsidies to support water-intensive crops (rice, nuts, fruit, vegetables.
  • Recycling wastewater can save freshwater
  • National/regional investment for reusing wastewater for irrigation is essential
    • 0.4% of water abstraction recycled and reused in the EU (2015)
  • 2020 EU adopted regulation, sets minimum requirements for water quality, monitoring, risk management and transparency, and will apply from June 2023.
    • Enable potential reuse of up to 50% of wastewater.


  • Climate change, crop demand, and agricultural production impact water availability above and below ground.
    • Water stress is increasing while water availability is decreasing
    • Infrastructure, agricultural practice and region impact factors to conserve water resources differently
  • Decreasing water intensity and decoupling total water input and gross value added in crop production is a positive movement of agriculture to modernisation and restructuring the agricultural sector in countries.
  • CAP and WFD both make accommodations to support sustainable water management.
    • The agriculture sector represents the most significant water use industry with the highest potential to change to improve water availability in the EU.


Directorate-General for Environment, 2021. Drought and water stress: Commission report shows water management progressing, but too slowly and underfinanced. [online] Environment. Available at: <> [Accessed 10 March 2022].

European Court of Auditors, 2021. Special Report- Sustainable water use in agriculture: CAP funds more likely to promote greater rather than more efficient water use. [ebook] European Court of Auditors, pp.1-59. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 March 2022].

European Environment Agency. 2021. INDICATOR ASSESSMENT- Water intensity of crop production in Europe. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 March 2022].

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