Towards efficient use of water resources in Europe

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Resource efficiency within boundaries of sustainability
Managing water sustainably in a 'green' economy means using water more efficiently in all sectors and ensuring that ecosystems have the quantity and quality of water needed to function effectively. Water ecosystems are vital assets, delivering essential services to our societies and economies, and thereby playing a key role in European productivity and security. It is thus essential that our use of water does not exceed ecosystem sustainability boundaries.

Although water quality has improved in recent years, water resources are over-exploited in many areas of Europe. Together with continued shortcomings in water quality and hydromorphological alterations, this has had heavy impacts on the status of Europe's water bodies.

Measures to improve the efficiency of water use offer an important tool in this context, enabling society to maximise its earnings from scarce water resources. To ensure that this relieves pressure on ecosystems, however, it is important that increased consumption does not offset efficiency gains.

Clearly, economic production cannot be sustained if it implies excessive water use and burdens natural systems. Future economic growth must therefore be decoupled from environmental impacts. And this process of decoupling requires a dual focus: on resource-efficiency innovations and instruments, and on environmental sustainability boundaries.

The Water Framework Directive defines the boundaries for sustainable water use via its 'good status' objective for water bodies. This is an essential target for impact decoupling, conveying the conditions that ecosystems require to function and support human wellbeing, health and prosperity. In this context, the 'environmental flows' concept is an essential tool for securing that aquatic ecosystems have a good quantitative and hydromorphological status. It should be more widely applied and developed.

Resource-efficiency technologies
The examples addressed in this report highlight a range of resource-efficiency measures that can enable actors at varying levels and in different sectors to reduce their water use and achieve more sustainable water management. Resource-efficient technologies in agricultural irrigation, water supply and treatment can deliver substantial water savings. In agriculture, for example, shifts to water-efficient irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation, altered crop patterns and wastewater reuse are particularly promising. Sustainable public and industrial water management depends more on innovative production treatments and processes, ecological design in buildings and better urban planning.

Resource-efficiency measures in the urban and industrial areas often offer win-win situations, with technologies that cut water use also helping to reduce energy use (for example in drinking water and wastewater treatment) and achieve more efficient chemicals use. Water utilities and water-intensive industries have an important role to play here.

In some cases, however, measures to meet water or energy needs can create problems in the other sector. The energy intensity of technologies like desalination necessitates more efficient water use and the development of renewable energy. Similarly, technologies such as hydropower should be judged in terms of their impacts on water ecosystems, which can be considerable, and in the light of their relatively limited growth potential in comparison to wind and solar energy.

There are clear opportunities to enhance the adoption of efficiency technologies. Existing measures can, however, be better applied. Once proven to be useful, new innovations should likewise be shifted from pilot applications or isolated examples to become widely accepted and applied standards.

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