Plants growing on dry ground with an irrigation system in place

Ripple effect: Why Europe’s water crisis demands a fundamental change in food production 

Europe is already experiencing the effects of climate change, but rather than adapting and investing in long-term solutions, governments are spending billions on short-term emergency response.  

Sara Johansson writes

Europe is drying up fast. Over the last five years, the continent has suffered severe drought. Currently, more than a quarter of the EU territory is under drought warning, in particular the Iberian Peninsula, illustrating that the planetary boundary for freshwater has already surpassed safe limits, including the water available to plants.  

The crisis is fuelled by climate change with scientists confirming that the extreme April heat in Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Algeria would have been “almost impossible without climate change”. However, this already alarming situation has been further aggravated by years of water mismanagement, driven and financed by flawed policies.  

Combined Drought Indicator map by the European Drought Observatory (EDO).
Visit their website for the latest map and figures. 

Thirsty and vulnerable 

Farmers are amongst those first and most hard hit by drought. From Portugal to Italy, livestock farming (in particular extensive) and fruit and vegetable production, including cereals, legumes, oilseed, olives and grapes, are all impacted by the ongoing drought. But the agricultural sector is the main water user in Europe, especially in spring and summer.  

Irrigation accounts for up to 60% of the total water use in spring, particularly in southern Europe. In Spain, crop irrigation accounts for more than 85% of water consumption with some regions experiencing a net increase of over 60% over the past decades. 

Although advances have been made in irrigation efficiency, they have not resulted in environmental protection, and any efficiency gains have been cancelled out by new irrigation systems resulting in a net increase in water use by the sector between 2010 and 2015. This overexploitation has not only resulted in low water reserves, it has also made the agricultural sector increasingly vulnerable to drought.  

Infographic on the water use in Europe
Water use in Europe. Infographic by the European Environmental Agency on the use of freshwater resources. 

Legal toolboxes left untouched  

EU governments agreed, via the adoption of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) in the year 2000, to bring Europe’s waters to good status by 2015, achieve sustainable water management and mitigate the effects of floods and droughts. Although some progress has been made, most water bodies remain degraded, polluted, and/or have lost their natural ability to withstand extreme weather events. Ultimately, Member States have not dedicated enough effort and funding to ensure water resources are resilient enough to cope with drought and floods.  

Whilst legal tools exist to incentivise sustainable water use, Member States have failed to make use of them. Instead of taking measures to safeguard water resources, they have largely opted to grant exemptions and turn a blind eye to illegal water abstraction, essentially sanctioning unsustainable water abstraction by farmers and failing to charge the agriculture sector for the water it withdraws.  

This has had devasting consequences in some regions. For example, due to the passivity of responsible administrations, the intensive production of strawberries and other red fruits is causing the famous UNESCO Doñana National Park wetland, one of Europe’s ‘green lungs’, to dry up.  

Freshwater preservation goals are also being hindered by other pieces of legislation. Currently, the EU’s largest expenditure, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is skewed heavily towards intensive farming, encouraging unsustainable water use which not only counters the aims of the WFD, but it also traps farmers in a vicious cycle of unsustainable overexploitation of water sources. 

A short-sighted response to a crisis 

The impacts of climate change are already upon us and are being felt across society.  

During the spring, governments in Spain, Italy and France issued water management plans and decrees. The French Plan d’Eau has some promising measures, such as a 10% water-use reduction target by 2030 and a gradual phase-out of permits for unsustainable water abstraction in river basins. Meanwhile, the Spanish and Italian plans focus largely on maintaining the status quo, through the installation of desalination plants, expansion of water reservoirs and construction of rainwater basins for agriculture. 

Whilst it might seem logical to build reservoirs to secure water, they only provide a finite supply and disrupt the natural balance of freshwater ecosystems. Such actions merely increase vulnerability to drought and decreased the capability of replenishing water when needed. In fact, research has indicated that reservoirs worsen water shortages.  

These governments, led by Portugal, are now turning to the EU to ask for financial assistance to support farmers and to extend the use of legal exemptions.  

What can be done? 

Obviously, financial assistance is not a long-term solution. To ensure water for nature, people and farmers in the long term the priority must be to preserve water quantity and quality. This should include a switch to nature-friendly and sustainable agricultural systems and proper investment in nature restoration. In addition, we must rethink not only how we produce food, but also what we produce. Europeans consume, on average, more than twice the amount of meat recommended by nutritionists.  Embracing more plant-rich, sustainable diets could bring huge benefits for both society and the environment. 

In the EU, 71% of agricultural land is used to feed livestock, and the link between these crops and water use is clear. In France, the irrigation for corn production, used primarily to feed livestock, accounts for 25% of freshwater use in the country. Intensive agriculture also results in the widespread contamination of surface and groundwaters with nutrients and pesticides. In the face of added pressure from climate change, it is more important than ever to protect our limited freshwater sources from pollution.  

Short-sighted emergency responses that enable water mismanagement will never be anything except a waste of money, water and valuable time, something Europe simply cannot afford.