EU farmers need to save water

European agriculture should face the same ‘user pays’ principle as other EU consumers of water in the coming year in order to address the growing problem of water scarcity, according to a Commission Communication. The report by the Environment DG recognises that at least 20 per cent and maybe 40 per cent of water is wasted in the EU.

Climate change is likely to make drought a more frequent problem. Presenting the report Environment Commissioner Stavros Dinas pointed out that agriculture accounts for more water use than any other sector and as much as two-thirds in Southern Europe.

Supporting studies show that potential water savings resulting from improvements in the conveyance efficiency of irrigation systems range between 10 and 25 per cent of their withdrawals. Water savings resulting from improving application efficiency can range between 10 and 60 per cent of water use. Additional water savings can be expected from changes in irrigation practices (30 per cent), use of more drought-resistant crops (up to 50 per cent) or reuse of treated sewage effluent (10 per cent).

The potential water savings in the irrigation sector would amount to 43 per cent of the current agricultural volumes absorbed.

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2 Replies to “EU farmers need to save water”

  1. “EU farmers need to save water”… appears incoherent with supporting irrigation as CAP has done and still does. France offers an interesting case study of how CAP favors intensive irrigated agriculture regardless of environmental considerations.

    Following the 1992 reform, specific subsidies for irrigated land were set up. On top of “common” direct payments, irrigation grants can be high—up to 262 euros/ha. For instance, a crop farmer in the département of Vienne received less than 340 euros per non-irrigated hectare, but more than 530 euros per irrigated hectare—a 56% increase. During the last year of full coupled payments scheme (2005) more than 134 million euros irrigation grants have been paid in France. However this huge amount under-estimates public support for irrigation because it does not include implicit subsidies to public infrastructure, such as dam construction and pumping network modernization. Moreover, revealing the economically sound price of water, including water consumed by farmers, should be a crucial goal. According to a Report from the French Senate released in 2000, the agricultural sector contributes to only 6.5% of the total receipts of the French Water Agencies, whereas the agricultural sector represents 48% of total water consumption (rising to 80% during the summer). This implies that the price paid by farmers for their water consumption is clearly lower than the average water price in France…

    Subsidies have perverse effects -even for their beneficiaries -as best illustrated by the recurrent drought raging in localized part of France. Full coupled irrigation grants were highly geographically concentrated: 80% (109 million euros) went to 20 departments which are the most affected by repeated drought. In sum, the more farmers are subsidized for irrigating, the more they suffer in time of drought. Subsidies become a trap for the recipients, a trap that the 2003 CAP reform leaves untouched because irrigation subsidies were integrated into single farm payments (SFPs) scheme implemented in France since 2006. Therefore, SFPs for historical irrigating farms include at least 100 million euros thanks to past water use. In addition, as France only partially decoupled direct subsidies, irrigation grants are still implemented for coupled subsidies (25% for cereals, oilseeds and protein crops) and represent more than 30 million euros paid in 2006. If SFPs are not conditioned to present irrigation, getting irrigation grants is coupled to effective irrigation which tends to limit compartmental changes.

    Last but not least, cross compliance is put forward in order to legitimate direct payments. However, regarding water issues, by focusing in qualitative (in 1999, according to the European Commission, 60% of European fields contained fertilizer and pesticides at dangerous levels for the quality of underground aquifers…) and not enough in quantitative criteria, environmental conditionality does not challenge sustainable water management.

  2. I can only agree with the posts above. Water over use, abuse is in many cases a better term, is already at crisis level in many Mediterranean regions and the situation is bound to get worse with climate change.
    Getting farmers to pay the full cost of water is a key issue and represents the logic “mirror image” of the public goods argument. Farmers should be paid for providing public goods such biodiversity conservation. But if positive externalities are to be internalised, so should the negative externalities. At the moment, far from paying for the negative externalities, such as depleted aquifers and dry and polluted rivers, farmers are not even asked, in most cases, to cover the operating costs of delivering the water they use. It is also apparent, as Pierre shows for France that pillar I payments are still driving water over use. An even more obvious and outrageous misuse of taxpayers money is the massive investment of Rural development funds in irrigation expansion. Fixing southern Europe broken water management system will take time and will require radical changes to the CAP and to national water pricing and policing systems. However, if the Commission is serious about wanting to avert the looming Mediterranean water crisis, a good place to start with is the ongoing approval of national Rural development plans. To name but the most egregious case, the Portuguese draft plan has earmarked an astonishing 12% of funds to expanding irrigated land only in the Alqueva dam complex. Using EU funds to expand irrigation in areas that already suffer serious water stress, and where all forecasts are for less water availability in the future, makes no sense and is at odds with EU declared sustainability objectives. By blocking such misguided investments, the Commission could send a loud and clear message to member States and show coherence with its own analysis.

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