WWF Report: Water crisis threatens €11+ trillion in economic value, food security & sustainability in Europe

Posted on October, 16 2023

  • First ever annual estimate of the economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is over €11 trillion in Europe - about 2.5 times the GDP of Germany.
  • Degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers threatens their economic value and their irreplaceable role in sustaining human and planetary health
  • EU Nature Restoration Law is a vital opportunity to halt and reverse the degradation of water and freshwater ecosystems
  • NGO coalition to launch joint statement for a water resilient Europe on 26 October
Water, the world's most precious yet undervalued resource, lies at the heart of a mounting global crisis that threatens both human and planetary health, warns a new report, published today by WWF.

Released on World Food Day, The High Cost of Cheap Water uncovers a stark reality: the annual economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is estimated to be over €11 trillion – about 2.5 times the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Germany. But the continent’s freshwater ecosystems are in a downward spiral, posing an ever growing risk to these values. 

Europe has lost up to 90% of its floodplains in recent centuries, and 60% of its rivers, lakes and other surface water bodies are not in good condition. Recent research shows that the recovery of European freshwater biodiversity observed in the 1990s and 2000s, came to a halt in the 2010s. These disastrous trends are aggravated by climate change and poor land use and management, contributing to growing numbers of people facing water stress or devastating floods while also exacerbating economic pressures and undermining global efforts to reverse nature loss.

Claire Baffert, Senior water Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office said: “Despite having robust EU legislation to protect our waters for decades, poor implementation combined with overexploitation and Europe’s knee-jerk tendency to use concrete infrastructure to try to fix water-related problems, means our freshwater ecosystems are broken. The urgently-needed EU Nature Restoration Law can help Europe tackle its current and worsening water crisis by repairing the freshwater ecosystems which are vital for clean and plentiful water for drinking, food, industry and biodiversity.”

The report finds that direct economic benefits, such as water consumption for households, irrigated agriculture and industries, amount to a minimum of nearly €1 trillion annually in Europe. It also estimates that the unseen benefits - which include purifying water, enhancing soil health, storing carbon, and protecting communities from extreme floods and droughts - are ten times higher at around €10 trillion annually.

However, the degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater aquifers is threatening these values as well as undermining EU action on climate and nature and progress towards the Water Framework Directive and EU Biodiversity Strategy’s goals. Extracting unsustainable amounts of water, harmful subsidies, alterations to river flows, pollution, and climate change-related impacts are endangering freshwater ecosystems. Europe has the most broken river landscape on the planet with literally more than 1 million barriers. 

Combined with poor water management, the destruction of freshwater ecosystems means water risks to businesses and economies are growing. 75% of all bank loans in the euro area, for example, are to companies that are highly dependent on at least one ecosystem service (including surface and groundwater supply, as well as flood mitigation).

To address this water crisis, WWF calls for the urgent adoption of an ambitious EU Nature Restoration Law which fosters the restoration of freshwater ecosystems which are essential to ensure people’s access to clean and sufficient water. 

"Water and freshwater ecosystems are not only fundamental to our economies, they are also the lifeblood of our planet and our future,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead. “We need to remember that water doesn’t come from a tap – it comes from nature. Water for all depends on healthy freshwater ecosystems, which are also the foundation of food security, biodiversity hotspots and the best buffer and insurance against intensifying climate impacts. Reversing the loss of freshwater ecosystems will pave the way to a more resilient, nature-positive and sustainable future for all.”

Notes to Editors
For further information or interviews, please contact zcasey@wwf.eu 

***On 26 October WWF and a coalition of NGOs will launch a new statement calling for a water resilient Europe***
  • The figures are all from 2021.
  • WWF’s report breaks down the direct and indirect values into their key components globally, highlighting the fundamental importance of water and freshwater ecosystems across all sectors of society.
  • Water and freshwater ecosystems contribute US$58 trillion in economic value each year globally, equivalent to 60% of global GDP or to the combined GDPs of the United States, China, Japan, Germany and India.
  • The direct value of water is calculated as the sum of consumptive (municipalities, agriculture, industry) and non-consumptive (recreation, inland transport, hydropower, freshwater fisheries) uses. It amounts to nearly €1 trillion annually in Europe (USD 1.04 trillion).
  • The indirect value of water accounts for sustaining biodiversity on land and in freshwater and marine environments; mitigating extreme events, like droughts and floods; and environmental regulation including improving water quality and soil health, delivering sediments and nutrients, storing carbon. It amounts to around €10 trillion annually (USD 10.91 trillion). 
  • Figures (in USD) from Europe are available on page 58 of the report, in the “breakdown of estimates” table.
  • Conversion from dollars to euros was made on 10 October 2023. 
  • Note on methodology - The annex contains a detailed description of the methodology. The quantification of the economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is based on established methodology and relies on sources which use the best available data on the different economic values of freshwater or the best estimates where data is limited or not available.
Economic value of water