An Indispensable Resource: EU Freshwater Policy - European Union Committee Contents

CHAPTER 3: Challenges to be met by EU water policy towards 2050

54.  The European Commission has said that the overarching objective of its planned Blueprint is to ensure good quality water in sufficient quantities for all authorised uses in the EU by 2020, and that, for analytical purposes, it is taking 2050 as the long-term horizon: "the question of how EU water policy should respond to potential impacts of global change and climate variability is the core of the analysis of the Blueprint."[61]

55.  It is right that these impacts should be centre-stage in planning future water policy: we have flagged up their importance in other reports, notably on adapting EU agriculture and forestry to climate change.[62] It is no less important to grasp that these impacts will be complex, and will unfold in a process of interaction with other major changes, including the growth in the population and linked socio-economic activity. We cannot be certain about the scale and nature of these changes, but it is safe, and prudent, to expect that policy-makers should plan for very different risks from those that we have experienced in the past, and for a formidable requirement to re-adjust established policies and practices across the EU, possibly at short notice.

56.  Keeping in mind the challenges of the long-term future should not displace a recognition of the need for urgency in the present. When the Water Framework Directive was agreed in 2000, it set out a framework extending forward 25 years. In the case of the UK's approach to implementation, there has been concern among environmental NGOs that this allowed procrastination, with the Government putting off much effort to improve water quality into the second half of the planning period. We discussed these issues, in particular how to prepare effectively for uncertain but potentially far-reaching risks, with our witnesses.

Planning for risk and uncertainty

57.  The Commission said that the WFD, as a flexible instrument, could help with the issue of planning for risk and uncertainty. The Directive had an implementation cycle of six years: "you come back every six years to review the state of your waters, to review the measures and to review whether you need to take new measures". Its representative felt confident that short-term issues related to water resource management would be addressed: "What is really important is to ensure that we do not lose the long-term picture when defining the river basin management plans for the next six years."[63]

58.  Professor Jenkins stated that "uncertainty is no reason for not doing anything",[64] and that climate scientists fully understood uncertainty. He argued, however, that planning water resource policy for the future should not be based on the methodology used so far, which attempted to extrapolate impacts at catchment level from rainfall and temperature modelling done at a much bigger scale: "... we have taken the uncertainty [about water resource assessment] from the climatologists, but there exists a much bigger uncertainty in the downscaling of the information we get from the climate models".

59.  In its evidence, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) called for the Commission to ensure that freshwater policy had the capacity to deal with higher levels of uncertainty in the longer term, and pointed to the lack of knowledge about the net results of projected frequent and intense extreme weather events, and of seasonal variation in rainfall patterns. In the NFU's view, further development of EU freshwater policy should guide Member States towards delivering a strategic objective, rather than concentrating their efforts on "managing [the] risk of EU compliance requirements."[65]

60.  Uncertainty arises out of our lack of knowledge: we lack an understanding of the land-water-ecological system, and of whether action taken in one part of the system may produce unforeseen consequences somewhere else. In our view, the right response to this uncertainty is not complacency or negativism: what is needed is a twin track approach to manipulating and managing the environment, and this is the essence of an adaptive approach. Thus, continuing research into the knowledge gaps is critical, and the science must be closely aligned to learning from practical experimentation. This means that the linkage between science, policy-development and its delivery in practice should be much closer than at present.

Climate change, population growth and water resources

61.  Water policy cannot be set in isolation from projections that, by 2050, on a global basis, water will need to provide 70% more food and 80% more primary energy, to around 9 billion people. Society's view of the sustainable use of water will increasingly reflect the conflicting demands on water resources. The value system underpinning our choices may change according to changes in water availability: for example, that as resources diminish securing adequate water for drinking and producing food becomes more important than protecting the environment. This makes it more needful that we understand better the "value" of the ecosystem services provided to society by the water-dependent environment, so that our decisions and choices are better informed.


Communication on Water Scarcity and Droughts
Water scarcity is man-made and occurs where there are insufficient water resources to satisfy long-term average requirements. It refers to long-term water imbalances, combining low water availability with a level of water demand exceeding the supply capacity of the natural system. Droughts are a natural occurrence and can be considered as a temporary decrease of the average water availability due to e.g. rainfall deficiency.[66]

In 2007, following an assessment of water scarcity and droughts in the EU, the European Commission presented a set of policy options to increase water efficiency and water savings in a Communication (COM/2007/0414).

The Communication stated that there was huge potential for water saving across Europe, where at least 20% of its water was wasted due to inefficiency. It called for water-saving to become the priority and for all possibilities to improve water efficiency to be explored. It said that policy-making should be based on a clear "water hierarchy": additional water supply infrastructures should only be considered as an option when other options had been exhausted, including effective water pricing policy and cost-effective alternatives.

Seven policy options were identified for tackling water scarcity and drought issues:

  • putting the right price tag on water
  • allocating water and water-related funding more efficiently
  • improving drought risk management
  • considering additional water supply infrastructures
  • fostering water efficient technologies and practices
  • fostering the emergence of a water-saving culture in Europe
  • improving knowledge and data collection.

Based on information from the Member States, the Commission has prepared annual follow-up reports to assess the implementation of the policy options throughout the EU. In the run-up to the water policy review and preparation of the "Blueprint", the 2010 report confirmed that water scarcity and drought was not limited to Mediterranean countries, and saw this as a growing issue across the EU, apart from some sparsely-populated northern regions with abundant water resources (see map at Appendix 6).

62.  For the UK, Mr Barker from the EA spoke of the need to recognise that the environment itself would change over time with reduced flows and increasing water temperatures. Their representative referred to the commitment in the Water White Paper to continue to protect the environment, but to consider at the same time how to meet the needs of society and the economy, requiring a much more adaptive and flexible approach to water allocation than at present. As for planning for uncertainty, he said that the important thing was to understand the range of different potential futures in terms of water availability as well as demand for water: "In forecasting for secure supplies, for example, assuming an extrapolation based on current demand or some single forecast has been time and again shown to be a route to failure and catastrophe in terms of water planning, so we need an envelope of uncertainty within which to plan."[67] We would add that changing consumer behaviour can significantly influence demand, as the example of Copenhagen shows (see Box 4).


Meeting the rising demand for water in Copenhagen

Copenhagen has faced the challenge of a lack of water sources within the city, local pesticide contamination of water sources immediately around it, rising groundwater levels, leakage of treated water from the water supply pipeline network and a low uptake of grey water use and re-use.

The city has deployed a combination of solutions, including the use of new technologies to monitor and prevent leaks, pricing mechanisms to reduce wasteful consumption, and engineering solutions to reduce overall water demand and better management of storm water, with an education programme for its citizens.

Between 1987 and 2010, per capita consumption of water was reduced from 170 to 110 litres per day.[68]

63.  The EA commented that, while the WFD "creates a valuable framework for integrated water management ... [t]he impacts of climate change could be better handled."[69] Ofwat acknowledged that climate change and population growth posed new challenges to the water industry. Ofwat saw its own role as removing any unnecessary barriers to action to resolve these issues, for example in water-trading between water companies in this country. It saw market mechanisms as important and wanted to see "better signals about the value of water. At the moment it is an extremely scarce resource ... but there is no real value placed on water ... It is about the economic signals and incentives where water is scarcer and people should pay more for it."[70]

64.  Mr Laurence Smith, Head of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), agreed that people needed to pay more for water: "In the domestic sector ... we need to have progressive increases in prices in real terms to meet the costs of environmental improvements we want to see." Mr Smith was also clear that, in the domestic sector, there was a necessity to move to compulsory metering. He acknowledged that, while the economic aspect of the issue was clear, it also had a political dimension.[71] Others supported metering but were less trenchant. We heard from the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), on the other hand, that some consumers are reluctant to support metering due to fears that it may affect their bill dramatically. CCW reported that customers have indicated a willingness to pay up to 1% or 2% over inflation, and additionally that customers are more willing to pay if decisions on water management are local and based on an understanding of what local consumers want for their environment.[72]

65.  As regards water efficiency policy generally, Ofwat voiced concern about the possibility that a "one-size-fits-all" approach might be proposed across the EU: if water efficiency targets were proposed across all Member States, applicable to water-rich as well as water-scarce countries, this would not be conducive to the most economic approaches.[73] Conversely, in its written evidence, the WWF saw a need for more emphasis on water efficiency across the whole water supply chain, and supported the water hierarchy approach set out in the Commission's 2007 Communication on water scarcity and droughts (see Box 3), requiring efficiency measures, water resources and drought planning before the development of new resources.[74] The WWF also called for "proper implementation" of the WFD, to ensure that Member States adopted sustainable water management systems, essential in tackling scarcity and drought issues.

66.  We pressed Mr Benyon on the urgency with which the Government were addressing these issues. He agreed that much more needed to be done about controlling water abstraction, as set out in the Water White Paper. In current circumstances the EA was "working well" to improve co-operation between abstractors; the Government wanted Ofwat to encourage greater use of connectivity and bulk trading of water and water companies were already putting this into practice to an extent.[75] We note that, in April 2012, Severn Trent and Anglian Water announced that they were considering a plan to transfer water from the Midlands to the East of England.[76]

67.  Policy on the availability of water resources, as distinct from policy on the quality of those resources, falls more extensively within the legal competence of Member States. Across the EU, management of water quality and water resources have often been organised separately, and both organisational structures and technical background have reinforced this separation: until recently there has been little interaction between engineers, chemists and biologists handling water management as a strategic issue.

68.  In practice, the distinction can be non-existent: we can foresee that water scarcity, likely to be exacerbated by climate change, will pose an ever-greater challenge to managing both the quality and the quantity of water resources in many Member States, including the UK. There is a need to bring policy development on the two strands closer together. The Commission told us that the Commission's "fitness check" had shown that quantitative water management was one of the issues that had not been particularly well covered by the Water Framework Directive.[77] We heard no appetite for EU legislation on water scarcity and droughts, and we would not wish to weaken Member States' responsibilities in this area of policy. However, we recognise the need for urgent action to tackle water scarcity. We consider that the "good status" objective of the Directive cannot meaningfully be pursued without effective action on water resource availability. We look to the Commission to demonstrate in the Blueprint the critical dependencies between the two policy areas. The EU should encourage the development of national water scarcity and drought management plans (both short- and long-term) to ensure more effective use of the EU's plentiful water supplies.

69.  In the UK, political direction is required to the networking of water suppliers to ensure that water-rich areas are able to supply water-stressed areas, and also to promote water efficiency measures. Leakage from the supply system is also a concern; the rate of reduction in leakage has slowed for many companies because the most obvious causes of leakage have been detected and addressed. Going below current rates of 20-25% leakage[78] implies higher costs for remedial action which need to be weighed against the likely benefits.[79] The Water White Paper gives a commitment to tackling over-abstraction, promising legislation "early in the next Parliament" and implementation of a new regime "by the mid to late 2020s". While this may indeed be a complex task, as the Government claim, it cannot be as complex as, say, reform of the National Health Service. We call on the UK Government to accelerate their efforts to deal with the problems of water scarcity. Consumption of water, whether by industrial or domestic users, must be better adjusted to respect constraints of water availability, through abstraction controls and through economic instruments.

70.  The protection of our water environment while the population continues to grow will require the adoption of innovations, such as metering, and real-time information about domestic water consumption, and will require consumers either to pay more or to save more. We believe that the cost of water will have to rise in areas where other measures are not enough to meet the challenges of water scarcity. We do not think that fear of higher consumer bills should in itself be a reason to avoid metering, but safeguards are required to ensure that those unable to pay higher bills are protected.

Urban diffuse pollution

71.  Diffuse pollution arises in urban areas, for example, when rainwater runs off roads or other hard surfaces and carries chemicals which seep into underground water supplies and into rivers, threatening water quality. Increasing urbanisation exacerbates the problem. Witnesses thought that urban diffuse pollution was a serious issue which could be effectively tackled only when better knowledge had been acquired. Defra stated that diffuse pollution from urban sources was a significant pressure, and a priority for the Department, which was developing a strategy to tackle the key sources of non-agricultural diffuse pollution. The strategy aimed "to facilitate the most appropriately placed stakeholders, including Local Authorities, to deliver the measures required."[80] The EA confirmed that it was working closely with Defra on this strategy.[81] The WWF said that the White Paper commitment to a strategy for urban diffuse pollution was welcome.[82]

72.  The Commission assured us that it had not lost sight of issues to do with the urban environment. It intended to publish a Communication on "green infrastructure" which would include relevant ideas; and urban issues would be one of the three priorities for the proposed European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Water (alongside rural and industrial issues).[83] A timeline published by the Commission in February 2012 indicated the aim of establishing the EIP Steering Group by July 2012, and adoption of a strategic implementation plan by the EIP by the end of the year. We consider that a focus on diffuse pollution from agriculture, though important in its own right, has distracted water policy from understanding and remedying urban diffuse pollution. We welcome the Government's commitment to develop a strategy for this problem; we call on them to work urgently with the Environment Agency and local authorities to deliver the strategy once adopted. We urge the Commission to contribute to a better understanding of the issue in the Blueprint as well as through its other activities.

Governance, and the ecosystem services approach

73.  We deal more fully with governance issues in the next Chapter of this report. Engaging people and local communities, and encouraging them to take ownership of the problems when developing solutions, will be central to the further development of EU water policy. Growing urban populations, and the isolation of individuals from where their ecosystem services are derived, lead to a detachment from our responsibilities in helping manage the environment; consumption pressures (of food as well as water) lie at the heart of water supply problems and the impact on the environment.

74.  The nub of the issue was expressed by the Commission, in describing the approach needed under the WFD: "a top-down framework" to guide activity, alongside "a system that has flexibility in the basins to identify the right measures and to generate support for them. It is important to realise that the legitimacy of all these different territorial and sector management bodies lies with the support that they have from their stakeholders." This meant that stakeholders had to be involved in the development of measures to be taken to improve water quality.[84] We put great stress on the need for "flexibility in the basins": stakeholder involvement will be most effective at the grass-roots level, far below the scale of the River Basin. The flexibility in the WFD system needs to allow this level of involvement to flourish and to influence the approach to managing water resources.

75.  In Chapter 5, looking at policy integration, we also call for the ecosystem services approach to catchment management to be promoted. In providing an analytical framework for establishing the ways in which land and water are expected to contribute to environmental objectives, this approach can help to balance water resource priorities, which will vary in different geographical areas. For example, levels of "water stress" vary widely, both within the UK and across the EU as a whole.[85]


76.  EU water legislation before the adoption of the Water Framework Directive included a number of directives targeting specific water quality issues. The WFD itself bears the imprint of this "sectoral" legacy in its reliance on measuring specific chemical concentrations as the test of success or failure. This approach helps to simplify management actions, because of a lack of understanding of what actually affects the quality of aquatic ecosystems in particular river types or habitats. The science has still to catch up with the policy approach. We consider that the Commission's current review needs to look at whether the WFD's overarching strategic objectives have evolved, and whether this evolution needs to be recognised as it is implemented in future years. In particular, there is a question as to whether the current mix of chemical (water quality) and ecological monitoring targets is appropriate. The Commission should highlight this in the Blueprint as an urgent issue for discussion.

77.  Delivering a pristine water course is not in line with the wider societal demands on water. Rather than taking an historic approach to water management, a forward-looking approach is required. The freshwater environment across the EU is changing, and will continue to do so, as a result of climate change and other pressures. Future EU policy will need to be flexible and dynamic in order to respond. As we move forward, there will be a broader need to consider, at all levels of governance, how a more integrated and inclusive land-use planning system could be developed, linking closely into water management and reflecting the needs and demands of both rural and urban areas.

61   European Commission Back

62   8th Report (2009-10), HL Paper 91: see, for example, paragraphs 3 and 19 of that report. Back

63   Q 267 Back

64   Q 53 Back

65   NFU, para 21 Back

66   See:; Q308 Back

67   QQ 238, 239 Back

68   See:  Back

69   EA supplementary written evidence. Back

70   Q 173 Back

71   Q 4 Back

72   Q 144 Back

73   Q 182 Back

74   WWF, para 20 Back

75   QQ 281, 282 Back

76   See:  Back

77   Q 258 Back

78   EA Q 243 Back

79   Economic regulation of the water industry uses the concept of the "sustainable economic level of leakage" (SELL). This is the level at which, in the long-term, the marginal cost of leakage control is equal to the marginal benefit of the water saved. This includes the costs of the various activities for controlling leakage and the impact that different leakage levels have on the costs (social, economic and environmental) of delivering water to customers. Many water companies in the UK have reduced their water loss to the agreed sustainable economic level of leakage. Water companies regularly review their SELL calculations and submit them to Ofwat who use these assessments at price reviews to set leakage targets for at least a five-year period.  Back

80   Defra supplementary written evidence Back

81   EA supplementary written evidence Back

82   Q 223 Back

83   Q 268 Back

84   Q 260 Back

85   See Appendix 6, we reproduce a map showing different levels of water stress across the EU. Back

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