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Policy Water resources & quality

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European Geosciences Union

Water resources & quality

Accessible clean water is essential to sustain life on Earth, however, Europe’s water resources are becoming increasingly strained. The EU estimates that: “20% of surface water is at serious risk from pollution; 60% of European cities over-exploit their groundwater resources; 50% of wetlands are endangered” [1].

In 2008, climate change, biodiversity loss, and clean water were identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as major challenges that urgently need to be tackled. Additionally, water resources and quality protection is one of Europe’s environmental policy cornerstones. If these resources are not sustainably managed then resulting negative effects include damaging aquatic ecosystems and the resulting food chains, as well as having detrimental effects on human health [2]. Improving Europe’s water quality also has the co-benefit of increasing biodiversity; another focus area within current European environmental policy.

In a wider context, water effects in the form of natural hazards are extremely damaging to society. In Europe, extreme precipitation events trigger most of the economic losses related to natural hazards [3]. For example, in 2013 losses caused by severe floods were €11.7 billion. Likewise, exceptionally dry and warm conditions can have catastrophic consequences – in 2003 economic losses mounted up to €13 billion [4]. Throughout the 21st Century the effects of climate change will be increasingly felt. Effects like increased droughts and more extreme precipitation events will require adaptive strategies to ensure sustainable water management can be achieved.

Current EU policy

The EU Water Directive sets out a framework to ensure ‘good’ quality water across EU member states in all water sources (inland, surface, transitional, coastal and ground). The directive requires national authorities to identify their river basins, designate authorities to manage these basins, to monitor and protect them through the implementation of ‘river-basin management plans’ and, to ensure the efficient and sustainable use of water resources [5].

Additionally, understanding the impacts of climate change on fundamental hydrological and biological functions within water basins is a prerequisite for any management strategies that target sustainable water supply and quality of water bodies ‘at risk’ (for example, EC Report COM/2010/0047, 2010; EEA Report 12, 2012).

Future challenges

In a European Commission Report to the European Council and Parliament concerning nitrate water pollution it is stated that: “Adequate monitoring of waters is crucial for water quality assessment and requires a representative monitoring network throughout the territory for ground, surface as well as marine waters” [6]. However, observing environmental processes is highly complex and for that explicit reason hydrological sciences remain severely measurement limited. Progress in our understanding of water sources, flow paths and transit times has been gained over the past decades from measurement development, but the limitations that are inherent to these techniques have recently hampered further progress in hydrological processes research.

Additionally, hydrological processes research increasingly relies on mathematical simulations, due to the cost gap between computing power and experimental field work. These studies focus predominantly on large scales (e.g. for assessing climate change impacts on water resources). A mutually beneficial development of both modelling and experimental techniques can provide observations at unprecedented spatial and temporal scales, as well as address the increasingly complex questions posed in water resources management.

Key issues within hydrology research are:

EGU water resources & quality research areas

For more information and points of contact please see the Hydrology division website.

Recent EGU papers



With special thanks to Professor Laurent Pfister, Principle Investigator at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology and Deputy President of the Hydrological Sciences Division, for drafting this webpage.

If you have a comment or suggestion, or if you would like more information please email