While most of Europe is considered to have adequate water resources, water scarcity and droughts are increasingly frequent and widespread in the EU. In some regions, the severity and frequency of droughts can lead to water scarcity situations, while overexploitation of available water resources can exacerbate the consequences of droughts. Further deterioration of the water resources in Europe is expected, if temperatures continue to rise as a result of climate change.
Water scarcity is a seasonal, annual or multi-annual water stress condition. It occurs when water demand frequently exceeds the sustainable supply capacity of the natural system in river basins. It can be measured as the ratio between renewable freshwater resources and water abstraction or water use. Beyond water quantity, a situation of water scarcity can also emerge from acute water quality issues, when pollution (diffuse or point source pollutions) lead to reduced clean water availability.
Droughts are a temporary decrease of the average water availability due for example to insufficient rainfall, and are considered natural phenomena. Droughts can occur anywhere in Europe, in both high and low rainfall areas, and in any season. The impact of droughts can be exacerbated when they occur in a region with low water resources or where water resources are not being properly managed. This results in imbalances between water demands and the supply capacity of the natural system.
The overall objective of EU water policy is to ensure access to good quality water in sufficient quantity for all Europeans, economic sectors and the environment, and to ensure the good status of all water bodies across Europe. Therefore, policies and actions are set up to prevent and to mitigate water scarcity and drought situations. The priority is to move towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy.
In the EU
Laws and actions
The Water Framework Directive, adopted in 2000, provides a suitable framework to address water scarcity and drought. The directive promotes sustainable water use via the long-term protection of available water resources and the mitigation of the effects of droughts, contributing to guaranteeing a sufficient supply of good quality surface water and groundwater and protecting territorial and marine waters. EU countries implement integrated river basin management through River Basin Management Plans required by the Directive, and some have adopted Drought Management Plans for vulnerable river basins. Given that in the longer term, almost all river basins could be exposed to water scarcity and droughts, organizational and technical adaptation solutions are required.
Water quantity management is also addressed through other EU regulations
- the Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation, that establishes new rules to stimulate and facilitate water reuse in the EU
- the Recast of the EU Drinking Water Directive, that addresses leakage in the water supply networks.
Further supporting water quantity management are the Commission proposals to revise the Urban wastewater treatment directive (UWWTD) and the Industrial Emissions Directive.
EU Member States Water Directors introduced several climate adaptation activities in the 2022-2024 Work Programme for the Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) for the Water Framework Directive and the Floods Directive. An Ad-hoc Task Group on Water Scarcity and Droughts was established, leading to technical discussions on how to improve water management in the changing climate, particularly addressing increasing droughts and water scarcity. CIS guidance and thematic documents support water quantity management
- the 2015 Guidance on Water Balances and the Guidance on Ecological Flows
- the 2009 Guidance on River Basin Management in a changing climate.
Water scarcity and droughts are recognised as a priority in the European Green Deal and are reflected as such in several major European strategies
- the 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change
- the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan and the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030
The first EU policy on water scarcity and droughts was defined by the 2007 Communication Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union, reviewed in 2012 as part of the Blueprint for Safeguarding European Waters.
Real-time drought information is produced through the European and Global Drought Observatories, which are part of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service. The European Commission also launched the European Drought Observatory for Resilience and Adaptation project (EDORA), aiming to enhance drought resilience and adaptation as well as cooperation throughout the EU.
The EU also provides financial support to the Member States and other authorities to address water scarcity and droughts; more than 300 projects have been funded by the European Research and Innovation funding under Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe.
The EU may also respond to droughts with short-term emergency measures under the Union Civil Protection Mechanism, and EU-wide early warning systems are in place.
- Droughts in Europe - March 2023 (JRC)
- Droughts in Europe – 2022 report (JRC)
- Water resources across Europe — confronting water stress: an updated assessment - 2021 report (EEA)
- PESETA IV study, aiming to better understand the effects of climate change on Europe – 2020 (JRC)
Related laws: Water Framework Directive, Climate Law
Related topics: Water reuse, Adaptation to Climate Change, Common Agricultural Policy
Related strategies: Circular economy action plan, Zero pollution action planEU strategy on adaptation to climate change
Related Commission priorities: European Green Deal
Institutions:European Drought Observatory, European Environment Agency including Climate-ADAPT, International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR)
International commitments: UN Convention to Combat Desertification,UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(COP meetings)
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.