WATER SECURITYWastewater Can Help Tackle Water Shortages

By Tim Schauenberg

Published 24 August 2023

Europe has experienced severe heat and drought over the last few summers, and 2023 has been no different. Vast swathes of Central and Southern Europe are simply too dry from a lack of rainfall. Water shortages are causing tensions in some countries. But, for now, there’s enough water to go around. Using the precious resource more efficiently is key.

Europe has experienced severe heat and drought over the last few summers, and 2023 has been no different. Vast swathes of Central and Southern Europe are simply too dry from a lack of rainfall.

Virtually all of the Czech Republic and Lithuania were in drought in July. 

March saw protesters in France clash with police over the construction of water reservoirs meant to bring relief to drought-plagued farms. The green campaigners fear the basins could lead to sinking groundwater levels.

In Spain, water reserves have dropped to 41%, according to officials, with farmers experiencing severe crop losses and water restrictions in place in some regions.

Human-induced climate change has led to more heat waves and drought and is one reason for Europe’s growing water crisis.

At the same time, demand for the resource is growing, with industry and agriculture extracting more water from the ground, rivers and lakes than can be replenished. 

Who Uses the Most Water?
Industry uses half of Europe’s water resources, while a further 40% is hoovered up by agriculture and 10% by households, according to Marc Bierkens, a hydrologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. 

In the European Union, water scarcity impacts 11% of all citizens. Falling water supplies can lead to households facing use restrictions. But the problem also impacts the energy sector. 

In 2022, French authorities had to switch off some nuclear power plants because river water used for cooling them was too warm. Last year, the dry summer also reduced hydropower in Norway.

Farmers, though, who use large amounts of water for crop irrigation are also hard hit by water shortages and drought.

Could Using Industry Wastewater Help Farmers?
One solution for agriculture could be to use more treated industrial and domestic wastewater for irrigation and protect valuable freshwater supplies. Six times more waste water could be reused across the EU than current levels. 

Freshwater resources are scarce and increasingly under pressure. In times of unprecedented temperature peaks, we need to stop wasting water and use this resource more efficiently,” Virginijus Sinkevicius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, wrote in a press release. 

New EU regulations on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation came into force this summer. The regulations stipulate that EU member states must process communal and industrial wastewater so it can be used by farmers. 

Processing and reusing water could replace a fifth of irrigation that currently uses groundwater in Spain and Portugal, said the European Commission. In France, Italy and Greece, it could be as much as 45%. Wastewater could cover all irrigation needs in EU countries with smaller agricultural sectors.