28 September 1993

Doc. 6939

1403-28/9/93-10-E

OPINION

on the protection and management

of freshwater resources in Europe1

(Rapporteur: Mr BIRRAUX,

France, Group of the European People's Party)


1.       Throughout history, water has governed our social organisation. Towns and civilised life took shape around lakes and water courses. Trade developed via river traffic. Since the industrial revolution water has also played an important role in manufacturing and consequently influences the economy as a whole. Today, the traditional water requirements of agriculture and industry are supplemented by the needs of mushrooming urban developments.

2.       For a long time, those of us in temperate Europe saw water as an inexhaustible and inalterable resource. It was bestowed upon us by nature, available to be consumed in limitless quantities, ever-abundant. The only thing that made us pause for thought in certain areas was the deterioration of fresh water due to pollution. Droughts rife in other parts of the world were observed like television dramas which could only happen to others.

3.       We started waking up to the facts in the 80s, when inordinate growth in the three main areas of consumption — agriculture, industry and households — on one hand and a series of droughts on the other shook our preconceived ideas and made both public opinion and authorities aware of Europe's relative vulnerability in this area. A new scientific theory of climatic change — even it is still subject to controversy — fuelled this awareness with hypotheses regarding effects on water courses, rainfall and aquifers.

4.       In view of the casual attitude that took hold of our thoughts and actions over the centuries while water was relatively abundant, we can draw two conclusions: firstly, our expertise in analysing cyclical phenomena and their effects on water systems is far from perfect. Furthermore, little is known about the effects of human activities on these systems, such as the building of dams and large-scale exploitation of water tables, which are a subject of debate between scientists, ecologists and farmers; they can also be a source of quarrels between neighbouring states.

      Secondly, the monitoring of the resource — that is the building of installations, production control, improvement of distribution networks, pricing policy etc. — has generally been inadequate, for lack of political will. This results from an underestimation of the issues involved and, in some cases, a lack of courage in bringing harsh realities home to consumers.

5.       The question of "quantity", a recent concern, poses considerable technical challenges. Firstly, on a global level, extensive interdisciplinary studies are needed to understand the full range of phenomena such as the greenhouse effect and climatic change. No scientific discipline, country or continent working in isolation will be able to find a solution without help from other quarters. On a more local level, we must draw up a complete balance sheet of the impact of human activity on water systems. This might range from the extension of asphalt surfaces (ground impermeabilisation), whose harmful effects have perhaps not yet been sufficiently gauged, to the effects — which some see as disastrous — of a mining operation in the Antarctic, home to the planet's most substantial freshwater reserves.

6.       The "resource" comprises surface water and ground water. With regard to the former, it should be noted that over half of the water derived from rainfall and melted snow is taken up by the water requirements of plants and evaporation (in France, this is the case for 270 thousand million cu.m of the 440 thousand million cu.m of annual precipitation). The remainder streams into lakes and the sea and seeps into water tables. At present, there is more ground water (in aquifers) than in all the world's lakes and rivers together. However, it is often poorly spread between regions and a small proportion of this reserve can be consumed. Studies of aquifers lack detail and accuracy.

7.       Some 70% of the fresh water used each year goes towards irrigation, 20% is used by industry and 10% serves household needs. Until recently, the principal problem for public authorities was installing the necessary water supply and drainage networks. In the future, the discovery, evaluation and conservation of new resources of abundant quantity and acceptable quality will present new technical and financial challenges. It is to be hoped that the introduction of new technologies such as satellite observation will open up previously inaccessible possibilities of examining the Earth's crust and its geological structures, providing an overview of the problems and options.

8.       Questions concerning the "quality" aspect have already been considered in numerous studies, colloquies and even regulations at European level. The draft report of the Environment Committee makes ample mention of them except perhaps where purely technical aspects are concerned. The draft recommendation before us refers to "taking account of the management of ecosystems and the life they support". This is an extremely important point in that policies to date have concentrated on the physico-chemical quality of water and omitted or ignored the ecological aspects of water courses.

9.       A colloquy held in Birmingham within the framework of the "Freshwater Europe" campaign focused on methods of analysis and measurement. Section 1 of the Environment Committee report reviews them, making a critical analysis of the two main methods, which are chemical and biological. The following points might be added:

      a.       More account should be taken of the cost/effectiveness ratio when designing monitoring programmes, so that optimal use can be made of existing monitoring methods. Continuous chemical monitoring stations, for example, are costly to run but are of major importance, particularly where early warning systems detecting accidental flooding, illegal discharges and the monitoring of diurnal variations are concerned. Guidelines should be drawn up on the use and deployment of both fixed and mobile stations. Research and development programmes could be used to optimise the cost/effectiveness ratio.

      b.       The best possible use should be made of advanced technologies to increase the efficiency and reliability of control systems. In particular, optimal use should be made of:

—       advanced sensing technology;

      —ar       tificial intelligence and advanced statistical methods for improved data interpretation;—

      —in       formation technology in the management and dissemination of data and information.Wi

      With regard to dissemination, an important point is the comprehensive publication of hydrological knowledge of both water quality and quantity, particularly as far as the mapping, storage and updating of this knowledge in databases is concerned. The mapping of these basic data must be backed up by a document locating hazards, indicating the vulnerability of the resource.

10.       By way of conclusion, we are entering a new era as far as our precious water resources are concerned. We must not only change our attitudes towards its management but also strive to improve our scientific and technical knowledge. The future is uncertain. Little is yet understood of the atmosphere/ground/water systems interface. The International Hydrological Programme launched by Unesco is an important step towards recognising the dangers, but it is limited to tropical zones. In Europe, the European Water Charter and the Freshwater Europe Campaign are helping to build greater awareness of the issues at stake. The setting up of a European Institute for Water in Paris, funded mainly by the Community, is another step in the right direction. But Europe is still lacking a major long-term research and strategy project on water, along the lines of the scientific and technical co-operation projects in fields such as space, thermonuclear fusion and earthquake forecasting. It is perhaps high time that we had one, instead of waiting for the day when a water "crisis" arises, as happened with the oil

crisis of 1974.

      Reporting committee: Committee on the Environment, Regional Planning and Local Authorities (Doc. 6909).

      Committee for opinion: Committee on Science and Technology.

      Reference to committee: Order No. 462 (1991).

      Draft opinion approved on 28 September 1993.

      Secretaries to the committee: Mr Perin and Ms Meunier.


1 1 See Doc. 6909.