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Safeguarding Europe's water resources

Water is a vital resource which is much too precious to waste. Past practices of treating fresh water supplies as seemingly limitless are no longer sustainable. Industrial, agricultural and domestic demands for fresh water have placed a tremendous strain on fragile ecosystems ...
Water is a vital resource which is much too precious to waste. Past practices of treating fresh water supplies as seemingly limitless are no longer sustainable. Industrial, agricultural and domestic demands for fresh water have placed a tremendous strain on fragile ecosystems which must be carefully managed now to balance supply and demand. In areas where water is scarce, it is imperative that resources are used to maximum effect. The European Commission has recognised the need for a highly integrated approach to all aspects of maintaining supplies of pure water, and has launched a key action entitled Sustainable management and quality of water to guide and focus EU research.

Background

All living organisms depend on water for survival - a resource which is currently under ever-increasing pressure. The greatest single threat to sustainable freshwater resources is mankind. The world's human population has increased by a factor of seven since 1900, and the growth is continuing apace. In the past 20 years, the per capita availability of water to humans has fallen by 40%, and a similar percentage of the world's population now has difficulties finding adequate supplies.

The scarcity is most pronounced in the world's arid regions, but Europe also has big problems. Delicate aquatic ecosystems are threatened by such factors as industrial and agricultural pollution, drainage and sewage requirements, poor wetlands management, and the relentlessly increasing demand for high-quality freshwater supplies. When the overall total for industrial (54%), agricultural (26%) and domestic (20%) users is considered, the minimum yearly water requirement in the EU is 5,000m³ per head of population. Although local requirements vary, many of Europe's regions would be unable to meet these from sustainable water resources. The situation is most acute in semi-arid Mediterranean areas, but also exists in highly industrialised, densely populated northern communities.

Tapping into research resources

Europe's water resources must be developed to a level where they are adequate, sustainable and affordable. The myriad of complex factors affecting the water cycle makes such development a huge and intricate undertaking. Clearly, a good deal of research is needed. Equally clearly, this research must be well defined and strongly coordinated.

Under the EU's Fourth Framework Programme for Research (FP4), various research initiatives were taken to combat pollution and limit waste in the agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors. Pesticides and fertilisers continue to cause pollution problems, even though their use has been severely curtailed in recent times. Residues can take many years to filter through to the water-table, the major resource for two-thirds of Europe's population. Significant damage could take decades to repair. Projects such as ENVIRONSENS, which has developed advanced pollution-monitoring biosensors, have made significant contributions towards answering three questions at the core of much EU research: What processes govern the infiltration of pollutants? What changes do they undergo before reaching groundwater? How does farmland management affect water quality?

In addition, environmental research has been designed to address the issues of pollution mechanisms both at source and in the natural environment, supported by the development of scientific bases for standards and the harmonisation of measurement and test methods. These efforts have been complemented by research into new methods of water and pollution treatment, developing new farming techniques to reduce the impact of fertilisers and pesticides, and an effort to better understand the socio-economic and behavioural aspects of all parties involved in the water supply system. Such projects include BINOCULARS, which has developed a global approach to assessing the impact of fertilisers at the level of an entire river basin, and ALPE/MOLAR, in which researchers have monitored the responses of isolated mountain lake ecosystems to airborne pollution and climate changes.

Wastage is another crucial issue in freshwater management: losses in Europe's water distribution systems are estimated to average 30%, with the figure reaching up to 80% in some urban areas. The situation can, however, be alleviated by implementing an intelligent-use strategy. In Madrid, for instance, such a system led to a reduction in water consumption of almost 30% between 1992 and 1994. The moral of the story is clear: the situation is serious, but not hopeless.

The Environment-Water Task Force

The European Commission remains conscious of the challenges facing the EU. In 1996 it set up the `Environment-Water Task Force', which was one of the first brainstorming initiatives in EU water management. The panel of experts had a mandate to define priorities in water research (consulting with the many socio-economic players in the field), to strengthen the coordination of European, national and private sector research, and to promote an innovation-friendly environment.

The first of the Task Force's actions was to initiate a broad consultation process. This included bilateral contacts with research and professional organisations, discussions with Member State-nominated National Contact Points, setting up `Mirror Task Forces' bringing together interested parties to consider EC proposals, and launching a `Call for Ideas' to over 1,500 potentially interested organisations.

The Task Force, which has now completed its work, then reviewed existing EU research activities in the field of water management, allowing the team to critically assess initial priorities, resulting in a draft action plan for collaborative water research and related initiatives.

The plan was presented to a `Validation Workshop' in Baveno (Italy) on June 19-21 1997, which attracted over 100 delegates. There was a broad consensus on the priorities set out in the draft document which led to the development of ten action lines. Although these do not cover the entire spectrum of RTD in all water-related areas, they do address the major `hot issues' in the sustainable management of freshwater resources, including aspects from basic research, through technological adaptation to pre-normative activities and the development of decision-making and management support tools.

Under FP4, recent major projects include:

WAtER - over 20 projects on aquatic ecosystems and wetlands, which aim to produce tools for integrated and sustainable management of run-off water;
AQUACON - lowering measurement errors in water contamination analysis;
GRAPES - developing policies for the rational management of water resources in areas threatened by desertification;
SALMON - satellite monitoring of the state of Europe's lakes;
UPM - Urban Pollution Management procedures, protecting EU rivers from the effects of discharge;
RTC - Real Time Control technology for cost-effective solutions to urban drainage problems;
Waste Water Cluster - five projects which set out to understand how organic pollutants develop when diluted in water;
PROTOWET - new tools for wetland management and policy development;
WAMM - WAter Management Models, forecasting floods from satellite data.

Future Research Directions

Building on the experience gained from the Task Force and other initiatives resulting from consultations with Member States, the EC has undertaken to reinforce water research within the Fifth Framework Programme (1999-2002). The importance of water management has been underlined by the adoption of a Key Action within the Thematic Programme `Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development', one of four themes which form the cornerstones of FP5. `Sustainable Management and Quality of Water' lays down guidelines for future research. It focuses on developing the knowledge and technologies necessary to provide an environment for the rational management of Europe's domestic, industrial and agricultural needs. Research will target four principal areas:

Water resource and wetlands management: involving the application of treatment and purification technologies in water use and reuse, reducing water consumption and pollution, and in-process treatment of waste-water at source.

Pollution monitoring and protection of ground and surface water resources: embracing ecological quality aspects, this requires the quantitative and qualitative analysis of surface water resources, as well as a better understanding of aquatic and wetland ecosystems.

Surveillance, early-warning and communications systems: the aim is to improve pollution source monitoring, to develop control and data manipulation systems in areas such as leakage detection and storm-water management, and to enhance expertise in flood prediction and drought management.

Stock optimisation in water-deficient regions: to develop best practices in water resource management and to prevent water shortages in arid and semi-arid areas.

In addition, the work programme of the Joint Research Centre (direct actions of the FP5) also attaches great importance to the problematic nature of water quality and water management. This has led to the creation within its Environment Institute of the new European Laboratory for Water Protection (LEPE) with the mission to provide scientific and technical support to European Union policy matters in this field.


Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge
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