As we all know, human life cannot be sustained without access to freshwater resources – and the way that society has developed over the years means that life in the 21st century is increasingly reliant on water supplies to keep economies thriving. It underpins everything we do and everything we’ve become accustomed to.
Unfortunately, water stress and scarcity is fast becoming an ever-present reality for millions around the world, with demand for water on the rise in line with global population increases.
Every continent and every region around the world faces their own specific water-related issues, but in Europe it’s water quality and quantity that are fast becoming the most pressing concerns.
Drought, in particular, is causing serious problems, with 2022 seeing some of the most severe droughts in 500 years, while climate change is expected to have a big impact on availability of water, as well as quality and quantity in the future.
As the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) explains, unless action is taken, water scarcity could potentially start to affect larger swathes of society on a global scale, with serious implications not just for the environment but also for food security, human health and economic, social and political stability.
Some of the challenges are being anticipated and addressed by the EU, with legal frameworks put in place to safeguard freshwater and marine resources for future generations. However, progress is being hampered by slow implementation, insufficient funding and a failure to integrate environmental objectives in sectoral policies.
Given just how significant the challenges we face now are, the EESC believes the current EU policy framework is no longer fit for purpose and, as such, a change of scale is now very much required.
Enter the EU Blue Deal!
This year, the EESC has been working towards devising a comprehensive strategy for European water policies, adopting a set of own-initiative opinions that will tackle the issue head on from sectoral perspectives, with concrete proposals put forward to find long-lasting solutions to the problem.
In October, it announced these proposals and called on the European Commission to start viewing water as a top priority on a Europe-wide scale.
There are 15 guiding principles of the EU Blue Deal, including ensuring that it aligns with all other EU policies, featuring ecosystem, wetland and biodiversity restoration and protection as an essential component, adopting a human right-based approach to water, encouraging all water users to support sustainable usage and consumption, and significantly reducing water leaks and water wastage.
Although the UN General Assembly recognised the human right to water and sanitation as far back as 2010, there are still approximately 2.2 billion people around the world that do not have access to safe water supplies.
In Europe, water stress is a growing concern, with 60 per cent of cities across the continent experiencing water scarcity. Furthermore, it’s been predicted that water scarcity will rise by 35 per cent come the year 2070 unless action is taken… and now.
Speaking at a high-level Blue Deal conference in February, Christa Schweng – president of the EESC – said: “I am delighted to kick off our work on the EU Blue Deal today. The availability and sustainable management of water impacts industries, energy consumption, health, migration and social peace. It is time to act and set water as an EU top priority.”
As such, adopting an ambitious and comprehensive approach to water EU-wide in the form of the EU Blue Deal could make a big difference to what the future holds.
Spotlight on: Flanders
While the EU Blue Deal is focused on the EU as a whole, there are other micro Blue Deals springing up in areas like Flanders in Belgium, which is at the top of all European regions facing water scarcity and drought risks.
Although not a large land area, Flanders is home to a large population, with water-intensive industries and agriculture all leading to high water consumption. Most of the rainfall that lands in the area goes into the sewer system and straight out to sea, while urban creep and excessive hard landscaping in urban centres prevents resource replenishment.
Canals and drainage pipes also cause problems, leading to rapid water runoff when it rains, so that less is able to soak down into the soil where it’s needed most. And then, of course, there’s climate change, with longer drought periods being seen, along with heavy rainfall… all of which comes together to make the region particularly vulnerable to water scarcity.
However, all hope is not yet lost and the government of Flanders has now launched its own Blue Deal to tackle drought and water scarcity through the development of structural solutions and collaboration on various fronts, including research, legislation, monitoring, communication and awareness.
The overall aim of this Blue Deal is to drive a shift in mindset and a new approach to water management. This includes retaining water at a local level wherever possible, using fewer resources, reusing more and reducing wasteful consumption.
Initiatives include investing in more green-blue infrastructure in the field along waterways, reducing leakage at locks and across the greater water network, restoring wetlands, reusing rainwater, improved regulation and implementation to encourage water reuse, innovation and research for water conservation, more circular water use and other such strategies.
Furthermore, Flanders has also been engaging in communication and awareness raising to encourage action at a local level, focusing on individuals, schools, companies, local authorities and other target demographics.
How can businesses help?
There’s no need to wait for a Blue Deal to be implemented. If you’re keen for your business to become more water wise, there’s a huge amount that can be achieved by bringing in innovative water management practices across the board… with the added bonus of saving you money, as well as helping to support the natural environment.