It is possible that no one reading this article has ever turned on a tap only to find it dry; or walked for several hours to fetch a bucket of water; or acquired a parasitic disease from an unsanitary local water system.  This blissful ignorance is an unsung privilege, and in stark contrast to the reality facing more than a billion global citizens.

Water stress and its associated health hazards have long afflicted many drought-prone areas of the world, from equatorial Africa, to the Middle East, or Latin America.  The Somali Peninsula, for example, was last year in the grip of its longest drought for four decades, with resultant crop failures leaving tens of millions needing food aid.[1]

However, the issue of water scarcity is not only a challenge for the global south.  It is increasingly causing concern in that most economically mature of regions – Europe.

Precipitation levels across Europe in 2023 caused ripples among meteorologists and scientists alike.  The Alps experienced 63% less snow than usual.  Water levels on the Rhine fell so low that barges could carry only half their typical loads.  In France, nine out of 12 months recorded rainfall up to 85% below the norm.[2]

The impacts increased following the driest summer in Europe in 500 years[3], and the parallel realization (following analysis of groundwater reserves) that the continent had technically been in drought continuously since 2018 and was entering a “very precarious” period of water security.[4]

This wake-up call proved to many that Europe is not immune from the water shortages plaguing the rest of the world, nor invulnerable to the deadly side-effects of global warming.

Just how serious and widespread is Europe’s crisis, and is it merely a foretaste of more perilous water challenges facing communities in the years to come?

Europe counts cost of dry climate and drought

Throughout Europe, drought conditions have increased in frequency and severity over recent decades, with the number of people impacted rising almost one-fifth between the 1970s and the 2000s.[5]

No fewer than four European countries feature among the top 25 worldwide for annual extreme water stress, according to the World Resources Institute: Cyprus, San Marino, Belgium and Greece.[6]  These four nations, with their modern infrastructures and enviable GDPs, rub shoulders with countries like Syria, Botswana, Namibia and India in consuming 80%+ of their measurable surface and groundwater supplies each year.

Although the most extreme examples, they are not alone.[7]

Neighboring countries like Spain, Italy, Portugal, Albania, Macedonia and Andorra are classed as facing ‘high water stress’, using 40% to 80% of their water supplies.  Germany and Luxembourg are also under pressure, using 20% to 40% of their supplies for ‘medium to high water stress’.

Across the continent, the impacts of a drier climate are already being felt every day.

In 2023, authorities across all of France’s seven major river basins introduced water restrictions.  French President Emmanuel Macron warned “the time of abundance” was over, as the country contends with an estimated 40% less water in future.[8]

While France sweltered, Spain endured its own reckoning.  In Catalonia authorities introduced a cap of 230 liters on the average daily water supply per inhabitant.  Since 1980, the average amount of available water in Spain has fallen by 12%, with a further steep decline expected by 2050.

Water levels in the Po, Italy’s longest river, fell 61% below norm intermittently last year.  In the north of the country rainfall was 40% lower than in the previous 12 months.  In response to these visible crises, Italy has now appointed a ‘super-commissioner’ specifically to tackle the issue of serious drought.

In Austria and Germany, meanwhile, less precipitation in winter caused more than just bare ski slopes for tourists – it also meant less meltwater to feed the downstream waters of central Europe in the spring and summer.

The constellation of water crises spanning Europe is in many ways foreseeable.  The World Weather Attribution Service has noted that global warming is already making droughts in the northern hemisphere 20 times more likely.

Troublingly, it believes instances of severe water shortage will become even more frequent in years to come.[9]

The climate crisis is bringing rapid, irreversible shifts to nature’s rhythms, whose predictable cycles our society has long come to depend upon.  One of the factors threatening to upend Europe’s longstanding water security is a changing precipitation pattern.  While some areas are undergoing profound periods of aridity others are enduring more heatwaves, with ensuing moisture evaporation lowering water levels further.  Yes, torrential rainstorms are also on the increase (Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, and the Netherlands all suffered damaging floods in 2023) but when sudden downpours hit parched earth, the water tends to be lost as flooding or run-off, rather than entering the freshwater supply chain.

Of course, it is not just drinking and public health that are endangered by water scarcity.  Lack of water will affect almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Food, energy and industrial sectors face water challenges

Citizens of Europe are not accustomed to thinking about food supply.  It has long been both abundant and affordable for the vast majority of people.  But that complacency ignores the huge input of our water systems on agriculture and nutrition.  For example, while the average person survives on just two liters of drinking water per 24 hours, the food we eat daily requires a shocking 3,000 liters to produce.[10]

Looking ahead, European nations face the prospect of importing more of their food from other regions, as their ability to fill supermarket shelves with domestic produce falters.  The 2022 drought in France, for instance, left only half the nation’s maize crop in ‘good’ condition by early August.[11]  Crops in southern Europe, particularly cereals and fruits, are already routinely written off by a combination of high temperatures and low rainfall.

It is not just food systems that will be affected, but energy systems too.  Just as ample water is necessary for agriculture, hydropower plants and nuclear power stations also draw on large reserves for driving turbines or cooling reactors.  Due to falling water levels, hydropower generation fell an average of 20% across Europe in 2022, or 44% in Spain.

Low rivers have forced some nuclear power plants in France to likewise reduce output.[12]  If we are to pivot to a more sustainable future, the resource demands of the eco-economy cannot be overlooked.

Industries might feel the squeeze too, with common products from chemicals to paper all requiring large amounts of water during manufacture.

Popular consumables will likely face similarly tough conditions; a pint of beer, for example, requires 300 pints of water to complete the journey from field to pump.[13]

All of these issues are, inevitably, exacerbated by population growth.  In 2023 the population of Europe was estimated to be 742.2 million, up approximately 2.2 million from a decade earlier.[14]  The higher the headcount, the more acute the water crisis – and the harder it becomes to chart a secure course for generations to come.

Fragmented market and leaky pipes hinder fightback

Population growth and a changing climate are not the only drivers of Europe’s current, and worsening, water stress.

As a continent Europe has not historically been water-deprived, leading to a degree of complacency when it comes to preservation.

Distribution infrastructure across the continent is ageing and inadequate; studies show around a quarter of all potable water in the EU is lost annually through leaky pipes.

In some parts of Italy, that figure rises to more than 40%.[15]

In the UK, chronic underinvestment by privately-owned utility companies and a major spike in heatwaves has seen burst mains proliferate, with even more vital supplies squandered.

Rapid urban development, chemical contamination and poor management are adding further pressures to an already strained system.

So too is the disparate, decentralized nature of the water market, hindering efforts to better safeguard water supplies.  Across Europe, water services are managed by a miscellany of regional corporations and municipal authorities – some 78,000 separate businesses, at last count.  Lawmakers have struggled to design policy applicable across borders, accommodating different legal regimes, and spanning public and private spheres.

Even so, efforts are under way at both regional and state level to neutralize some of the risks of a water-stressed future in Europe.

States bidding to turn the tide against water crisis

Since 2000, the EU has striven to improve the standard of its freshwater supplies with the Water Framework Directive.  However, efforts have yet to fully pay off and researchers believe some 90% of European river basins will still qualify as ‘unhealthy’ by 2027[16].

Crucially for the coming water crisis, most EU legislation covers water quality, not quantity.  It is also, frequently, too timid in scope.  In July 2023, the European Parliament diluted its own water efficiency provisions in its Industrial Emissions Directive.  Similarly, its laws on water reuse focus purely on agriculture, despite industry consuming half of all the region’s freshwater.[17]

Despite these setbacks and limitations, efforts continue to promote water security at European level.

The European Commission’s Water Reuse Regulation, adopted in June 2023, is intended to make the use of treated wastewater for crop irrigation safe, transparent and accessible.[18]  Urban wastewater can be successfully decontaminated using current technologies, allowing farmers to grow healthy, edible crops via reclaimed water.  At present only 2.4% of urban wastewater is reused in the EU.  France, for one, has seized on the initiative, setting a target of reusing 10% of wastewater by 2030.[19]

Elsewhere in Europe, other member states are gradually devising their own strategies for addressing water shortages.

Germany last year agreed on a groundbreaking National Water Strategy to future-proof the country against supply issues.  Measures to be undertaken between now and 2030 include:

  • protecting and restoring the natural water regime
  • ensuring rural and urban land use complements water management
  • addressing risks caused by pollutants
  • developing climate-adapted water infrastructure
  • improving water data, strengthening legal frameworks and raising public awareness of water as a valuable resource[20]

In Spain, in 2023 the government approved a € 23 billion investment plan for water purification, irrigation modernization and flood-risk – all intended to urgently improve and protect the nation’s water supplies.[21]

The UK, meanwhile, is exploring the possibility of introducing mandatory water-efficiency labels on new household appliances, such as toilets and washing machines.[22]

Europe’s technology sector is promising exciting water sustainability breakthroughs in the years to come.

The EU-funded iWays scheme is investigating better methods of recovering water, materials and heat from industrial processes, potentially reducing industry’s freshwater consumption by anywhere from 30% to 60%.[23]

In Germany, energy company BayWa r.e. is experimenting with floating solar installations on lakes, which can generate clean energy while mitigating evaporation of water by at least a third.[24]

Private sector initiatives such as this will become even more important as the world prepares to square the circle of less water and more people.

Vilanova de Sau, Spain, the bell tower of Sant Romà de Sau is seen at the Sau reservoir as the drought caused by climate change causes water shortages in Spain and Europe.

Private sector helps keep water investment flowing

It is important to address the problem of dwindling water supplies now, before the crisis becomes an existential one.

Even if global temperature rises are kept between 1.3oC and 2.4oC, an additional billion people are predicted to live under conditions of extremely high water stress by 2050.[25]

Problems will only be exacerbated by climate change.  Under a potential 3oC temperature rise scenario, river discharge in southern and south-western Europe could fall 40% in summer months.[26]

Even some of our climate mitigation strategies will carry a significant water burden.  Industries including green power generation, hydrogen electrolysis, and carbon capture, could consume 58 billion cubic meters of water annually by 2050 – twice the amount Europeans currently drink each year.[27]

Little surprise, perhaps, that in its 2022 Global Water Resources report, the World Meteorological Organization described the world’s water supply system as “spinning out of balance”.[28]

In the private sector, companies like Abdul Latif Jameel are using the strength of their independent capital to rise to the water challenge, and to help swing the pendulum in the fight against global thirst and famine.

Almar Water Solutions, part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy, is ambitiously supporting the targets of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6clean water and sanitation for all.

Founded in 2016, Almar Water Solutions operates a portfolio of sustainable water infrastructure projects across Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia-Pacific.  It focuses on non-conventional solutions such as desalination and reuse, ensuring reliable water access in both the municipal and industrial sectors.

Globally, around 1,000 Almar employees work across more than 150 separate water contracts – places like the Shuqaiq 3 desalination plant on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia, one of the largest reverse osmosis desalination plants in the world.

Shuqaiq 3’s 7,000 pressure tubes work simultaneously to produce more than 18 million liters of pure water per hour, enough to support the domestic, agricultural and industrial activities of the provinces of Asir and Jizan, home to nearly 4 million people.[29]

In neighboring Bahrain, Almar Water Solutions runs the 100,000 m3/day state-of-the-art Muharraq wastewater treatment plant.  The plant recycles treated used water into high-grade reclaimed water.  Muharraq’s infrastructure includes the first 16.5km deep gravity sewer trunk pipeline in the Gulf region, as well as a wastewater collection network.

Muharraq Wastewater Plant Bahrain
Muharraq Wastewater Plant Bahrain

In Europe, Spanish technology firm Datakorum is a key Abdul Latif Jameel partner, developing electronic devices and end-to-end IoT solutions across multiple sectors, including water.  Datakorum helps transform water into smart data, ultimately helping to increase efficiency and save vital natural resources.  The world is paying attention: In 2022 it was announced that Datakorum would be developing a landmark project for intelligent water management in Abu Dhabi.  Under its five-year contract Datakorum will provide 5G gateways to ensure uninterrupted connectivity between end users, distribution meters and advanced metering infrastructure.

Fady Jameel
Fady Jameel
Deputy President & Vice Chairman,
Abdul Latif Jameel

“Through Almar Water Solutions, Abdul Latif Jameel is helping to tackle the threat of a water-stressed world from multiple angles, with treatment and desalination plants, servicing contracts, smart water initiatives, waste-to-energy schemes and technology investments,” says Fady Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel.

“We must all work together, in Europe and beyond, to recognize water stress as part of the overarching climate crisis, while posing its own unique challenges.  Cooperation, legislation and innovation will help protect our descendants from the fear of water scarcity, or even from the menace of water conflict.”