According to IPCC IV Assessment Report and EU Green Paper "Adaptation to climate change in Europe - options for EU action", one of the most important effects of Climate Change will concern water: beside the risk of more uneven precipitation patterns throughout the continent, an increase of dry periods is envisaged specially in Southern part ofEurope. In next years, therefore, several European areas, already experiencing water stress – such as Greece, Southern Italy and Spain, but also some eastern countries –, will evolve towards more severe conditions.
Even though water abstraction decreased in 17 EEA countries between 1990 and 2002, several countries in Europe still experience water stress, abstracting a considerable part of available water. The total exploitation index (defined as the mean annual total abstraction of freshwater divided by the mean annual total renewable freshwater resource at the country level) shows several countries that can be considered as water-stressed (Italy, Malta, Spain, Bulgaria and Cyprus).
Countries with a high water stress have problems with water quality of rivers and lakes, groundwater table lowering, degradation of natural wetlands and salt water intrusion into coastal aquifers. The latter happens particularly in the Mediterranean region.
The EU's sixth environment action programme aims at ensuring that rates of abstraction from water resources are sustainable over the long term, which implies improvement of the efficiency of water use in different economic sectors. There are no specific quantitative targets directly related to this indicator, as climatic conditions and land-use differ strongly across Europe. However, the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) requires countries to promote sustainable use based on long-term protection of available water resources and ensure a balance between abstraction and natural flow of surface and groundwater, with the aim of achieving “good status” of all waterbodies by 2015.
The main water-consuming sectors are irrigation, urban use and manufacturing industry. Even though in southern Europe irrigation counts for most part of water consumption, urban use plays a considerable role (around 25% of total consumption at European level), and is the more demanding in terms of quality. Per capite consumption for domestic use in European cities shows high variability: from 100 to nearly 300 litres/inhabitant/day. Given that cities that show a more efficient water use are located in very different climatic and geographic areas, is clear that difference in domestic water consumption among cities is not due to environmental conditions but depend mainly on water policies.
Several Italian cities have presently a quite high domestic use, and therefore there’s the possibility to improve significantly efficiency. According to the last data available (ISTAT 2008 related to year 2005) consumption of water in the urban sector (which includes also non-domestic uses served by the urban distribution network) is still growing: it reached 8,7 billions of cubic metres per year in 2005, while in the late ‘90s was 7,9. In terms of average urban consumption per capite, italian data accounts for more that 250 litres/inhabitant/day. The value grows to more than 400 L/i/day including losses and unaccounted uses that in several regions exceed 40% of water withdrawal.
Finally, reduction of water use could contribute to a significant reduction of CO2 emissions: in Italy the water industry counts around 2% of the total energy consumption with an increase rate around 3% per year. Thus saving water appears to be an important measure to tackle both causes and effects of climate change. Last but not least: saving water means saving energy and both mean saving money!
The above described poor performance of urban water management, in term of both final use and supply system, is due to a general lack of information on innovative technologies and approaches aimed at “wiser” water use. The “Water Culture” in Italy has historically been very important, but mainly directed to the aim of bringing good quality water for the users, regardless of environmental impact and energy costs of the solutions adopted. That’s why information and communication in this field is urgently needed.