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Using water in agriculture: can we do it more sustainably?

By Els Brems, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Directorate

Drip irrigation of Green Cos. Source: aon168/GettyImages

With the summer approaching, news items on water scarcity and low groundwater levels may soon start popping up. Possibly, we will be asked to stop washing our cars or filling swimming pools with tap water. Dry summers are no longer the exclusive trademark of southern Europe, but are occurring in more and more EU Member States. Agriculture is vital for life, but it needs water, often in substantial amounts, and the EU’s agricultural policy has an impact on how farmers manage water. The EU also has a cross-cutting water policy that sets out important principles on sustainable water use. In September 2021, the ECA will publish a special report on sustainable water use in agriculture. Els Brems, head of task for this audit, explains why we audited this topic, how the EU can have an impact on water use in agriculture and what the audit is about.

Water quantity versus quality

Climate change is causing more frequent droughts and is making fresh water more scarce. Consequently, sustainable water use has become even more important. Agriculture has an impact on the quality and quantity of water available. Farmers may decide to irrigate their crops in order to secure or increase yields, but also to improve product quality. They may abstract water from rivers, streams or lakes (surface water) or from underground aquifers (ground water). One fourth of the water abstracted in the EU is used for agriculture — mainly for irrigation. They can also use the rainwater they collect in basins during wet periods or reuse treated wastewater.

Agriculture causes pollution of water through leakage of pesticides and excess fertilisers. This is a long-standing problem and we are still far from having clean water in all freshwater bodies in the EU. However, as we have covered water quality quite extensively in our past audits1, in the most recent ECA audit related to water, to be published in September 2021, we focus on the impact of agriculture on the quantity of water available, the quantitative status of water, as it is known in scientific and government documents: how do we make sure there is enough water for all uses — agriculture, industry, households, natural ecosystems?

What does the EU do?

Irrigation through sprinkler system. Source: Pixabay

You may wonder how the EU can influence water use in agriculture. First of all, the EU has a cross-sectoral water policy, spelled out in the Water Framework Directive (WFD). The Directive includes targets for good quantitative status of water bodies. Member States should also set up an incentive water pricing policy and control water abstraction. The policy applies to all sectors, thus also to agriculture as one of the main users of water.

Mulching. Source: Pixabay

Secondly, and more specifically, through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), farmers can receive EU income support and subsidies for certain types of investments, such as irrigation systems or rainwater reservoirs. These can have a positive or negative impact on water use. For example, rainwater reservoirs allow farmers to collect surplus water in periods with abundant rainfall for use in the dry season, thereby reducing the water they need to abstract from ground or surface water. Modernisation of existing irrigation systems can increase irrigation efficiency, thereby reducing the amount of water abstracted. But new irrigation systems on fields that were not irrigated before can increase the total water abstracted in the area.

Farmers can also receive money for certain agricultural practices that have a positive impact on water retention on the fields. For example, when farmers apply mulching, strip cropping along contour lines, or when they create hedges and grass strips, this has several benefits. The rainwater stays on the field longer, it has more time to infiltrate slowly into the soil thereby reducing erosion of fertile topsoil and increasing soil moisture, which is beneficial for crop growth during periods with less rain.

The EU aims to support effective and impactful types of actions, also from the viewpoint of sustainable water use, and give the right incentives to farmers to achieve this. This raises several questions:

  • Should the EU fund irrigation systems in areas that were never irrigated before?
  • Should EU funding be limited to improvements to already existing irrigation systems — making them more efficient?
  • Should the EU focus more on financing green infrastructure and measures that improve the water retention capacity of our soils?
  • Can EU income support play a role in making farmers more compliant with obligations arising from the WFD?
  • Does the EU stimulate investments or agricultural practices that have a negative effect on the quantitative status of our water bodies, such as drainage?
  • Does the EU provide sufficient funding for investments in wastewater reuse for irrigation?

The post-2020 CAP has the potential to place greater focus on a number of these considerations. For example, the European Commission proposed:

  • explicitly linking WFD requirements concerning water abstraction to CAP payments; and
  • stopping the financing of investments in irrigation that are not consistent with the achievement of the WFD objectives, and limiting investments that expand the irrigated area to include areas where water bodies are at least in good status.

The European Parliament proposed including paludiculture — farming and forestry on wet soils, predominantly peatlands — as an eligible agricultural activity for CAP income support.

Assessing sustainable water use

We carried out our audit between April and December 2020 and covered 11 Member States/regions. In our initial audit plan, we had intended to visit some Member States/regions to actually check a set of EU-funded projects. However, in March 2020, we turned that plan into a Corona-proof desk-review audit without on-the-spot visits, but including more Member States/regions. The publication of our report is scheduled for September 2021.

We look at the WFD and how its principles of sustainable water use are applied in agriculture. For example, does the water price in Member States provide an incentive for agricultural users to use water efficiently? Or, do Member States apply water abstraction controls on farmers?

We also look at the CAP to see if it takes into account the WFD principles of sustainable water use. Is the EU promoting sustainable water use practices through its different funding mechanisms — direct payments, rural development support, market measures? Or does it finance, directly or indirectly, practices that stimulate depletion of our water resources in water-stressed areas?

There is only so much an audit can cover…

While a coverage of 11 Member States/regions is a lot when you have to actually do the audit work, it is also very little compared to the size of the European Union and the diversity of approaches that exist in the Member States and regions to implementing water policies. It is striking to see the variety of water pricing policies, water abstraction authorisation systems or ways of checking cross compliance requirements. So our audit shows different examples of how Member States are organised, but it cannot be exhaustive.

Just as our assessment cannot cover the whole European Union, it cannot cover all the initial audit questions either. This may sometimes be a bit frustrating. The reasons can be multiple, but often the data are just not available, or it would be far too time-consuming to obtain them. For this audit, it would have been interesting to know for how many hectares of agricultural land the EU actually paid for infrastructure that expanded the irrigated area. Data may also be relatively old. For example, the latest official data available on the status of water bodies were reported to the Commission in 2018 but refer to the situation in 2016 or 2017, so the impact of recent summer droughts is not yet reflected in those data.

An audit needs to be manageable, and therefore we focus on only a part of a sometimes complex topic. Water use is, for example, intrinsically linked to climate change and water quality, but it is impossible to tackle these topics properly in one and the same audit. That is why we are publishing several audit reports on related topics and why I hope we will keep auditing other aspects of water policy in the future, such as water pollution by nitrates.

Sometimes, reading for an audit enables you to discover interesting things, although not always directly relevant to the audit work. One of my interesting reads during this audit, for example, was about tree-ring analysis, which shows that the sequence of recent European summer droughts since 2015 is unprecedented during the past two millennia. That is probably caused by anthropogenic warming and associated changes in the position of the summer jet stream. (2) I can recommend such a dive into aquatic trails!

(1) ECA special report 04/2014: Integration of EU water policy objectives with the CAP: a partial success; ECA special report 23/2015: Water quality in the Danube river basin: progress in implementing the water framework directive but still some way to go; ECA special report 03/2016: Combating eutrophication in the Baltic Sea: further and more effective action needed.

(2) See for example: https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/europeandrought and https://www.valerietrouet.com/tree-story.html

This article was first published on the 2/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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