EU auditors: “Support to agriculture not aligned with sustainable water use”

EU auditors: “Support to agriculture not aligned with sustainable water use”
Credit: Unsplash/ Przemyslaw Stroinski

EU policies are unable to ensure farmers use water sustainably, according to a special report published by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

According to the audit, agriculture accounts for a quarter of all abstraction (taking) of surface and ground water in the EU. But farmers benefit from too many exemptions from EU water policy that hinder efforts to ensure sound water use. In addition, the EU’s agricultural policy promotes and too often supports greater rather than more efficient water use.

“Water is a limited resource, and the future of EU agriculture largely depends on how efficiently and sustainably farmers use it” said Joëlle Elvinger, the ECA member responsible for the report, at a press conference (28 September). “So far, though, EU policies have not helped enough to reduce the impact of agriculture on water resources.”

The EU’s current approach to managing water goes back to the 2000 Water Framework Directive (WFD), which introduced policies relating to sustainable water use.

It set a target of achieving good quantitative status for all water bodies across the EU. The common agricultural policy (CAP), which currently is being reformed, also plays an important role in water sustainability. It offers tools that can help reduce pressures on water resources, such as linking payments to greener practices and financing more efficient irrigation infrastructure.

The target of “good” quantitative status for all groundwater by 2027 at the latest means that water abstractions should not lower groundwater levels to the extent that it leads to a deterioration, or non-achievement of good water status. According to the latest Commission report from 2015, the quantitative status of around 9 % of groundwater bodies in the EU (by area) was still “poor”.

In some countries, among them Malta, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary and Belgium, the number of groundwater bodies under significant pressure from agricultural water abstraction is 20 – 40 %. In Belgium, despite the amount of precipitation, the problem is that rainfall does not infiltrate into the ground because of the drainage in agriculture.

The European Commission, while accepting all audit recommendations, at least partially, wrote in its reply to the report, that the WFD has led to a higher level of protection for water bodies than could have been expected without it. It also referred to a “fitness check” in 2019 which concluded that the WFD is largely fit for purpose, with some room for improvement.

It also considered that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) incentivises sustainable management of water in agriculture through various instruments and asserts that the future CAP further strengthens the coherence between the CAP and the WFD through various aspects.

The auditors are much more critical against the effectiveness of the instruments and especially CAP’s compatibility with the WFD. The audit report contains a wealth of empirical data on how the instruments have been applied and implemented in the member states and should encourage them to address the shortcomings irrespective of whether the Commission will redress them in the new CAP.

At least on one factual point the Commission agrees with ECA. Climate change, with higher average temperatures and more frequent, more extreme weather events (including droughts), is making freshwater scarcer in the EU. Forecasts indicate water stress is likely to increase in a significant portion of the EU by 2030 and in the demand for irrigation water.

Can the member states be ranked as regards their compliance with the WFD?

“We selected different member states to get a representative picture of the situation but it’s not possible to rank them,” the audit team replied. “There a good and bad points in all countries.”

Because of the Coronavirus crisis, planned visits to member states were cancelled and ECA performed extended desk reviews for 11 member states/regions, seeking a geographical balance between areas currently facing water scarcity and others where this is likely to become an issue in the future. In eight of them, the auditors found that water is significantly cheaper if used for agriculture.

Six of the member states do not even require any payment for water abstraction up to a certain volume. Water is also extracted illegally in some countries.

In for example Hungary, experts estimate the unlicensed water use at 12 % of registered abstractions. Infringement at the same level were also revealed by inspections of water abstraction in Bulgaria and France. The regional authorities in two Spanish regions did not provide the auditors with any information on whether or how they detect and sanction illegal water use.

Irrigation and recycling of waste water

While around 6 % of EU farmland was irrigated in 2016, the sector was responsible for 24 % of all water abstraction. This is not sustainable in the long run and the auditors do not recommend to fund irrigation in dry areas where water is scarce. Some payments support water-intensive crops, such as rice, nuts, fruit and vegetables, without geographical restriction.

Treatment of waste water and recycling has a potential to save fresh water but not for the moment. National/regional authorities can include support for investments in infrastructure for reusing wastewater for irrigation but this is seldom done. According to a 2015 study, small amounts of wastewater was being reused every year in the EU or only 0.4 % of annual EU freshwater abstractions.

Change might be on the way. In May 2020, EU adopted a regulation on reusing wastewater for agricultural irrigation. It sets minimum requirements for water quality, monitoring, risk management and transparency, and will apply from June 2023. According to the Commission’s impact assessment, the regulation will enable the reuse of more than 50 % of the waste water.

Too many exceptions

The WFD provides safeguards against unsustainable water use. But member states grant numerous exemptions to agriculture, allowing water abstraction. The auditors found these exemptions are granted generously to farmers, including in water-stressed regions. At the same time, some national authorities rarely apply sanctions to illegal water use that they detect.

The WFD also requires member states to embrace the polluter-pays principle. But water remains cheaper when used for agriculture, and many member states still do not recover the cost for water services in agriculture as they do in other sectors. Farmers are often not billed for the actual volume of water they use.

Overall, the EU has certainly funded farms and projects that undermine the sustainable use of water, the auditors conclude.

Based on the findings, ECA recommend that the Commission: (1) ask member states to justify water pricing levels and exemptions from the requirement for water abstraction authorisations when putting the WFD into practice in agriculture; (2) link CAP payments to environmental standards on sustainable water use; (3) ensure that EU-funded projects help achieve the WFD objectives.

In fact, the Commission is already doing the first thing. In letters to the member states in 2020-2021, it identified apparent instances of non-compliance and asked them to justify those issues, rectify them or clarify how they had already been addressed or would be addressed.

ECA is now giving the member states a deadline until 2025 to justify their water policies and use of exemptions. Why?

“Our recommendation here is quite specific, as it concerns the agricultural sector,” the audit team replied. “The information that member states report to the European Commission is not always split between different sectors.”

ECA did receive factual information from the member states during the audit, which allowed it to draw up a picture of the current situation. But it is the Commission’s role to monitor how the member states implement the WFD, the team explained.

“Member states have made a lot of progress since the 2000, but things are moving slowly. Several Member States are still in the process of doing an economic analysis of water use in order to implement cost recovery of water services. We aim at setting a realistic time frame for our recommendations, even if sometimes it might have been better those things were done sooner.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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