CAP does more harm than good to EU waters

Posted on 29 September 2021

A new report published by the European Court of Auditors shows that EU farm subsidies fail to promote sustainable use of water in agriculture.
More than 20 years after the adoption of the EU’s main water laws, EU waters are still at risk of depletion [1]. According to a new report from EU auditors, this is partly due to the numerous exemptions for water use granted to agriculture – and to CAP subsidies and investment grants for irrigation that may be further incentivising water overuse.

“The report confirms what WWF has long been saying: our freshwater resources are being depleted but instead of acting, policymakers continue to bury their heads in the sand,” said Jabier Ruiz, Senior Policy Officer for Agriculture at WWF’s European Policy Office. “The report comes at a crucial moment. Just as the national authorities are finalising their future CAP strategic plans, the findings point to the dramatic failures of the agricultural policy in addressing water overuse. Member States and the European Commission need to follow the auditors’ recommendations to the letter and tie all CAP payments to compliance with the EU water legislation.”

The auditors’ assessment suggests that, although the CAP contains some measures that should control the use of water in farming these have not been used effectively. Contributing to this dramatic failure are the poor systems of controls (see figure on the right) but also direct payments that actually incentivise growing water-intensive crops. Support measures for investments in irrigation including those under Rural Development Programmes and the Common Market Organisation framework meanwhile, have been found to lack appropriate safeguards.

Over the years, WWF has repeatedly pointed out that much stronger enforcement of EU legislation is needed to protect EU waters and biodiversity [2]. One analysis found that there is hardly any water saving associated with the CAP investment support intended for improving irrigation efficiency. Earlier this year, WWF-Spain published a guide with criteria for ensuring legal use of water in agriculture [3].

Moving forward, some early indications from the future CAP strategic plans suggest that the risks around water overuse continue largely unabated. The European Commission will have to apply very close scrutiny when it receives these plans for revision at the end of 2021.

For more information:

Jabier Ruiz
Senior Policy Officer, Agriculture & Food Systems
WWF European Policy Office

Bartosz Brzezinski
Communications Officer
WWF European Policy Office
Tel: +32 484 28 15 10

Notes to editors

[1] See JRC’s Change in aridity - shifts to drier conditions
[2] See, for example, Histórica condena de la UE a España por destruir Doñana (WWF-Spain)
[3] The guide is available in four languages (Spanish, Arabic, French and English)
According to EU auditors, CAP subsidies and investment grants may be incentivising water overuse in EU agriculture.
© Chris Happel / Flickr
Figure from the Court of Auditors report showing the weak implementation of water abstraction checks on farms under the CAP cross-compliance system.
© European Court of Auditors