12/2019 | Reading time: 7 minutes
Water scarcity is on the rise worldwide and threatening European countries as well, according to a study by the US World Resources Institute. As claimed by the Institute’s August report, Hungary is the 16ᵗʰ most threatened country on the globe in terms of expected drought frequency.
Europe’s population uses billions of cubic meters of water every year, not only as drinking water but also in agriculture, industrial production, tourism, and other service sectors. With thousands of freshwater lakes, rivers, and groundwater resources on the continent, Europe’s water supply may seem unlimited to the laity. However, population growth, increasing urbanisation, heating and cooling demand, and the looming consequences of climate change, such as prolonged droughts, are severely damaging Europe’s water supply and quality.
Major cities, such as Cape Town in South Africa and Cairo in Egypt, have widely been covered by the media for facing severe water shortages in recent years. While European cities only rarely hit the headlines about water stress, the problem affects more than 100 million people Europe-wide. So, like in many other regions of the world, experts fear that water scarcity is going to accelerate on our continent. Besides, the risk of severe droughts due to climate change is constantly increasing in the region. In Europe, approximately 80% of freshwater used as drinking water comes from rivers or groundwater, meaning that our main resources are extremely vulnerable to risks from overuse, pollution, and climate change.
Water scarcity and shortages are primarily attributable to changing climatic conditions and increasing water demand. The resulting pressure on available water resources, which is constantly increasing, leads to a reduction in quantity, while the quality of freshwater resources is decreasing as a result of pollution and eutrophication (algae formation). Although Europe is quite rich in freshwater resources, water supply and water-demanding socioeconomic activities are unevenly distributed across the continent, leading to severe supply shortages in certain regions or seasons.
Because of the ever-increasing water demand over the last fifty years, the amount of the (total) renewable water resources per capita on the continent has decreased by 24% on average. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), Southern Europe has seen an overall declining trend, mainly because of lower precipitation rates in the area. Around 30% of the total European population was exposed to water scarcity during the summer of 2015, compared with 20% in 2014. It mainly affected the densely populated cities of Southern Europe and those living in agriculture-dominated areas. During the same period, net precipitation fell by 10% in the meridional part of the continent. Pressure on freshwater resources has only been exacerbated by the increasing number of urban population and the growth of densely populated areas. If current trends continue, water demand from public services, industry, and agriculture in the European Union will increase by 16% by 2030.
The already mentioned report of the World Resources Institute predicts an increase in the length and frequency of droughts in Europe. As a result of warming and drought, water evaporates from the soil at an increasing rate, and, consequently, the need for irrigation also shoots up, as illustrated vividly by last year’s potato crisis. The ever-recurring question is what kind of water is used for agricultural irrigation and how this use affects the drinking water resources accessible to the population. Severe drought affected the two-thirds of Hungary’s territory even in the early 2000s—as it also happened to many other areas of Europe. For example, Romania (most of Transylvania and the Baragan Plain north of the Danube), Italy and Spain as a whole, and Portugal and southern France—so, actually, whole Europe, south of the Baltic Sea—have also been affected by the dry weather.
In July this year, as a result of the gradual rise in temperature over the last few years, weather stations reported heat records Europe-wide, many of them being all-time temperature peaks. Southern areas continue to suffer severe dry spells during the summer months, but, in recent years, this phenomenon has affected not only the Mediterranean countries but also the northern regions, including parts of the United Kingdom and Germany. During the last years, devastating heat waves and droughts in the northern parts of Ireland, Wales, and England have gone hand in hand, generating unprecedented hot summers. This is definitely not the British Isles we got to know from the experience of the past thousand years or geography books.
“Neither traffic nor taking a shower is the biggest polluter”—A few words about water use in agriculture
According to EEA water consumption data, different European industries use an average of around 243,000 cubic hectometres of water per year. (One cubic hectometre equals to one million cubic metres; as an example, the average volume of water in Lake Tisza is 165 cubic hectometres). Although only about 9% of Europe’s total agricultural area is irrigated, its water use still accounts for about 50% of the continent’s total water consumption. In the spring, this proportion may exceed 60%, since it is necessary to help post-planting growth, for example in the case of more expensive fruits and vegetables, such as olives or oranges. The latter two also require a large amount of water during their ripening. The cost of irrigation is expected to increase in the coming years if climate change results in lower precipitation rates and longer growth periods. In regions where climate change has already triggered desertification, locals will try to intensify irrigation, and the fight for existing freshwater supplies will redouble.
Moreover, we have not even mentioned the irrigation needs of energy crop cultivation. A report issued by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in 2006 warned that a boom in biofuel production would exacerbate water crisis. According to the World Energy Outlook, 15% of the world’s water consumption, 583 billion cubic meters of water, was used for the irrigation of energy crops in 2010. A 2014 study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded that, by 2035, “agro-energy crops” would increase the need for water used for irrigation by 85% globally.
How do water providers keep pace?
Depending on the local topography and natural water supply, there is a considerable variation in power demand across the range to operate pumps and purification installations in water treatment plants. Although the energy required to produce one cubic metre of potable water varies widely in these plants, it is far from the energy needed for desalination in regions that have no choice but to draw on seawater. Of course, it also depends on whether a plant uses, for example, a membrane or a thermal desalination process. Thermal desalination can use up to 11.9–17.1 kWh/m³ of energy, but it is significantly more efficient than other methods for waters which contain a high concentration of dissolved salts. However, because of their lower energy demand, membrane technologies are gaining popularity, and the energy required to operate them is often generated from renewable sources. At this stage, the energy demand of renewable methods is somewhere between the two technologies mentioned above (approximately between 1.5 and 21.1 kWh/m³). Their biggest drawback at the moment is their low capacity, and, as a result, that their competitiveness lags behind other technologies. So, as of now, conventional membrane technologies still require the least amount of energy, followed by the ever-evolving membrane technologies using renewable energy, while conventional thermal methods have the highest energy footprint.
As for the geography of seawater desalination, the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is currently the world’s number one seawater desalination centre. Many large-scale plants use so-called multi-flash distillation. This technology is used to provide cities with water hundreds of kilometres away from the coast, as for example Riyadh, along with many other major cities. However, desalination is not just about the Middle East, Africa, and South America, for Spain and England are also trying to supplement their freshwater production with this technology.
On territorial waters
In Hungary, when it comes to the topic of water resources, we usually lull ourselves into complacency as the prevailing narrative claims that our country is a “water superpower.” Indeed, Hungary’s total (per capita) natural renewable water resources are among the highest on the entire continent. However, it must be added that our own surface water supply from rainfall is lower than in almost any other country. The reason is prosaic: waters flowing through our country account for more than 95% of our renewable resources, while they are not considered part of our national water resource because the amount of water that rivers transport to the country is not included in domestic renewable water supply. Based on this indicator, the status of water superpower does not really hold water, and, from our front-rank position, we can easily slip into being one of the continent’s water-scarce areas on this imaginary leader board.
In fact, when gauging a country’s water resources, it is worth considering its internal renewable water resources. The internal renewable water supply is the difference between the amount of precipitation and the co-evaporation of free water surfaces, soil, and vegetation. Our 608–cubic metre inland stocks were only enough for the 149ᵗʰ place on the list of 180 countries providing data in 2014. Browsing the rankings, we can spot that Hungary only outperforms Malta and Moldova among European countries.
In Hungary, there is abundance of water exclusively in the immediate vicinity of rivers. A publication by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences issued in 2011 draws attention to the fact that, on the basis of the domestic surface runoff, we can count on an average of only 600 m³/person/year, whereas a country below 1,000 m³/person/year is said to experience water scarcity. However, we can find even lower values across the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld), namely in Homokhátság and Nyírség. Albeit feasible, artificial transportation of water is extremely expensive, and the obsolescence of our water utilities (such as the 250-year grid replacement cycle) does not help to increase efficiency and to reduce costs.
Moreover, there are serious extremities in the country, as nearly half of the domestic agricultural area is prone to inland floods, and there is also a high risk of drought because of the country’s climatic conditions. According to the above report by the World Resource Institute, Hungary is the 16ᵗʰ most threatened country on the globe in terms of expected drought frequency. We are all familiar with the fact that, every year, we spend billions on flood protection, and, at the same time, we have to face the costs of droughts, which can hardly be monetised.
Although individual decisions are extremely important to save drinking water, the priority would be a coordinated operation of our water management systems. Managing to steer the population towards more conscious water use is just the icing on the cake. Realistically, is hard to expect a change in our habits from one moment to the next, as it goes against almost everything we have thought for centuries about the world and the unrestricted exploitation of the treasures of nature. However, in the past few decades, mankind has already made significant progress in rethinking this earlier concept. James Bevan, head of England’s Environment Agency, says wasting water must become as wrong “as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing plastic bags into the sea.”
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