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The EU executive is preparing to launch a ‘water resilience’ initiative with the drought emergency in north-eastern Spain providing a glimpse of a possible future for a Europe increasingly grappling with the adverse effects of climate change.

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The European Commission is finalizing a plan to increase Europe’s ‘water resilience’ amid increasingly erratic weather climate breakdown, with Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius comparing it to the recent energy crisis, and Catalonia declaring a drought emergency.

The Catalan news comes just days after the Spanish region’s water reserves fell below 16% due to 40 months of below-average rainfall.

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The European Union mobilized its civil protection mechanism in the first days of 2024 as parts of Germany and northern France were hit by severe flooding. Meanwhile citizens of north-eastern Spain are facing increasing restrictions on water use amid what Catalan climate action minister David Mascourt has described as the worst drought in Spain’s history.

The European Commission has acknowledged that such extremes are no longer anomalies, with officials regularly using the term ‘climate breakdown’. Its response is an upcoming ‘water resilience’ initiative to reduce flood risk and prevent the kind of shortages that are already threatening to make parts of Europe unsuitable for farming.

The Commission has been flooded with advice since President Ursula von der Leyen announced the plan in September, making it a key priority for the final year of her flagship Green Deal policy. In October, the European Economic and Social Committee published a declaration calling for a New Blue Deal, endorsed in an open letter by a cross-party group of MEPs.

The EU advisory body’s recommendations range from requiring products to be labeled to show how much water was used in their production, to making sustainable water use a prerequisite for access to EU funding. On the same day, environmental groups issued a joint call for a dedicated new EU climate and water resilience legislation.

Meanwhile, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius outlined preliminary plans for the water initiative. Addressing MPs on the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, he drew a comparison between potential future water shortages and an energy shock following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “It took a big crisis to teach us how precious our energy is,” the Lithuanian politician said. “Now is the time to apply a different mindset to water, too.”

Sinkevičius mentioned several specific issues that need attention: Drinking water is leaking from pipelines at “unacceptably high” levels. “Over-exploitation and over-allocation of water resources must be reduced,” he said, and major users in the industrial, energy, transportation and agricultural sectors “should do more to integrate water efficiency and water conservation into their everyday practice.” should try”.

The Commissioner also referred to the Water Framework Directive, the EU’s central law on water resources, calling on parliamentarians to support the proposed extension of the list of pollutants that should be regularly monitored. The same law also requires environmental and resource costs to be factored into water supply: this approach “has not been used enough to promote more efficient use – far from it”, said Sinkevicius.

These signals from Brussels have caused unease in some circles – not least among farmers, whose negative reaction to proposed restrictions on pesticide use and nature restoration schemes is already causing big headaches for EU leaders. . At a climate and environment policy discussion held by the Commission in November, lobbyists for the agricultural sector expressed concern about potential limits on water withdrawals, given that two-thirds of Spanish agricultural production uses irrigation.

“We undoubtedly have the worst-case scenario in terms of climate disruption,” the commissioner told reporters in early January after attending a meeting of European environment ministers in Brussels. But he now became more cautious when it came to possible reactions at EU level to water shortages. “We are not looking at prioritizing areas for water use,” Sinkevicius stressed. “I hope we never get to that point, and this is a resource we will manage and protect for future generations.”

Commission officials have confirmed that there will be no legislative proposals on the table when the Executive presents its water plan, which is scheduled for publication on March 12 along with a related paper on climate change adaptation. And green groups are not expecting a last-minute environmental policy bombardment from the outgoing Commission before EU elections in June.

“I don’t think it’s going to be revolutionary, but we hope to see clear recommendations from the von der Leyen Commission by the next year,” said Claire Baffert, senior water policy adviser at the WWF European Policy Office in Brussels.

“We hope the Commission will set clear priorities on advancing nature-based solutions such as restoring floodplains and reconnecting rivers so they can retain and store water, or on slowing down rivers. can turn again [them] Down,” Baffert told Euronews. “But water conservation also needs to be emphasized, perhaps with concrete targets, to adapt to declining water availability,” he said.

Baffert also noted a “huge implementation issue” regarding existing EU legislation, which she attributes primarily to the lack of political will to implement the Water Framework Directive. Almost half of the surface waters surveyed are subject to exemption from achieving good ecological and chemical status, which by law must be achieved by 2027, which is one way to explain why barely a third of lakes and rivers currently meet basic quality criteria. Why do you complete it?

In fact, Baffert believes that most of the current issues around water resilience can be solved by effective application of existing laws, a position shared by the European Environment Bureau, an NGO umbrella group that has In October it described the water directive as “the forgotten tool to fix”. Europe’s water crisis”, urging the EU Executive to step up enforcement.

The group’s head of water and biodiversity, Sergei Moroz, told Euronews he sees no need for new water rules. “The Water Framework Directive is a nice flexible piece of legislation that needs to be properly implemented and funded,” he said, arguing that 2027 was “around the corner” and the focus should remain on meeting it. “After all, we get water from nature, so if the EU wants to become water resilient then keeping our aquatic ecosystems healthy must be a key priority.”

Asked whether the Commission planned to enforce the existing rules, a spokesperson said that Member States are obliged to implement them “regardless of upcoming initiatives for water resilience”. The EU executive is currently assessing updated river basin management plans, which all EU countries were required to submit by March 2022, the official said, adding that they intend to meet the 2027 deadline. How to keep, after which it will issue “recommendations for follow-up actions”. , At the end of last year, six countries, including Spain, had not yet finalized their plans.

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Nevertheless, there is increasing pressure on the EU executive to address the challenges arising from the changing water cycle, and not just from acute water scarcity. Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of an informal council summit last month, Bulgaria’s Environment Minister Julian Popov told Euronews that he had called for a full-fledged European water strategy. “I don’t think the instructions are enough in principle, we need to adopt a proper, serious strategy, not just administrative requirements,” Popov said.

The Bulgarian minister noted the sometimes extreme local impact of changing weather patterns. “What we see in Bulgaria is very, very heavy rains over a very, very small area for a very, very short period of time, and they affected a single village,” Popov said. “We know that climate change can manifest in unusual ways so we have to be prepared.”

At last week’s EU Council of Agriculture Ministers summit, Portugal called for a concrete plan “to reduce the EU’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on water resources”, including diverting public funds to strengthen water security. Was planted in. In a note supported by Cyprus, Hungary, Italy and Romania, Lisbon suggested the plan could be called “ReWaterEU”.

Countries on the front lines of climate breakdown will be watching keenly to see how the Commission envisages Europe’s response. “This will be extremely important for the future of Spain,” Sinkevicius said after meeting with Teresa Ribera, the drought-stricken country’s environment minister, on January 24. Ribeiro responded on social media, “We will happily contribute to this initiative on water and resilience to the impacts of climate change on drought and water policies.” “We have a lot at stake.”

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