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Feeling Hot? Bad Water Management Aggravating Drought, says New WWF Paper

22 July 2019
by WWF -- last modified 22 July 2019

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.


The situation is also affecting Central and Eastern Europe and the Danube River Basin. 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.

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 today, 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 objective of the legislation is to mitigate the impacts of droughts and ensure that freshwater ecosystems are resilient enough to cope with a changing climate and continue to supply clean water during dry periods. The situation is particularly felt in the Green Heart of Europe.

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 must decide immediately to buffer the impacts by accepting 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. Despite evidence showing an abundance of unhealthy freshwater ecosystems, 60% currently fail to meet the WFD's "good status" requirement. Water bodies affected by 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.

The situation in the Green Heart of Europe:

The Hungarian part of the Tisza River Basin is a prominent example of the urgent need for adaptation to increasing frequency of floods, torrential storms and droughts. Sometimes, flood and drought may even occur within the same year. Nature based water retention, storing the excess water of floods in depressions on floodplains for drier periods, may be the most important natural adaptation tool. However, this capacity of floodplains today is often impeded through drainage systems and dikes. Wetland restoration measures can reinstall nature´s capacity to act as sponge. Besides adapting to climate change and enhancing biodiversity, these measures combined with new land use methods such as floodplain farming can also offer new economic opportunities for local communities.

Out of the 419 cities worldwide analysed for the paper, the CEE Region's capitals are at rather high risk compared to others globally. In terms of water scarcity and drought Kiev is ranked the 95th most at risk, followed by Bucharest (101), Budapest (171) and Sofia (278).

Accompanied by an increase in extreme weather events, temperature and precipitation are expected to change significantly in the Danube River Basin. Changes in water availability can highly differ locally and regionally. Due to the expected changes in climatic conditions, water availability is likely to decrease in the southern and eastern parts of the region, whereas it will remain unchanged or even increase in the northern and western part.

Key Points of the study:

  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • Agriculture uses around 40% of the total water used per year; and
  • Reservoirs only provide a finite supply of water and also 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.

Download paper: Good water management: The heart of Europe's drought response

The European Policy Office helps shape EU policies that impact on the European and global environment.