Europe’s Water at a Crossroads | WWF

Europe’s Water at a Crossroads

The Danube-Drava confluence between Serbia and Croatia. rel=
The Danube-Drava confluence between Serbia and Croatia.
© Mario Romulic

Healthy freshwater ecosystems, such as rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers, supply water for drinking, growing crops, manufacturing, energy and transport - as well as disposing waste and providing natural protection from flooding.

They also sustain an amazing variety of plants and animals: around 250 species of aquatic plants and 250 species of fish inhabit European rivers and lakes, and a significant number of birds, fish and mammals depend on water ecosystems for breeding or feeding.

This represents not only an immense natural patrimony but also billions of Euros in economic benefits.

Yet, freshwater ecosystems are at risk from a number of threats:

  • Infrastructure
    More than half of Europe’s rivers have been affected by major modifications, such as infrastructures for energy, navigation or for water storage. In Europe there are about 7000 large dams, thousands of smaller dams, and many more planned for the future.  If  poorly sited and operated, dams and other infrastructures can disrupt the natural flooding cycles, reduce flows, cut rivers off from their floodplains and block fish migration. This results in the destruction of species, the intensification of floods and the loss of benefits a healthy river provides.
  • Over-use
    Less than 1% of the world's water is available for human uses – water to drink, to irrigate fields, to support industrial and energy productions, etc. But, if well managed, this is enough to support our daily lifestyle.
    However, over-demand for water is degrading the very natural resources on which we all depend. 
  • Pollution
    Despite some progress, water pollution remains considerable in Europe and is mainly caused by intensive agriculture, mining activities, industrial and domestic water use.
    While well-known pollutants are decreasing (see REACH) other emerging hazardous substances such as some pharmaceuticals, or textile and plastic additives are of particular concern as they potentially reduce fish fertility or disrupt human brain development (see box on chemicals).   
  • Climate change
    Rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns caused by climate change will have serious and unpredictable impacts on water resources in Europe.


  • Martina Mlinaric

    Senior Policy Officer, Biodiversity & Water

    WWF European Policy Office,

    +32 2 740 09 23

Did you know?

  • In water stressed areas like Southern Europe, for example, agriculture is using up to 80% of water, causing serious damage to rivers that stop flowing for parts of the year, such as Rivers Foix and Gaià in Spain.
  • The economic cost of EU water pollution – 50% of the EU money spent on the environment is used for waste water treatment. Reducing pollution will save much of this money.