Water in Europe and the World

An Introduction to our special feature on Water in Europe and the World.


Fresh water is essential for life. No plant, animal, or person can live without it. Because whatever we do requires a lot of water, cities and towns were initially built next to rivers or streams, and farmers grew crops where water was plentiful or accessible. Water abundance cannot be taken for granted any longer everywhere. A dry spell and record temperatures caught up with Europe this summer, testing farmers from Scandinavia and England as well as France, the Netherlands, Germany and southern European countries. The level of the Rhine, Germany’s most important river, was historically low, making freight transport almost impossible on some stretches. Along the Elbe in Czechia, “hunger stones,” inscribed boulders with often-bitter warnings marking very low water levels were again visible. Not just Europe has been tested. Cape Town almost ran out of water, California has struggled with scarcity in recent years, and Australia experienced its “Millenium drought” not so long ago. The shifting temperature and precipitation patterns of climate change have increased water stress in Europe and elsewhere, but these factors that change water supply are by no means the only culprit. Not to be ignored are population growth and increasing economic activity that often go hand in hand with higher water demand, and/or with water pollution that reduces available freshwater resources.

Increased water stress forces societies to calibrate their water quality and allocate their scarce water efficiently. Pricing water properly, fine-tuning water laws and regulations, and more broadly, leveraging society’s ability to adapt and innovate are called for. In this double issue on Water in Europe and the World, we sketch many of the water challenges Europe and other countries face or have faced, as well as their varied responses. Society’s multi-faceted adaptability stands between the all-too-easy equation in the popular mind of water stress and war.  We take a Europe-wide, transatlantic, or country/community specific perspective. Indeed, the ubiquity of water and the multifaceted role it plays invites a multidisciplinary analysis of how it affects our lives. Experts from European and American universities and think tanks write about history, hydrology, law, agronomy, economics, engineering, architecture, and public policy. The answers to the water challenge go beyond academia and traditional policy channels. They call for a broader engagement of civil society, which is why, by way of illustration (without endorsing), we include the perspective from philanthropy, businesses, and NGOs, as well as a few profiles of mission-driven water centers and institutes like the Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia. Needless to say, there are many water centers, and we can only showcase a few. Maybe this can be a stepping stone to more formally start a network of water centers worldwide.

Crises make us willing to act and reconsider past decisions. To do so effectively, it is important to see the bigger picture. While growing water awareness and more conscientious water use are important, taking shorter showers, or not letting the tap run while brushing one’s teeth will not solve the water stress in many areas. As emphasized by the agronomist Stefan Siebert and the hydrologist Paolo D’Odorico, with whom we have also an interview about the future of (his) water research, the production of the things we use or consume takes lots of water, and this “virtual water” trumps by any measure our direct water use. The water footprint of one kilogram (2 pounds) of steak, say, is over 15,000 liters, or more than one hundred times what an American uses for cooking, cleaning, or hygiene per day.[1] Agriculture feeds the world’s ever-growing population, and is by far the largest water user. Hence, how agricultural production and supply chains that involve agriculture are organized matters a great deal. As Siebert points out, the quest for higher agricultural yields hinges upon intensification. Since the latter critically depends on agro-chemicals and more irrigation, agricultural intensification raises the question of its long-term sustainability. Like D’Odorico, Siebert sees a globalized world as an option for water-scarce countries that, at least in theory, can rely on the imports of water-intensive crops (“virtual water imports”) from more abundant countries. [2] D’Odorico and his team also see potential water savings in ensuring that the right crop is grown in the right spot (i.e. more water-resistant crops in arid areas), while he is critical of “land/water grabbing,” as water scarce countries such as Saudi Arabia acquire or lease land for agricultural exports in foreign countries.

As water becomes scarce, it is key to allocate scarce water efficiently both locally and globally. In market economies, rising prices typically signal scarcity, which may trigger increased supply, spur innovation, and/or decrease demand. Interestingly, however, water prices are often set independent of scarcity. Worldwide, they are notoriously low, which is why more realistic water prices are essential to solving water stress globally. Higher prices are also key to support innovation in the water space. Research and development tends to happen where there is the promise of a return on investment. If water is free, there is no incentive to conserve water, and for that matter, no incentive to innovate in conservation. Similarly, if there is limited willingness to pay for water, as Geise points out, it is hard to adopt desalination that is relatively costly. Desalination separates salt from brackish water or seawater and increases local water resources. While the volume of desalinated water exceeds the volume of oil produced by far, desalination is primarily targeting urban environments, and is unlikely to be an all-encompassing answer for the water needs of agriculture. The price of desalinated water is very much a function the energy-intensity of the process, and hence, Geoff Geise argues, improvements in energy efficiency are an important focus of ongoing research, with less energy intensive reverse osmosis the more common technology. Geise sees progress in better membranes, merging desalination with renewable energy, and reducing the brine (the salty residue after desalination) discharge to limit the environmental impact.

However important, realistic water prices are for a better allocation, pricing water is not trivial and nobody gains by blindly following market forces in any circumstance. The economists Javier Donna and Jose Espín-Sánchez make exactly this point. They investigate two cities in Spain’s arid southeast that for over 700 years (until 1960) distributed river water through an auction (the quintessential market). This market allocation was the exception in a region that let farmers irrigate with fixed water quotas that were proportional to the size of their plot. Auctions were imposed by Christians who conquered the two cities following a disagreement with the two Muslim city governors. Donna and Espín-Sánchez show that markets can fail. When farmers are credit constrained, markets may not allocate water as efficiently as quotas do. Well-functioning markets should provide most water to the most productive water users and generate most output.[3] However, when there are limited differences in how effectively farmers can use water (i.e. they produce similar crops), farmers who cannot afford the high water prices may not be able to irrigate, even though water might be more productively employed on their fields.

Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari and Luke Wilson also encourage us to think carefully about water pricing and advocate employing the full flexibility of water pricing backed up by laws and regulations. Water infrastructure is expensive and often in need of a major upgrade. In fact, the infrastructure is often in poor condition because low water rates do not generate sufficient funds for maintenance and upgrades, which is why Europe’s Water Framework Directive pushes for full cost pricing. As Campbell-Ferrari and Wilson point out, high water prices raise the issues of water as human right and the universal access to water also in rich countries. What is the legal answer when not everyone can afford high prices, they wonder. Campbell-Ferrari and Wilson move the all-too-often very emotional discussion of water as a human right forward. They do not argue that water as human right implies free and limitless access to water (water to wash one’s car is not a human right). Instead, they study the laws that set the conditions of water service in Spain, South Africa, and the United States. They investigate whether these countries provide a free minimum allotment of water to everyone or alternative payment timelines and rate assistance in the case of water shutoffs. What stands out in light of the scope of the water affordability challenge, they underscore, is the limited data available and the often vague or incomplete legal context.

The tragedy of the commons often occurs in the context of water. As a resource that is readily accessible, and from whose use it is difficult to exclude anyone, water tends to be overused.[4] When left unchecked, aquifers and rivers are depleted as more water is withdrawn than their natural recharge. What is true for shortage also holds true for water pollution. While a body of water can withstand some pollution, without adequate regulation, contamination may reach harmful levels – The Cuyahoga River in Ohio regularly catching fire before the Clean Water Act (1972) comes to mind. Legal scholar Robin Craig takes a transatlantic perspective and offers a unique comparison of the EU Water Framework Directive (2000) and the Clean Water Act that both seek to improve water management and the health of waterbodies. Craig likes the ambition of the EU framework. It is focused on river basins (even as rivers cross borders), and targets sustainable management in water allocation and quality, for both surface and ground water. The Clean Water Act instead considers surface water and only water quality. It primarily targets compliance with effluent standards especially for point-source pollution, rather than overall good water quality status. However, the Achilles heel of Europe’s ambitious law, Craig notes, is its lagging enforceability.

Environmental scientists Ralf Schaefer, Mira Kattwinkel and Elizabeth Berger complement Craig’s analysis. They put the EU Water Framework to the test. The EU directive is a long way from reaching its goals. While the status of groundwater is reasonably good, that of surface water is “grim.” Only 40 percent of the water bodies meet the good chemical and ecological qualifications. The authors call out the lack of harmonization of water quality data – a common problem, unfortunately, also outside Europe that may impede progress on how water is managed worldwide. While the data suggest that especially central European countries (Belgium, Holland and Germany) violate ecological standards, the lack of harmonization of standards and how rivers are monitored makes them skeptical: What if peripheral countries’ better assessments followed from less monitoring or lower standards? They see preventing agriculture runoff and upgrading water treatment as possible solutions.

Monica Garcia Quesada and David Aubin analyze Belgium’s struggle with the quality of its waterways, laying bare the challenge of one European water legislation. There is an interesting tension between internationalization and regionalization. The European Integration pushed early industrializing nations such as Belgium with heavy industry and legacy pollution to notch up their standards. At the same time, there remains a glaring institutional and political challenge of “implementing” common legislation. Belgium has a very complex federal structure that emerged in an effort to stem the country’s centrifugal, regional tensions. Moreover, water is very unevenly distributed, and Flanders and Brussels are very dependent on the water-abundant southern part of the country. The authors see an uncoordinated water policy across Belgium’s regions, and question how this densely populated country will handle increased water stress associated with climate change.

Political scientist Neda Zawahri’s piece revisits the challenge of coordination in the international context of transboundary rivers with a particular interest in climate change. Even though water does not stop at borders and may link very different countries, Zawahri debunks the popular notion of “water wars.” Transboundary rivers may cause more tension and conflict, yet cases of wars originating specifically over water are hard to come by. To the contrary, Zawahri points to 113 international treaties in 276 of the world’s transboundary water basins that represent opportunities of cooperation, not conflict. At the same time, Zawahri is aware of the difficult task to upgrade many of those cross-boundary treaties in light of climate change’s challenge and uncertainty.

Climate change puts us all on notice and questions our adaptability, and it is interesting how the notion of resilience that is central to D’Odorico’s early work in environmental systems is increasingly being applied more broadly also to societies in their interaction with the natural environment. Urban planner Tim Beatley has a keen eye for green cities. He has been very interested in biophilic cities and has studied the extent to which people enjoy living in them and realize their innate connection with their green environment. In a new project that drew on a monograph and resulted in a documentary that was shown at the Virginia Film Festival, Beatley is turning to blue cities and their relationship with water (“ocean cities”), paying attention, among other things, to how New York or Wellington through humpback whale or orca watching maintain a sense of wonder. Beatley’s focus on water inevitably brings the prospect of climate change with more storms and sea-level rise in the analysis, with contrasting degrees of readiness. Miami and Miami Beach in Florida will be challenged, and Beatley wonders whether just elevating buildings and investing in pumping stations will be enough. Holland, on the other hand, seems to be one step ahead with green roofs, multifunctional parking garages in Rotterdam that can retain storm water, water plazas, and also floating houses here and there.

While Beatley’s analysis derives part of its appeal and urgency from what might be, historian Dagomar Degroot places us back in seventeenth century Holland and the inescapable reality of the Little Ice Age. Climatic cooling in the northern hemisphere forced this water-rich nation to adapt often in surprising ways. Degroot sees the Dutch Republic’s prosperity in spite of the chilly climate as evidence of its resilience and its ability to respond. Of particular interest in the context of this issue is how water altered Holland’s predicament. The omnipresence of water in its many canals and rivers helped the Dutch militarily as they fought Spain’s occupation. They opened sluices and inundated lands in summers and spring, while using frozen rivers in winter to attack, sometimes on skates. While DeGroot uncovers an inventive and resilient people, he does point out a darker side to their prosperity in this icy time — the slave trade.

Ellen Arnold’s historical piece takes us further back in time. She investigates extreme weather (droughts and floods) in the Middle Ages. Arnold looks not just at the hunger stones, but also reads annals and other sources dating back to the ninth century. They reveal what it means to live through extreme conditions in societies not as advanced as ours, as well as  societies that cast the unknown often in terms of divine intervention. Arnold emphasizes the medieval awareness of precariousness of their fate, with the Flood and Noah’s Arch never far away. Interwoven in the collective memory is often a sense of community, common action as well as leadership in the face of natural disasters, which gets us back to the onset of this introductory essay. Taking shorter showers, or saving water while brushing one’s teeth, may only be a drop in the bucket, but to the extent that these actions underscore the broad-based commitment to a common response in order to, say, save water, they may be a lot more powerful.

A powerful and, in many instances, effective response to water crises is through comprehensive public policies that leverage government’s resources and its power to incentivize or regulate behavior. As the contributions in this double issue make clear, in water matters, progress has been made but government action often still leaves ample room for improvement. This harks back to the basic questions of leadership and the common willingness to act that Arnold’s reading of medieval texts brought to the fore. The holistic, river basin-based and multi-dimensional (including water quantity & quality) ambitions of the EU Water Framework are laudable and in many respects exemplary, but far from realized. Water quality in Europe and other countries is not yet what it could be. The collection of critical water quality and water use data is too often lagging and not harmonized. It takes time for countries to work through internal divisions to try to coordinate their internal policy actions or cross-boundary river treaties. Water access and infrastructure really need improvement in many places including in the advanced economies of Europe and the United States. Rotterdam is an example of forward-thinking biophilic city planning in light of climate change, but unfortunately not yet representative for all ocean cities, or cities more broadly. Higher water prices are key to curbing water overuse, allocating it better, and spurring innovation and the adoption of technologies such as desalination. However, we have only started a conversation on pricing water properly, and how to do this effectively within a legal framework that takes into account social inequities and economic efficiency.

In the context of an increasingly ambitious, yet incomplete and in sometimes deficient public policy, there is ample room for civil society to play a role as we tackle the water challenges we face, even while not being a substitute for a holistic approach. NGOs and philanthropic organizations may not have the vast resources and regulating power of governments, but they surely can inspire and show how targeted interventions can make a difference. Companies will always have their bottom line in mind and align their actions with their brand and marketing when engaging in corporate social responsibility, but they are also  influential players in the water space that can be allies in helping to move the needle in matters of sustainable water use and water awareness.[5] For this reason, we include the perspective of Chris Long, an NFL player and the founder of “Waterboys,” who lends his name and energy to bringing wells to rural Tanzania. We also asked Alexis Morgan to flash out the perspective of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a global NGO that was founded over 50 years ago in Switzerland, and discuss why it cares about water and how it seeks to engage major companies to reach common goals. Fernando Mercé, CEO of Nestlé Water North America, lays out how concerns about water shape a multinational such as Nestlé that has its international headquarter in Europe. We also let water centers (like the Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia) that come in many shapes and sizes present their research and activism, and let them inspire students. We feature Twente’s Water Footprint Network and the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education from the Netherlands, the Pacific Institute from Oakland and Stanford’s Water in the West in California, The Oxford Water Network in England, South Africa’s Stellenbosch University Water Institute, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and its cross-university water efforts, The Columbia Water Center in New York and the Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia.

Nestlé is one of the three largest food and beverage companies in the world, and directly tied to agriculture through its supply chain. It is also the largest seller of bottled water. In a world that increasingly expects and measures the corporate social responsibility of its companies, Fernando Mercé clearly states that Nestlé recognizes water as a human right for consumption and hygiene. He also calls it Nestlé’s duty to help meet the increasing demand for clean freshwater, and to support the long-term socio, economic and environmental sustainability of the areas where they bottle their water. To achieve this, Mercé has the company focus on water stewardship and collective actions. The latter includes, among others, and not surprisingly given the water-intensity of agriculture, furthering sustainable agricultural practices, increasing the efficiency of the company’s water use, and supporting water education for teachers. Through the Water Resources Group, Nestlé has been very involved in supporting and developing the UN’s 2030 agenda about attaining the sustainable development goals for water.

Alexis Morgan, water stewardship lead for WWF, spells out why this environmental NGO that is with around 5 million global members one of the largest in the world cares about water. His piece, to some extent, complements Mercé’s account. Freshwater bodies, from wetlands to tropical rainforests, are among the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, and especially this biodiversity has dramatically decreased since the 1970s. To achieve its objectives, WWF directly engages (big) corporations, reasoning that if it can affect players that have an important impact on the environment (often especially through their supply chains), it can make a difference. In doing so, WWF answers a growing corporate demand. From CDP Water Security reports, we know that, even though there is still room for progress, water is increasingly perceived by companies as a source of not just physical and regulatory risk.[6] Water issues may also pose risks to companies’ reputation, one of the most valuable intangible assets for major brands. WWF makes available the popular Water Risk Filter that helps companies assess the riskiness of their operations and supply chain, and offers them advice in terms of effective water stewardship.

Chris Long is not only a very popular and beloved American football player who has played the game for over a decade, but he is also the founder of “Waterboys,” and is not resistant to speaking out about burning social issues. With a compelling, personal story, he has made improving access to safe water his cause. Chris Long and fellow NFL players lend their celebrity status to a cause that, unfortunately, still does not attract enough attention and funding. By some estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 2 billion people worldwide still have insufficient access to safe drinking water (and even more lack safe sanitation), despite water access being a UN sustainable goal.[7] Chris Long raises funds to dig solar-powered wells ($45,000 per well) in Tanzania, and, in doing so, inspires both young and old NFL-fans and others. He strives to also begin a conversation about water issues in the United States, and elsewhere, and is gradually seeking to connect with stars in other sports like basketball around water.




“Seeking a Blue Urbanism: The Paradoxes of Blue Nature” by Timothy Beatley

“Facing Floods in the Middle Ages” by Ellen Arnold

“The Governance of Transboundary Rivers Across the World” by Neda Zawahri

“Water Stress and Pollution in Belgium: The Internationalization and Regionalization of a Policy Problem” by Monica Garcia Quesada and David Aubin

“Climate Change, Water, and the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic” by Dagomar Degroot

“Desalination: Water for an Increasingly Thirsty World” by Geoffrey M. Geise

“A Legal Foundation: Critical to a Realized SDG 6 and Universal Access to Water and Sanitation” by Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari and Luke Wilson

“Management of European Water Bodies: Approaching a Good Status?” by Ralf B. Schäfer, Mira Kattwinkel, and Elisabeth Berger

“Sustainable Crop Production and Consumption: The Role of Water Use for Irrigation” by Stefan Siebert

“Water Quality Law in the United States and European Union: A Comparison of the Clean Water Act and Water Framework Directive” by Robin Kundis Craig

“Are Water Markets Liquid? Evidence from Southeastern Spain” by Javier D. Donna and José-Antonio Espín-Sánchez


“Reflections on the Soviet Politics of Water in the 1930s” by Cynthiana Ruder

“How WWF Harnesses Water as Both a Source of Risk and Reward to Mobilize Action” by Alexis Morgan

“Where Will We Find Tomorrow’s Water?” by Fernando Mercé


“The Future of Water Research: An Interview with Paolo D’Odorico” by Peter Debaere

“Water Advocacy, Philanthropy and Professional Football: An Interview with Chris Long” by Hélène Ducros

Visual Art

– “Beauty and Waste,” an art series curated by Nicole Shea and Kayla Maiuri

Campus: Water Centers & Institutes: Bridges in Academia towards Practice

Introduction by Peter Debaere

“The Pacific Institute: A Global Think Tank” by Rebecca Olson

“University of Virginia Global Water Initiative: Learning from Water Challenges & Solutions Around the Globe” by Peter Debaere, Teresa Culver, and Mike Pace

“Learning from Challenges in the Arid West: Stanford’s Water in the West” by Leon F. Szeptycki and Newsha Ajami

“Water Footprint Network: Toward Sustainable, Fair and Efficient Fresh Water Use” by Joep Schyns

“IHE Delft Institute for Water Education: Integrating International Graduate Education as a Legacy of the North Sea Flood of 1953” by Emma Meurs

“The Columbia Water Center” by Margo Weiss

“Beyond Capetown’s “Day Zero:” Stellenbosch University Water Institute by Charon Willem

“Water-related Activities at the University of Copenhagen, SCIENCE” by Mette Frimodt-Møller

– “The Oxford Water Network: Securing Water for Sustainable Development” by Dustin Garrick

Campus Spotlight: The Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia

Syllabus: Storm Water Management by Teresa Culver (Engineering at UVA)

Syllabus: Fluid Mechanics by Teresa Culver (Engineering at UVA)

Syllabus: Sustainable Water and Food Security by Paolo D’Odorico (Hydrology at Berkeley)

Syllabus: Forest Hydrology by Paolo D’Odorico (Hydrology at Berkeley)

Syllabus: Global Economics of Water by Peter Debaere (Business/Economic at UVAs)

Syllabus: Sustainability Policy Design and Evaluations by Molly Lipscomb (Public Policy at UVA)

– Syllabus: Water Seminar I by Christian McMillen (History at UVA)

Syllabus: Water Seminar II by Christian McMillen (History at UVA)

Syllabus: Limnology: Inland Water Ecosystems by Mike Pace (Environmental Science at UVA)

Syllabus: Physical Hydrology by Matt Reidenbach (Environmental Science at UVA)

Syllabus: The Dynamics of Oceans by Matt Reidenbach (Environmental Science at UVA)

Syllabus: Water Sustainability by Brian Richter (Environmental Science/Architecture at UVA)

Syllabus: Water for the World by Jim Smith (Engineering at UVA)



Peter Debaere is a Professor of Business Administration at the Darden Graduate Business School at the University of Virginia where he teaches MBAs and Executives. Debaere is an international economist with a PhD from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on international trade, multinationals, and trade policy. In recent years, he has also studied the economics of water, focusing on the international and local (i.e. through water markets) allocation of water, as well as the U.S. water quality measurements, and the socio-economic elements of their availability. He leads the Global Water Initiative that brings together scholars from across UVA. Debaere’s papers have been published in top general interest and field journals such as Journal of Political Economy, American Economic Journal: Applied, the Journal of International Economics, and the Journal of Development Economics. He is also on the advisory board of the Center for German Studies and affiliated with the European Studies Program.

Nicole Shea is the Director of the Council for European Studies at Columbia University and the Executive Editor of EuropeNow.

Photo: Man float on a television | Shutterstock
Published on December 11, 2018.

The double issue on water would not have been possible without the suggestions from colleagues from the Global Water Initiative and in particular from Manuela Achilles who heads the Center for European Studies at the University of Virginia.


[1]https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/. For an analysis of U.S. water use, see Debaere and Kuerzendoerfer, Decomposing U.S Water Withdrawal since 1950, Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (JAERE), March 2017, 155- 196.

[2] Debaere, P.,The Global Economics of Water: Is Water a Source of Comparative Advantage?,American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2014, April, p. P. 32-48.

[3] Debaere et al, 2014, “Water Markets as a Response to Scarcity,” Water Policy, 2014.

[4] Hardin, Garrett, 1968, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 162, p. 1243-48.

[5] Kitzmueller, M. and J. Shimshack, 2012, Economic Perspectives on Corporate Social Responsibility, Journal of Economic Literature, p. 51-84.

[6] https://www.cdp.net/en/research/global-reports/global-water-report-2017

[7] http://www.who.int/news-room/detail/12-07-2017-2-1-billion-people-lack-safe-drinking-water-at-home-more-than-twice-as-many-lack-safe-sanitation


Print Friendly, PDF & Email