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Reaching for blue gold

Water is an essential factor in all aspects of human life, from health to sanitation, from agriculture to industrial production write Annika Hedberg, Romain Pardo, Andrea Frontini with Toutia Daryoush. It is central to the functioning of ecosystems, which in turn are vital for the provision of water. Water contributes to sustaining human development and prosperity across the globe. It is a key factor influencing local political and economic dynamics and relations. It can be a source of cooperation or a source for destabilisation and conflict. It is ‘Blue Gold’, although policies, markets and human practices often underestimate its value.

However, not all is good globally, nor within the European Union (EU), with this vital resource. The functioning of ecosystems and thus existing water supplies are increasingly under stress due to agricultural production, unsustainable land use, industrial activities, energy production, urban development, population growth, unsustainable consumption and insufficient waste and pollution management. Contamination and geographically uneven distribution of freshwater sources together with bad water governance are serious challenges. In addition, changes in climate, seen already in the frequency and severity of precipitation and temperature rise, and as a result, an increase in floods and droughts, will have growing negative impacts on water supplies and thus on human security more generally.

Lack of access to good quality water creates a wide range of direct and indirect economic, social, environmental, political, and security challenges. Many of the challenges are similar on both the global and the European level: for example, be it agriculture, energy or economic sectors, availability of water will be a real test case for these sectors’ prospects in the future. The state of play on a global level is alarming: we are seeing increasing internal competition over access to food, raw materials and fertile land, interstate disputes over the control of trans-boundary water supplies, health problems due to unsafe water or lack of sanitation and other humanitarian concerns. The situation in Europe remains better, but far from perfect. Pollution remains a serious issue for surface water bodies, rivers especially, but also for groundwater. In addition, it has been estimated that by 2007, at least 11% of the population and 17% of the territory in Europe had been affected by water scarcity. The cost of droughts in Europe has been €100 billion over the last 30 years.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the EU also contributes to increasing the pressure on water resources outside its borders. For example, food and textiles that are imported from outside the EU, all have a water footprint. A good example is the large imports of cotton, which have required significant water reserves of producing countries located in dry regions such as Egypt, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. As a consequence, an estimated 84% of the water footprint of cotton consumption in the EU is located outside Europe.

It is important to recognise that the water challenge is not only a local challenge – its implications are felt across borders. For example, the EU has already seen how extreme weather events outside its borders – ranging from floods to droughts – can increase requests for financial and non-financial assistance, which can be expected to grow with climate change. An extreme example of this is the Syrian refugee crisis – partly caused by years of drought resulting in internal pressures, intensifying the political and security crisis in the country – which has turned into an enormous migration challenge for the countries in the region and Europe alike. At the same time, developments not directly related to water in other parts of the world can also affect the EU’s water resources. For example air pollution from energy production or transport does not respect borders, and will have a growing negative impact on Europe’s freshwater resources.

Water can be a source of inter- or intra-state conflict, but also an opportunity for international and regional cooperation or even integration. It is notable that not less than 148 states across the world share waters with other countries. Thus challenges affecting transboundary waters – spanning from over-exploitation to pollution, all the way to infrastructural development or the manifold impacts of climate change – may trigger considerable socio-economic, political and even security impacts on one or more riparian countries. As the cases of the Nile, the Mekong and Central Asia show, among others, the water-development-security nexus is set to become an overarching foreign policy challenge in its own right. The role of water within countries and in interstate relations depends on a complex and often variable combination of factors, including geography, history, local politics and regional interdependence, and these interlinkages must be understood when diplomatic and technical solutions are sought by riparian countries or external actors.

As water does not stop at national borders, neither should EU policies on water. Managing the water challenge is both a global and a European challenge, and it is in the EU’s interest to use its policy framework and available instruments to respond to the challenge on both levels. This requires collaboration between EU member states in adapting measures against unsustainable practices, increasing efficiency and smarter use of water, developing and deploying innovative new solutions, and managing and preparing for extreme events which can have serious implications for the supply of water. At the same time, the EU should encourage stronger cooperation among countries and organisations, as well as the sharing of experience with experts in and outside the EU, in areas as diverse as conflict prevention and crisis response, institutional development, technical capacity- building, development of funding mechanisms, and the creation of a legal and political framework for transboundary water cooperation.

The EU has myriad tools it can use internally and externally to support more sustainable management of water resources, and tackle the challenges related to water quality, quantity and access to water. The European Commission launched in 2012 a Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s water resources, a strategy that aims to ensure that enough good quality water is available to meet the needs of people, the economy and the environment within the EU.

It aimed to bring new energy to the implementation of the Water Framework Directive critical for sustainable water management in Europe. Other legislation, policies and programmes from the Common Agricultural Policy to Research and Innovation Policy can also play a key role in tackling the water challenge. A good example has been the European Innovation Partnership on Water, which aims to facilitate the development of innovative solutions to address the water challenges in and outside the EU while supporting the creation of market opportunities for these innovations. As the EU works on a vision and a strategy for a circular economy, water plays a key role in creating a more sustainable European economy, and this should be recognised.

The European Citizens’ initiative on ‘Right2Water’ called for the EU to ensure and to provide all citizens with sufficient and clean drinking water and sanitation within and outside the EU, and as the institutions work on the follow-up measures, this provides an excellent chance to enforce implementation of existing legislation and explore other areas for action. The European External Action Service has helped EU leaders to better grasp the salience of water challenges for international peace and security, and explored tools and options to support transboundary water cooperation both in key regional contexts and in multilateral fora, also leading to the Conclusions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on EU Water Diplomacy in July 2013. In addition, water has traditionally been a focal point of humanitarian assistance and development aid, two policy domains where the European Commission retains significant experience and has a strong competence to act.

The EU is in a good position to improve governance, including the political, legal, social, economic and administrative systems that influence the use and management of water. While the basis for action exists, so far the EU’s efforts to tackle the challenge and enjoy the benefits have been limited

In fact, the emphasis on water seems to have further weakened under the current political leadership of the European Commission. The reality is that the water challenge is not high up enough on the current EU policy agenda. However, as this paper will show, ignoring ongoing, medium and long-term trends and challenges carries the risk that the EU will fail to maximise the related opportunities and minimise the threats, both within Europe and beyond its borders. This Commission’s slogan, ‘being small on small things, big on big’, should be reflected in ensuring that the EU adopts a comprehensive, forward-looking policy framework to tackle the water challenge in and outside its borders. This should build on the initiatives already put in place by the EU and its member states, within and outside Europe.

This study argues that much more could and should be done to use both the EU’s internal as well as external policies to meet the water challenge and to develop smart and sustainable water practices. The water challenge cuts across many different policy fields and therefore requires both an interdisciplinary approach and creative institutional and policy solutions. The water challenge is a growing environmental, economic, development, politico-diplomatic, security and social challenge. The EU’s ability to prepare and respond to this complex challenge – with an urgency – with its internal and external dimensions, will be a real test for the future.

While the picture is not necessarily rosy, there is a silver lining. The benefits that would come from meeting the water challenge are enormous, ranging from societal, environmental and politico- security advantages to economic gains, including new business opportunities. Thanks to its wide- ranging policy toolbox, the European Union has the potential to become a leader in promoting a concerted and holistic response to the manifold dimensions of this challenge while enabling Europe, its public and private sectors as well as its citizens to enjoy the benefits in a much more cooperative international context.

Water matters. Tackling the growing water challenge, be it linked to water scarcity, quality or access, is not just an environmental issue – it has a strong economic, social, political and security dimension.

Water is not just a local issue. The manifold impacts of the water challenge are increasingly felt across borders. Water resources of a country or region can be affected by actions outside one’s borders. This is already a reality in the EU today.

These recognitions should be reflected on the EU policy agenda, across sectors, and in actions within and outside the EU. This publication shows the rationale for EU action and urges the EU to use the existing internal and external policy instruments to tackle the water challenge and promote smarter management of water resources. Adopting a comprehensive, forward-looking policy framework will help the EU to prepare for the water challenge with all its various dimensions and implications. The EU has the tools and expertise, and the benefits would be numerous.

This an executive summary of a a European Policy Centre (EPC) issue paper entitled ‘REACHING FOR BLUE GOLD: How the EU carnies to the water challenge while reaping the rewards, written by Annika Hedberg, Romain Pardo and Andrea Frontini with Toutia Daryoush. The issue paper was first published by the EPC, it can be found at

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