Concern over pause in EU’s Water Resilience Initiative

4 Mar 2024 by The Water Diplomat

European Green Deal

The absence of a clear date for the announcement of a European Water Resilience Initiative, expected in mid-March 2024, has raised fears amongst environmental groups and water experts that this initiative may be losing ground.  A group of 28 European stakeholder organisations in the water sector submitted an open letter to President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen on the 5th of March  to express their regret at the delay in the launch of the Water Resilience Initiative.

 On the 13th of September 2023 during her State of the Union Speech, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced a number of priorities and flagship initiatives for the coming year, which included a European Green Deal within which policy was to be publicly unveiled on a Water Resilience Initiative by the European Commission by the 12th of March.  

According to sources in Brussels, a draft communication on the Water Resilience Initiative was indeed prepared under the lead of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Environment. Subsequently, a stakeholder meeting had been organised at the end of November 2023 to get stakeholders' views on the initiative. In early February, the draft communication was about to be sent to the interservice consultation (the European Commission's standard internal process for consulting all services before any document is released), when the decision was made in the week of the 12th of February this year to put this process on pause. The topic was withdrawn from the agenda of the College of Commissioners for the 12th of March. At a press conference of the Commission on the 15th of February, the announcement was made that the Water Resilience Initiative had been postponed.

The decision was met with widespread concern. EurEau, which represents the European water utility sector, stated to The Water Diplomat it was “deeply concerned over the emerging news that the European Commission will postpone the publication of the Water Resilience Initiative”.

EurEau’s Secretary General Oliver Loebel further stated: “Europe’s water resources are under increasing stress. We just have look at the headlines of the past 12 months regarding severe drought and rain events, but also regarding pollution. If we do not act in a coordinated and forward-looking way, we will see ever-increasing competition for a scarce resource (which also needs to be available in the right quality). We therefore call for a strategic, long-term water resilience strategy.  The strategy should estimate long-term water needs, both natural and societal (agriculture, energy generation, industry, public water supply, tourism etc.) taking into account population development, economic outlooks, climate change impacts etc. This should be compared with available resources.

From such an estimate, you can derive actions bringing long-term supply and demand in balance, and this includes both water quantity and quality (river water many not be available for irrigation due to pollution). Quantity-related action should include water-saving practices in agriculture and industry, leakage reduction in public water supply and giving public water supply priority access to water in the event of shortages. Quality-wise, we should of course avoid pollution at the source so that surface and groundwater bodies are largely uncontaminated and water reuse is possible. We therefore call on the COM to publish its initiative on 12 March as initially planned. Postponing/abandoning it, will not solve any problem but exacerbate the situation for all sectors concerned (and for nature). In times when an increasing number of regions struggle to meet society's water needs, this sends a negative signal to farmers, industry, tourism, water suppliers and, last but not least, nature itself. Water is central to every aspect of our life, economy and society”.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Claire Baffet stated “I am appalled that the von der Leyen Commission has taken the irresponsible decision to halt the water resilience initiative when intense floods and droughts are already drowning or parching parts of Europe at an immense cost to communities, farmers, our food supply and nature. It makes absolutely no sense and can only be intended to make political gains in the run-up to the election. All of the available science points to the fact that the issue is becoming more urgent and more pressing and the decision of the Commission to push the pause button is giving a bad signal because it ignores the available information, including that from its own drought research services. It creates the impression that the response can wait while in reality it cannot. “ 

In October 2023, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) had called on the European Council to develop a ‘Blue Deal’ for Europe which would see water given priority status at the European level. The Blue Deal was to be a radical effort to anticipate needs, to preserve water resources and to adequately manage related challenges through a comprehensive and coordinated roadmap. The EESC had written directly to EC President Ursula von der Leyen, calling on her place water high on the priorities of the European Commission's agenda. This was followed by the inclusion of an initiative on water resilience in EC President von der Leyen's letter of intent for 2024.