The climate crisis in Europe and beyond deepened in 2022, which ended its 12-month run as the hottest year ever on record for the UK and the fourth warmest year on record globally… which, naturally, is grave cause for concern and most certainly a sign of what we can expect to see with increasing regularity and increasing severity in the future.
Rising global temperatures spell potential disaster for freshwater resources around the world, but it seems that the situation in Europe is particularly dire where groundwater reserves are concerned.
A new report from the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada revealed last month (December) that the continent saw a steady depletion of water in aquifers (where most of the world’s non-frozen freshwater can be found) between 2022 and 2022.
Reported on by National Geographic, the study found that although there are some exceptions, such as in Scandinavia, the majority of the continent is now losing far more groundwater annually than is being replaced by rainfall and other recharge sources.
What is groundwater?
Groundwater is that which can be found below ground (hence the name), in the spaces and cracks in rock, sand and soil. It moves slowly and is stored in aquifers, underground layers of permeable rock that are able to absorb water.
Supplies of groundwater are recharged or replenished by rain and snow melt that makes its way into the cracks beneath the earth’s surface. Water shortages can occur when groundwater is used quicker than it can be replenished naturally, although resources can also be affected by pollution.
Groundwater can come to the surface naturally, such as via a spring, or it can make its way into lakes, streams or other waterways. It can also be abstracted directly via a well, where a pipe fills with water and a pump brings it to the surface.
Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security, and his team analysed 20 years of data from the GRACE satellite missions to identify the rate of change in freshwater stored in Europe.
The twin satellites track changes in gravity to take measurements of large water stores, such as those to be found in aquifers below ground, as well as lakes and rivers, and frozen ice in glaciers. The bigger the mass of water, the stronger the gravitational pull.
The analysis sets overall water loss in Europe at an estimated 84 gigatonnes per year since the turn of the 21st century. As Mr Famiglietti explains, this is about the same as all the water in Lake Ontario… with a gigatonne the equivalent of a billion tonnes of water.
The expert observed that the underlying cause of the water crisis is clear, with some places having too much water and others having too little. To people all over the world, water is “the messenger delivering the bad news of climate change”, he went on to say… but overabstraction of groundwater still has a significant role to play in the loss of water.
Water abstraction in Europe
The Water Framework Directive (WFD), devised by the European Parliament and Council, is designed to protect the European Union’s water resources through the promotion of efficient water usage and consumption and minimising abstraction.
Figures from the European Environment Agency show that, although the total volume abstracted from surface water and groundwater between 2000 and 2019 fell by 15 per cent, the relative contribution of groundwater to this total abstraction volume rose from 19 per cent to 23 per cent.
Demand for resources in the EU is largely met by abstraction from groundwater and rivers, reservoirs and lakes – so monitoring changes in abstraction is key to monitoring progress and meeting the objectives of the WFD.
This increase in abstraction from groundwater resources is largely down to increased public demand and the agriculture sector. In 2019, nearly 65 per cent of total public water supply and 25 per cent of agricultural water demands were met by groundwater. It may be that the situation is being exacerbated by climate change and the effect it’s having on seasonal variability in surface water availability.
For example, water demand has increased in spring and summer months at a time when surface water availability is limited, with the situation particularly affecting southern Europe. This is driving competition between different sectors and industries, encouraging a move from surface water abstraction to groundwater.
The issue of seasonal water availability is becoming increasingly concerning, despite the decrease in overall water abstraction in the EU. As such, it will be necessary to implement further measures to increase efficiencies in water usage and consumption, as well as adapting to climate change.
Some industries are more water intensive than others, with Agency figures showing that water abstraction for cooling in manufacturing has almost tripled since 2000. Cooling for electricity generation, meanwhile, has declined by 27 per cent in contrast.
Abstraction for public supply has also risen by four per cent, with a particularly steep hike since 2010 of 14 per cent. Abstraction in agriculture has fallen overall between 2000 and 2019, but it has climbed by eight per cent since 2010, predominantly because of rising irrigation demands in southern Europe.
What can businesses do?
If you’d like to see how you can become more water efficient as a business so you can safeguard resources for future generations, the good news is that there’s a lot you can do.
A good first step to take is to have a water audit carried out so you can see where you’re using water and which areas are ripe for improvement.
Reducing your Water Footprint will not only reduce your water and waste water costs as a business, this is of course important but will also help to hit those all important sustainability targets,
Good for business and our environment!