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If over 25 river basins in Europe are water scarce... how can we ensure everyone gets their fair share?

By Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

Despite the vast amount of water on the planet, shortages have reached crisis point in many regions. As a whole Europe abstracts a relatively small proportion of its renewable freshwater , and therefore often appears insulated from the social, economic and environmental impacts of severe water shortages. However this disguises a growing imbalance between abstraction and availability which is affecting many parts of Europe. This risk will only increase as demand grows and the global climate changes.

The UN’s water exploitation index (WEI) is a useful measure to illustrate this trend. Showing the ratio of total freshwater abstraction to the total renewable resource. A WEI above 20 % implies that a water resource is under stress and above 40 % indicate severe water stress. Using this index, begins to reveals the extent of the problem. The Andalusia Basin (in Spain) is 160% on the index (this means 4 times the amount of water is extracted than is replaced); the Algarve Basin in Portugal is 140%; the Rhine Basin (France) is 60%; whilst the Thames Basin in the UK is under stress at 25%.

Against this backdrop, and as competition increases, and resources decrease - the issue of how governments allocate water between uses and users is rising up the policy agenda. For instance, the UK is undertaking one of the biggest shake-ups of water abstraction for 50 years – with abstraction licences to be replaced with a system of permits. This will see each abstractor given a share of the catchment’s water resources based on how much water they have used over the past 10 years.

However, with different users requiring different volumes of water, at different times of the year and for different purposes, with different social, environmental and economic purposes –  questions arise how best to reform abstraction rules?. For instance

  • Who gets what share?How do you ensure each user gets a fair allocation of water - and who decides?
  • How to allocate a fair share in a changing world?With the impact of changing climate increasing related drought and water scarcity, how can a changeable volume of water be allocated?
  • Changing demands?How to account for differing annual demands - e.g. just because an organisation may not need much water one year... what if the next year it needs more water?
  • How will pricing impact availability? What if water resources become scarce - how can governments and regulators ensure that certain critical users (such as farmers)  are not priced out the market?

Most allocation regimes today are strongly conditions by historical practices and usage patterns, often evolved in a piecemeal fashion - this can mean that water is often 'locked in' to uses that are no longer as valuable today as they were decades ago. In order to reap greater benefits from water resources, an allocation regimes needs to have two key characteristics (1) it should be robust under average and extreme conditions and (2) it must demonstrate adaptive efficiency to adjust to changing conditions.

In short, we need to move towards an evidence-based allocation system in which water is measured, shared and conserved based on what is collectively agreed as each stakeholder's 'fair share' - now and in the future. 

Photo courtesy of MorugeFile


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