A major review of Europe's water policies next year will pave the way for savings targets to be adopted by member states and industries, according to a senior EU official who was speaking on World Water Day.
Peter Gammeltoft, head of the European Commission's water unit, said the EU's future water blueprint will "foster the development of targets for water efficiency in the member state, at sectoral and river basin level".
The official stressed that measures will have to take account of local circumstances and "will obviously not be the same" in Finland - a sparsely-populated country with thousands of lakes - as in Cyprus, where severe water stress is already a reality.
Gammeltoft did not specify whether or not the targets would be binding. But the nature of the targets could well be addressed in the bloc's roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe, which is due out in June and is expected to introduce wider resource-efficiency targets for member states.
"The real development of targets will have to happen in the member state at sectoral and river-basin level to accommodate the great variety of situations across economic sectors and geographical areas," Gammeltoft explained.
Gammeltoft was addressing an event at the Committee of the Regions to mark World Water Day (22 March).
Focus on agriculture
The 2012 blueprint will also make sure that all those who use water pay a fair price for it, including in the industrial and agricultural sectors, where water is often subsidised. "A consistent approach for internalising costs from water use and water pollution [is needed] to ensure that the necessary incentives are in place in all sectors and all regions to ensure sustainable use of water resources," said Gammeltoft.
As agriculture accounts for approximately two thirds of Europe's water consumption, "a large part of the water savings potential is in the agricultural sector," which should "contribute significantly" to reducing abstraction, he added.
The bloc's Water Framework Directive already requires the agricultural indsutry to pay for the water it consumers and member states were supposed to implement the legal framework by the end of 2010. But much remains to be done to make agriculture pay for its use of this scarce resource and for the pollution it creates, Gammeltoft noted.
Other water savings steps are also being considered, including measures to prevent leakages from distribution networks, which can be as high as 50% in some areas.
Regarding water consumption in buildings, Gammeltoft said the EU executive was "studying the feasibility in terms of both regulatory and non-regulatory options".
The EU legislative programme for 2010 contained plans to table an EU directive on water efficiency in buildings, similar to that already adopted on the energy performance of buildings.
Land use and management
The EU water policy review will also focus on land use and management. "These will include green infrastructure, such as reforestation, flood plain restorations, soil management and sustainable urban drain systems to help refill overexploited aquifers and prevent storm water overflows," said Gammeltoft.
Such infrastructure could be constructed by integrating those measures into the EU's structural funds and local planning as well as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), he added.
Finally, the EU executive will consider improving the Water Framework Directive to ensure proper implementation of measures identified in cross-border river basin management plans.
The European Commission is expected to table a 'Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's Water' in 2012.
The water blueprint will put forward policy recommendations that build on three ongoing reviews of the bloc's legislation and initiatives on water:
An EU Water Framework Directive (2000);
a strategy on water scarcity and droughts (2007), and;
measures to address the vulnerability of water resources to climate change and other man-made pressures (2009).
The aim of the Commission's policy review is to introduce "a water-saving culture" in Europe and create "a drought-resilient society" in the context of climate change.
According to a Commission-backed study (see part 1 and part 2), water efficiency in the EU could be improved by nearly 40% with technological improvements alone. Changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase savings, it noted.