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Feeling hot? Bad water management aggravating drought, says new paper

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  • Feeling hot? Bad water management aggravating drought, says new paper
    Dried up river bed, Spain

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WWF
WWF
The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by more than one million members in the United States and close to five million globally.
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With temperatures across Europe set to skyrocket this week and national governments taking emergency measures to tackle drought, a new paper from WWF signals that EU Member States’ poor management of rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater is worsening the impacts of drought. To make matters worse, many EU Member States are continuing to push the European Commission to weaken the only tool that will help us better face the pressures ahead [1].

By stretching water resources thin, poor water management threatens future water supplies and makes these ecosystems far less able to cope with climate change. The paper, published, shows that Member States’ mismanagement of their water resources can be rectified through full implementation of the EU water law - the Water Framework Directive (WFD). A key mission of the legislation is to mitigate the impacts of droughts and ensure that freshwater ecosystems are resilient enough to cope in a changing climate, and subsequently able to keep supplying good quality water during dry periods. The central role of healthy freshwater ecosystems in adapting to climate change were outlined just this week in a global report from WWF and AB InBev

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at  WWF’s European Policy Office, said: 
“With intense droughts, heat and floods quickly becoming Europe’s ‘new normal’, smart water management - coupled with reducing emissions - can help us tackle the issue at the source. Climate change is happening, and the European Commission needs to decide today to buffer the impacts by signing off the EU water law as fit for purpose.”   

In the face of climate change, droughts are becoming increasingly common and severe, and Europe is no exception. The latest data indicates that even Europe’s northernmost countries are experiencing the first warning signs of drought [2]. And yet, Europe’s water resources are continuing to be stretched extremely thin. 60% currently fail to meet the WFD’s “good status” requirement [3], despite evidence showing that freshwater ecosystems which are not healthy - for instance, through pollution, changes to shape or flow, or the pressures of over-abstraction (excessive use of water, such as for the purposes of irrigation) - are those hardest hit by drought, heat and floods. 

Key points: 

  • Droughts are becoming increasingly common and severe across Europe. Even our northernmost countries, like the Baltic region and Sweden, are experiencing the first warning signs of drought. 
  • When healthy, freshwater ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and able to keep supplying enough good quality water during dry periods. They can even help mitigate the impacts, such as by buffering temperature changes and absorbing and storing carbon. 
  • 60% of EU surface waters (rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands) are not healthy, failing to meet the “good status” requirement of the WFD. Freshwater ecosystems which are not healthy are those hardest hit by drought, heat and floods. 
  • Virtually all of Europe’s rivers have had their flows regulated by dams or reservoirs in order to increase their capacity to provide water to users. 
  • Reservoirs only provide a finite supply of water and do disrupt the natural balance of freshwater ecosystems. The danger of relying heavily on reservoirs is perfectly illustrated by the threat of Day Zero in Cape Town in 2017 [4]. 

Estimated occurrence of droughts in Europe (2014-2017)

© WWF Water Risk Filter, 2019

 

[1] More than 600 days ago, the European Commission launched its fitness check of the Water Framework Directive. Many EU Member States and industry lobby groups have attempted to use this process to push for major changes to the legislation, which would have potentially disastrous consequences for freshwater ecosystems in Europe. Find out more here
[2] European Drought Observatory, 2019. (EC-JRC)
[3] EEA. 2018. European waters – assessment of status and pressures 2018.
[4] The Guardian, 24 January 2018. ‘Cape Town told to cut water use or face losing supply by 12 April

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