Continued inefficient use of water could threaten Europe’s economy, productivity and ecosystems, a report has warned.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) said that the continent’s water resources were under pressure and things were getting worse.
It said limited supplies were being wasted, and nations had to implement existing legislation more effectively.
The EEA presented its findings at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseilles.
“The critical thing for us is that we are seeing an increasing number of regions where river basins, because of climate change, are experiencing water scarcity,” said EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade.
“Yet behavioural change, and what that means, hasn’t really come about.”
Prof McGlade said the main purpose of the report was to raise awareness about the issue.
“Member states need to be clearer about the opportunities they can make in order to enhance their use of a scarce resource,” she told BBC News.
“Nations need to use different kinds of methods. Instead of just having a hosepipe ban to fix this year’s problem, you need to invest in a very different way.
“Long-term investment needs to recognise these different uses of how water is allocated, how it is used [and the need for] different water qualities.
“[The report] highlights all the different challenges as countries move from their historical position on water to where they are moving to [as a result of] climate change.”
Within the EU, agriculture uses about a quarter of the water diverted from the natural environment, and in southern Europe the figure is as high as 80%.
As there was an economic cost to farmers abstracting water to put on their crops, Prof McGlade said the sector was showing an increased awareness of where water was being used inefficiently.
Wheat field (Getty Images) Agriculture can use as much as 80% of available water in some areas, the report says
“We are looking for more efficient uses, such as drip irrigation and other advanced techniques, simply because of the cost of cleaning water and bringing it into an agricultural setting,” she told BBC News.
“Once you have an economic interest in the use of a resource like water then you can talk about wasteful use.”
As well as social and economic consequences, Prof McGlade said unsustainable use of water was also having an impact on ecosystems.
“We can see that what we call water pulses, which, for example, enable fish to move through rivers, are being deterred as a result of overabstraction. There are examples of this all over Europe.
“The danger signal is when those natural and seasonal pulses start to fluctuate to lower levels than they had previously been, as this stops the movement of fish populations.”
The Forum, where the report was presented, is an international summit held once every three years. It attracts politicians, policymakers and NGOs from all over the globe.
On Monday, former Soviet president Mikhael Gorbachev used a speech at the Forum to highlight the global extent of the problem.
Mr Gorbachev, the founding president of Green Cross International, said: “The deficit of freshwater is becoming increasingly severe and large-scale – whereas, unlike other resources, there is no substitute for water.
“Continuation of water consumption at 20th Century rates is no longer possible.”
He said that his five decades of experience in politics had convinced him that the global water crisis was “closely related to the flaws of contemporary economics and politics”.
“We therefore need to rethink the goals of economic development,” he explained.
“The economy needs to be reoriented to goals that include public goods such as a sustainable environment, people’s health, education, culture and social cohesion, including an absence of glaring gaps between the rich and the poor.”
Also on Monday, seven water companies in southern and eastern England announced that they would be imposing hose-pipe bans from April.
They said two unusually dry winters had left reservoirs, aquifers and rivers below normal levels.
The EEA report is the first of five water-themed reports that the agency planned to publish in 2012, culminating in a synthesis report that will offer a series of recommendations to European policymakers.