Environment Directorate of the European Commission

The Environmental Impacts of Irrigation in the European Union

1.Agriculture is a significant user of water resources in Europe, accounting for around 30 per cent of total water use. The scale and importance of irrigation is significantly greater in the southern Member States but far from negligible in most northern Member States. In the south, irrigation accounts for over 60 per cent of water use in most countries, while in northern Member States it varies from almost zero in a few countries to over 30 per cent in others. In terms of the area irrigated and the amount of water used, water demand for irrigation is relatively insignificant in Ireland and Finland, modest in Sweden, Luxembourg and Denmark, of increasing regional importance in the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and France, and nationally significant in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece.

2. Among the accession states, a similar pattern is found. Historically, irrigation accounted for very little water demand in the Baltic states; it had some regional significance in Poland, the Czech republic, Hungary and Slovakia, and it was particularly important in Bulgaria and Romania. However, since the collapse of the command economies in the last decade, the use of water for irrigation declined sharply in most countries and is only now beginning to creep back upwards.

3. Within the EU, many of the crops subject to irrigation consist of fruit, vegetables and other high value produce which do not receive a high level of market support under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Potatoes are one of the main irrigated crops in northern Europe.  However, the irrigation of crops receiving support under the CAP market regimes, including maize, rice, tobacco and olives is also significant, particularly in some Member States including Greece, Spain, France, Austria and Italy.

4. Because most irrigation is practised in southern Europe, it is overwhelmingly associated with large numbers of very small farms. Often, the availability of irrigation is critical to the viability of these farm businesses. The socio-economic importance of irrigated agriculture within the EC is therefore considerable.

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