Europe’s Water Situation ‘Now Very Precarious’

Water footprint - H2O Building Services


Last year, all sorts of temperature records were set in Europe and around the world – and the UK was by no means spared, with an unprecedented heatwave hitting the country in the middle of July, driven by hot air moving north from the near-continent.


The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) published its 2022 Global Climate Highlights at the start of January, showing that the last 12 months was indeed a year of extremes, with broken temperature records and a continued increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.


Where Europe is concerned, the summer of 2022 was the hottest on record (with the previous hottest summer seen the year before), as well as being the second warmest year on record for the continent. Globally, 2022 was the fifth warmest year ever.


The continent saw its second warmest June ever recorded and its warmest October, with the unusual levels of warmth combining with reduced rainfall, clear skies and dry soils, all of which converged to bring about drought conditions, particularly in southern and central Europe.


Consequently, many countries saw agriculture, river transport and energy management badly affected, with increased fire danger risks also coming to the fore thanks to the extremely dry conditions. France and Spain in particular were affected by unusually high fire activity.


CS3 deputy director Samantha Burgess said: “2022 was yet another year of climate extremes across Europe and globally. These events highlight that we are already experiencing the devastating consequences of our warming world.


“The latest 2022 Climate Highlights from C3S provide clear evidence that avoiding the worst consequences will require society to both urgently reduce carbon emissions and swiftly adapt to the changing climate.”


Teetering on the edge


The situation in Europe last year is indicative of a longer-term trend, with severe drought affecting the continent since 2018, according to satellite data analysis by the Institute of Geodesy at Graz University of Technology.


Such prolonged dry conditions mean that groundwater levels across the continent have been consistently low for the last five years or so, with no significant rise seen since 2018.


The effects of this became very apparent in the summer of 2022, with dry riverbeds making their presence felt and stagnant waters slowly disappearing, leading to habitat loss for aquatic species and other wildlife.


Additionally, agriculture suffered because of the resultant dry soil, while the energy shortage was exacerbated by the situation, with nuclear power plants unable to generate enough electricity because of a lack of cooling water.


And hydroelectric power plants were no longer able to fulfil their functions because of a lack of water, as well.


Research scientist at the university Torsten Mayer-Gurr observed how precarious the situation has now become, saying: “A few years ago, I would never have imagined that water would be a problem here in Europe, especially in Germany or Austria. We are actually getting problems with the water supply here… we have to think about this.”


Groundwater drought management in Europe


Groundwater is an essential resource because it provides communities with much-needed water supplies during periods when lower-than-average rainfall is seen, which can cause surface water to dry up.


Groundwater is that which can be found below ground in the cracks and spaces in rock, sand and soil, moving slowly through these geologic formations (which are known as aquifers). They can be replenished or recharged by rain and snow melt, which can seep into the cracks below the surface of the earth.


Water in these aquifers can come naturally to the surface either through a spring or in the form of lakes and streams, but it can also be extracted via manmade wells and pump systems.


However, if dry conditions persist over a long period of time, groundwater drought can occur, which can have a big impact on both people and the environment.


In the EU, groundwater supplies 65 per cent of all drinking water supplies and 25 per cent of water for agricultural irrigation, figures from the European Environment Agency show.


But in order for the long-term sustainability of groundwater to be ensured for human activity and natural ecosystems alike, it must be protected against over-abstraction, pollution and climate change… especially important when you consider that it can take decades for groundwater resources to replenish themselves.


The European Water Framework Directive, published by the European Commission, has been in place since 2000, serving as the main law for European water protection. Its aim is to ensure that all polluted waters are brought back to good health, ensuring that they continue to be kept clean over the years.


River basin management plans are the main tool for implementation of the directive, which ensures an integrated approach to water management, taking into account whole ecosystems and respecting their integrity by regulating pollutants and setting regulatory standards relative to this.


These plans set out a range of necessary measures that each country will need to consider and enact in order to address the impacts on the water environment, covering actions for industry, public organisations and land managers.


They summarise the state of the water environment country by country, the pressures that are having an impact on water quality where relevant, what action is being taken to protect and improve the water environment and outcome summaries following implementation of this action.


In the UK, these plans serve as the foundation for delivering the government’s 24 Year Environment Plan goal of clean and plentiful water. Unless current interventions are maintained and new ones are introduced, the country will see a drop from 14 per cent of waterways at good ecological status to six per cent by 2027.


In order to secure and improve the shared water environment, we all have our part to play, everyone from individuals and organisations to sectors and industry.


If, as a business, you’d like to find out more about how to reduce your water footprint, get in touch with the H2o Building Services team today to see how we can help.