Shortage of water may be the most urgent health problem currently facing
some European countries, exacerbated by geography, geology and hydrology.
In addition, climate change is predicted to have an influence, especially
in coastal areas where flooding may disrupt sanitation infrastructure
and thereby contaminate watercourses. Although many parts of Europe are
currently well provided with fresh water, the water resources are unevenly
distributed between and within countries, leading to shortages in many
areas. The countries that are heavily populated and receive only moderate
rainfall are particularly affected.Groundwater and surface water have
a limited capacity for renewal, and pressures from agriculture, industry
and domestic users affect the quantity of water resources. Both water
quality and availability must therefore be integrated in long-term planning
and policy implications concerning water management.
The extent of provision of piped drinking-water supplies to households
varies across Europe and between urban and rural populations, with rural
populations in the eastern part of the WHO European Region least well
provided. Continuity of supply is also a problem in some areas.Inefficient
use of water resulting from factors such as network leakage and inappropriate
irrigation appears to be a significant problem.
The utilization of water for irrigation and for industry exerts pressure
on water resources, which vary widely between countries and regions. One
of the biggest pressures is agriculture and changes in irrigation practices.
Agriculture accounts for approximately 30%of total water abstraction and
about 55%of consumptive water use in Europe.
Population distribution and density are key factors influencing the quantity
of water resources, through increased local demand for water in areas
of high population density or limited precipitation.
Although high standards have been reached in some countries, outbreaks
of waterborne diseases continue to occur across Europe, and minor supply
problems are encountered in all countries. The immediate area of public
health concern is microbial contamination, which can affect large numbers
of people. The standard of treatment and disinfection of drinking-water
is inconsistent across Europe and, especially where economic and political
changes have led to infrastructural deterioration, can be insufficient.
It appears that an increased number of outbreaks of waterborne diseases
have occurred in countries and areas that have experienced recent breakdowns
of infrastructure, resulting in discontinuous supply. Nevertheless, reliable
data are lacking on the quality of the source water and the drinking-water
supplied, and the detection and investigation of outbreaks are generally
poor in most countries.
Inadequate sewerage systems are a significant threat to public health.
A number of countries identify private and small public supplies as those
most liable to receive insufficient treatment or to have insufficient
protection for groundwater sources,and thus to be of poor quality. Poor
infrastructure may be associated with financial constraints and/or organizational
disruption.Nevertheless, the installation of advanced treatment works
in large supplies is increasing in many countries, although occasional
outbreaks of waterborne diseases are reported even in countries with high
standards of supply. No clear trends are detectable, however, and international
comparability of data is poor, hindering the development of regional assessments
and evaluation of progress.
Numerous chemicals are found throughout the aquatic environment, but evidence
of any effect on human health, except for effects arising from accidental
releases, is often difficult to obtain. Problems of significant chemical
contamination are often localized and may be influenced by geology or
anthropogenic contamination. Concern about the effect of agriculture on
the quality of water resources is often related to diffuse sources – contamination
by agricultural chemicals, nutrients and microbial pathogens in particular.
Eutrophication is a major threat to European surface waters. Common fertilizers
contain varying proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The
use of fertilizers varies between countries, depending on the economic
situation and predominant agricultural practices. Although such point
sources of pollution as sewage discharges may contribute significantly
to nutrient enrichment in some regions, diffuse sources – particularly
agriculture – are the major contributors. In some countries, the proportion
of water pollution caused by diffuse sources is steadily increasing.
Industrial demand and effects on water quality may be especially pertinent
to urban areas with high populations, as industry is traditionally located
in these areas. The amount of water used by industry and the proportion
of total abstraction accounted for by industry vary greatly between countries.
Abstraction for industrial purposes in Europe seems to have been decreasing
since 1980. Industrial processes produce contaminated wastewater that
may be released into marine and fresh surface waters, either directly
or following treatment. Contamination may persist for several decades.
Considerable evidence has accrued linking the quality of bathing water
with minor illnesses. The use of water for recreational activities is
intrinsically linked to economics through the tourism industry, and the
quality of such water is thus of considerable importance to tourism-dependent
Although some improvements have been made over the past decade, coordinated
efforts are still needed to ensure that Europe’s population is supplied
with wholesome and clean drinking-water and has access to safe recreational
water. These include measures to control demand and to prevent,contain
and reduce contamination by improving water and sanitation management
at the international, national and local levels. One particular problem
that has been highlighted in compiling this publication is the need to
harmonize monitoring procedures where possible. Incorporating education
and awareness initiatives is pivotal to the success of improved and harmonized
monitoring programmes and to ensuring the safe use of water.
Additional efforts are required to sustain the European Region’s water
resources and to provide safe water for its inhabitants, both for drinking
and for other purposes. Irrigation, drinking-water supply, industry, agriculture
and leisure make competing demands on the quality and quantity of these
resources, in addition to the need for water to maintain the aquatic ecosystem
per se. Management of water has become fragmented because of the
existence of diverse stakeholders and regulatory perspectives. Pollution
control measures have traditionally targeted point rather than diffuse
sources of pollution.
Trends in water management in Europe include moves towards catchment-level
management, improved intersectoral coordination and cooperation, and frameworks
facilitating stakeholder participation. This approach is developed by
the European Union in its Water Framework Directive, which sets targets
for good ecological status for all types of surface water bodies and good
quantitative status for groundwater.
The roles of government and especially the private sector in water management,
and in drinking-water supply and sanitation in particular, are being radically
reappraised. The extent of this varies across Europe. International action
plans and conventions have been agreed on, with targets for reducing pollution
and measures necessary to reach the targets.
Partnerships and cooperation are needed between the environment and health
sectors at all levels of government to disseminate technology, to improve
management and to provide financial and institutional support to ensure
access to safe water and sanitation for all. Integrated management systems
must be adopted to ensure that the conflicting uses are managed in an
effective manner to ensure safe use. Not only should long-term management
be considered, but responses are required to unexpected events such as
natural disasters or accidents with large-scale effects that can heavily
influence the quality and quantity of water used for consumption.
Experience suggests that international management agreements develop most
rapidly when a body of water is shared or bordered by a small number of
countries at a similar level of economic development. The Convention on
the Protection and Use of Transboundary Waters and International Lakes
provides a strong focus for future integrated management of water bodies.
This publication aims to integrate this information on the state of the
raw water sources with information gathered on the quality and provision
of potable water and the impact on human health.The state of water resources
in Europe has been reviewed, considering both availability and quality.This
book assesses the accessibility and quality of potable supply across the
Region and describes the public health implications of inadequate and
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