Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Water statistics – Statistics Explained

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Water as a resource

Water resources refer to the freshwater available for use in a territory and include surface waters (lakes, rivers and streams) and groundwater. Renewable water resources are calculated as the sum of internal flow (which is precipitation minus actual evapotranspiration) and external inflow. Freshwater availability in a country is primarily determined by climate conditions and transboundary water flows (in other words, external inflows), while for total amounts, the size of the country matters.
Freshwater resources per inhabitant are considered an important indicator for measuring the sustainability of water resources. For EU Member States, the average water resources are about 4-5 thousand m³ per inhabitant.
In water-rich countries an inhabitant’s share can be as high as around 30 thousand m³ (Croatia) or even more than 60 thousand m³ as in Norway.
According to the World water development report of the United Nations, a country experiences ‘water stress’ when its annual water resources are below 1 700 m³ per inhabitant; among the EU Member States, this is the case in Poland, Czechia, Cyprus and Malta.

A number of countries receive a significant proportion of their renewable freshwater resources as external inflow (see Figure 1). Among the EU Member States, there are five countries with ca. 80 % and more dependency on transboundary water resources.

Vertical bar chart showing percentage share of external inflow from neighbouring territories in renewable freshwater resources as a long term average over 30 years in individual EU Member States, Switzerland, Norway, United Kingdom, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Türkiye and Kosovo.

Figure 1: Share of external inflow from neighbouring territories in renewable freshwater resources – long-term average
Source: Eurostat (env_wat_ltaa)

Water uses

The overall use of water resources can be considered sustainable in the long-term in most of Europe. However, specific regions may face problems associated with water scarcity; this is the case particularly in parts of southern Europe, where it is likely that efficiency gains in agricultural water use (as well as other uses) will need to be achieved in order to prevent seasonal water shortages. Regions associated with low rainfall, high population density, or intensive agricultural or industrial activity may also face sustainability issues in the coming years, which could be exacerbated by climate change impacts on water availability and water management practices.

Water is provided either by public water supply (public or private systems with public access) or is self-supplied (for example, private drills). While the share of the public water supply sector in total water abstraction depends on the economic structure of a given country and can be relatively small, it is nevertheless often the focus of public interest, as it comprises the water volumes that are directly used by the population.

Table 2 presents households’ water use from public supply. It varies across European countries – the median is around 40-50 cubic metres per inhabitant and has been slightly decreasing over the last decades.

Table showing household water use from public water supply in cubic metres per inhabitant in individual EU Member States, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, United Kingdom, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania, Türkiye and Kosovo for the years 1990, 2000, 2010, 2020 and 2021.

Table 2: Household water use from public water supply, 1990-2021
(m³ per inhabitant)
Source: Eurostat (env_wat_ltaa) (demo_gind)

Wastewater treatment and disposal

Overall, there is a development towards a higher proportion of the population being connected to wastewater treatment.
Table 3 presents information on the proportion of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment plants, which typically is an acceptable level on environmental protection unless the receiving waters are in a sensitive area.
This share has been generally increasing over the past decades and was above 80 % in half of the EU Member States for which recent data are available (mixed reference years).
The share of the population connected to at least secondary wastewater treatment plant even rose to 95 % and above in six Member States (Denmark, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden), as well as Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
At the other end of the range, less than one in two households were connected to at least secondary urban wastewater treatment plants only in Malta and Croatia, while the same was also true in Iceland, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Table showing percentage share of the population connected to at least secondary urban wastewater treatment in the EU, individual EU Member States, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, United Kingdom, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Türkiye for the years 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2020 and 2021.

Table 3: Share of the population connected to at least secondary urban wastewater treatment, 2000–2021
Source: Eurostat (sdg_06_20)

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

Water statistics are collected through the joint OECD/Eurostat questionnaire on inland waters, which is an established data collection yielding long time series. However, data collection is on a voluntary basis, which leads to considerable data gaps.
The joint questionnaire on inland waters includes the following characteristics:

  • freshwater resources in groundwater and surface water — these can be replenished by precipitation and external inflow (water flowing into a country from other territories);
  • water abstraction — a major pressure on resources, although a large part of the water abstracted for domestic, industrial (including energy production) or agricultural use may be returned to the environment and its water bodies (although often as wastewater with impaired quality);
  • water use — analysed by supply category and by industrial activities;
  • the share of the population connected to wastewater treatment plants — which gives an overview of the development status of the infrastructure, in terms of quantity and quality, that is available for the protection of the environment from pollution by wastewater;
  • sewage sludge production and disposal — an inevitable product of wastewater treatment processes, its impact on the environment depends on the methods chosen for its processing and disposal;
  • generation and discharge of wastewater — pollutants present in wastewater have different source profiles and, similarly, the efficiency of treatment of any pollutant varies according to the method applied [1].

In general, Eurostat collects national data. Some of the characteristics above are also collected at the level of river basin districts by means of a regional questionnaire.

A large amount of data and other information on water is accessible via WISE, the water information system for Europe, which is hosted by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen.


Water policies: floods, droughts and other challenges

The central element of European water policy is a Directive for ‘Community action in the field of water policy‘ (2000/60/EC) — often referred to as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) — which aims to achieve a good ecological and chemical status of European waters. Together with its daughter legislation (Directive 0118/2006 and Directive 0060/2007), the WFD focused on water management at the level of (in most cases transboundary) hydrological catchments (river basins). An important step in the course of its implementation involved establishing river basin management plans. The latest state of play is summarised in the Commission’s implementation report of February 2019 (COM(2019) 95 final).

In a Communication ‘Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts‘ (COM(2007) 414 final), the European Commission identified an initial set of policy options to be taken regionally, nationally and across the EU to address water scarcity within the EU. This set of proposed policies, which was reviewed and further developed by 2012, aimed to move the EU towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy, as both the quality and availability of water are considered as major concern in many regions.

In a Fitness check of the EU Water Framework Directive and related legislation (2019), the Commission identified strengths and weaknesses of the existing legislation and explored the need for possible amendments.


In an effort to reduce pollutants discharged into the environment with wastewater, the EU has implemented legislation on urban wastewater treatment (Directive 1991/271/EC). The pollution of rivers, lakes and groundwater and water quality is affected by human activities such as industrial production, household discharges, or arable farming; a report on the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources (COM(2007) 120 final) was released in March 2007.

Another aspect of water quality relates to coastal bathing waters. The European Commission and the EEA present an annual bathing water report. The latest of these always covers information of the preceding year and shows that more than 95 % of the EU’s bathing waters met the minimum water quality standards.

Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s water resources

These policy perspectives up to 2050 were developed in the ‘Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s water resources‘ (COM/2012/0673) which integrates the results of a policy review concerning: water scarcity and droughts; an analysis of the implementation of river basin management under the WFD; a review of the vulnerability of environmental resources (such as water, biodiversity and soil) to climate change impacts and man-made pressures; and a review of the whole of the EU’s water policy framework in the light of the European Commission’s ‘better regulation’ approach. The blueprint is closely related to the Resource efficiency roadmap (COM(2011) 571). However, the blueprint covers a longer time span, through to 2050, and is expected to drive EU water policy over the long term. As part of the blueprint there are a number of policy reviews assessing implementation.

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