EU Policies Unable To Reduce Agricultural Water Use

Policy And Practice Mismatch

4 Oct 2021 by The Water Diplomat

A special report released by the European Court of Auditors released 28 September has concluded that current EU policies are unable to ensure sustainable water use in agriculture.

The terms of the Water Framework Directive from 2000 call for member states to ensure a ‘good’ status for water quantity by 2027. This is interpreted to mean that groundwater abstractions should not lead to the lowering of groundwater levels to the point at which the status of ‘good’ water quantity is no longer achieved. However, despite some improvements, the water quantity status of 9 Prcent of the EU’s groundwater was judged as ‘poor’ in 2015.  Agricultural water use has decreased by 28 Percent since 1990, but the current pressures are still unsustainably high.

The report argues that existing agriculture policies both at European and at member state level are not consistently aligned with the water policy. Existing systems for authorising water abstraction and water pricing mechanisms contain many exemptions for agricultural water use.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU mentions the sustainable use of natural resources - including water - as a key objective, and a large part of the CAP budget is devoted to direct payments, which include greening payments. However, few CAP payment schemes link agricultural payments to strong sustainable water use requirements.

Water stress is projected to increase in the coming decade, especially along the Mediterranean and in eastern parts of the EU. In Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Malta and Spain in particular, more than 40 Percent of both surface and subterranean water bodies are under significant pressure from agricultural water abstraction.

Additionally, in terms of the Water Framework Directive, member states should adopt water pricing policies that incentivise efficient water use and ensure adequate cost recovery for water services from the various users (including farmers). However, the report found that many Member States do not apply the principle of cost recovery for water services in agriculture in the same way as they do in other sectors.

The Court of Auditors has recommended to the European Commission that it should request member states to justify the exemptions extended to agriculture in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. It also recommends that payments in the context of the Common Agricultural Policy should be tied to compliance with environmental standards. Lastly, it recommended that EU funds be used to improve  the quantitative status of the EU’s water bodies.