Europe’s triple threat: securing our water, food, and health for a sustainable future

Water scarcity casts an ominous shadow over our health and over our livelihoods, a threat that will only intensify if we fail to act. While policies and regulations exist to manage water use and ecosystem resilience, the escalating threats of climate change, overconsumption, and pollution demand stronger measures to strengthen water security. The ripple effects of water scarcity extend beyond immediate health concerns, fuelling conflicts and displacement that compound the health crisis. This stark reality underscores the urgency of addressing water scarcity to safeguard the wellbeing of our communities now and for generations to come.

Lorena Savani and Carmen Galindo from EIT Food delve into the intricate connections between water scarcity, food systems, and health in Europe.

Water is an essential resource for us all to survive and thrive, but water availability is a growing challenge. Up to half of the world’s population is projected to be living in areas facing water scarcity by 2025. On both an individual and a societal level, our wellbeing is dependent on having access to safe, clean water.

Health risks and implications

Poor water access is closely linked with a range of health risks. This includes poor sanitation, malnutrition, and the mental health and economic challenges which result from drought. Innovation, entrepreneurship and education are key to improving water supplies in Europe and holistic policy measures from Europe's leaders should connect water and food security.

In Europe, the impacts of global heating mean that droughts and water scarcity are no longer rare events – according to the EEA, 30% of Europeans are affected by water stress during an average year. This is particularly prevalent in Southern Europe which faces severe water stress throughout the year. In some regions, while water supply is sufficient in quantity, the quality is inadequate for its use – for instance, its salinity and electrical conductivity (EC) may be too high to be used for agricultural activities.

With three out of four jobs dependent on it worldwide, water is the life-blood of our economy, industries, and societal functions. Water stress can also exacerbate existing social inequalities – globally, it takes a disproportionate toll on women and children, as well as indirectly affecting the health outcomes of farmers and rural communities who are dependent on freshwater ecosystems for their livelihoods.

Up to half of the world’s population is projected to be living in areas facing water scarcity by 2025.

Feeding the problem

Our food system is intrinsically linked to water and is therefore both a cause and a casualty of water scarcity. While water stress has a complex range of causes, agriculture is the biggest user of water in Europe and plays a pivotal role in both the problem and the solution. Demand for water to grow crops and livestock has grown by 100% in the last century, with livestock farming becoming increasingly water intensive as meat consumption continues to rise.

There is an urgent need to address the impact of agricultural activities on our existing water sources, with the sector as a whole responsible for 78% of global ocean and freshwater pollution. Discharging agrochemicals, sediments and organic matter into water bodies can have devastating impacts on aquatic ecosystems, as well as human health and other food production activities.

In Italy, over 30% of households do not have regular access to water throughout the year. Highly polluting substances such as pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers have been detected in aquifers and sewers, threatening severe health implications, and citizens have previously faced bans on domestic water for personal use due to a concentration of arsenic.

Taking action on food and water

Addressing the multifaceted challenge of water security in Europe requires a comprehensive approach. Europe must strengthen the resilience of its ecosystems and use water more efficiently to minimise the impacts of water stress on people and the environment. Policies that help to diversify the proteins we consume in Europe can ease the pressure on water resources, while also helping to ensure access to affordable, healthy diets for all. It is also positive to see ambition from EU policymakers with the European Parliament recently voting in favour of policies to reduce groundwater and surface water pollution and improve EU water quality standards.

Fortunately, the European agrifood community also recognises the urgent need for action, with food system stakeholders identifying “Water Management” as one of the top four market needs in a recent EIT Food Survey. Innovation solutions are already playing a pivotal role, from reversing water scarcity to transforming industries to ensure sustainable water management.

Europe must strengthen the resilience of its ecosystems and use water more efficiently to minimize the impacts of water stress on people and the environment.

Tackling Water Scarcity in Southern Europe

EIT’s cross-KIC programme, "Finding innovative solutions for water scarcity in Southern Europe, aims to enhance knowledge and overcome barriers to tackle water scarcity in the region through innovation, entrepreneurship, education and communication. One element of the programme, InnoWise Scale, has already seen over 80 scaleups receive tailored mentoring and training to develop solutions to improve water management and optimise water supply and demand.

During the programme, selected participants had the opportunity to meet potential end users, ranging from food and farming corporations to municipal water companies, and were tasked with providing solutions to a given case study. One of these startups and recent winner of EIT Food’s Marketed Innovation Prize, Agua de Sol, has pioneered a technology to increase supplies of clean water with SunAir Fountain®, which produces drinking water using renewable resources. Reclaimed water is also gaining momentum at a European level as an innovative solution to water scarcity, with companies like Bioazul ­specialising in water re-use solutions for agrifood systems through technologies such as filtration, membrane bioreactors and reverse osmosis.

Transformative Initiatives Addressing Water Scarcity

New tools and technologies are already revolutionising farmers’ approaches to water scarcity, such as satellite data which helps them to transition to 'smart farming.' Agricolus, an Italian startup within the EIT Food RisingFoodStars programme, has developed a cloud platform which allows food producers to forecast yields and optimise inputs like fertilisers, treatments, and water. Such technologies have transformative potential, not only increasing water efficiency but also boosting yields.

To enhance innovation and collaborative solutions to water scarcity, EIT Food has developed a comprehensive course, ‘Water-Food Nexus: the future of water and food security’, tailored to students and professionals to advance their careers  in research, water management, sustainable agriculture and the circular economy. Anyone interested in the issue can also access an introductory online course ‘Adaptation to Water Scarcity.’

What next?

Water scarcity poses a significant threat to health and livelihoods, which will continue to worsen without action to improve water use and management in Europe. While policies and regulations are in place to address water use and resilience of ecosystems, the increasing threats of climate change, overconsumption and pollution mean that more needs to be done to strengthen water security.

There is huge potential in the innovative solutions that already exist, which must now be developed in collaboration with communities impacted by water scarcity, and prioritised for investment in order to grow and scale. If we are truly to advance the health and wellbeing of our society, we must embed water security within the transformation of our food system.

Lorena Savani
+ posts
Carmen Galindo
Key Account Manager | + posts


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