This year’s World Water Day theme is all about finding nature-based answers to the water challenges we face.
At the JRC, our research shows how important natural solutions are in managing resources effectively, securing access to clean water and reducing floods, droughts and pollution.
The EU has 3.6% of the planet’s permanent surface water. Sweden and Finland alone account for 1.25% and 1% of all the world’s surface water.
Through our knowledge management expertise, we help to share best practice in water management and encourage the uptake of green solutions.
We also monitor water data and observe trends to provide advanced warning of floods and droughts.
Keeping our water clean
When it comes to keeping our water clean, Europe’s river ecosystem already provides a valuable service to society.
JRC scientists assessed the level of nitrogen (the world’s leading cause of water pollution) drawn out of the system by being retained in Europe’s river basins.
In monetary terms, the scientists calculate that this water purification service could be worth up to €31 billion every year.
However, for almost all European countries, in-stream nitrogen retention occurs at unsustainable levels.
Another JRC study shows that only one third of the EU’s rivers are in good ‘ecological status’ – i.e. with a high level of biodiversity and low levels of pollution.
The scientists establish a link between urbanisation, nutrient pollution and ecological degradation.
The study explores ways to improve ecological status and highlights the need to halt urban land take, curb nitrogen pollution and maintain and restore nature along rivers.
By constructing wetlands to treat combined sewer overflows, our scientists have also shown that green infrastructure can perform even better than man-made alternatives for water purification and flood protection.
Sharing natural solutions in city water management
The JRC’s Urban Water Atlas brings together information on cities and their relationship with water across Europe.
It advocates for planning which makes use of the natural environment, bringing water management and natural ecosystems together to create ‘blue-green’ infrastructures.
The Atlas highlights specific examples, such as rainwater harvesting systems and urban green spaces to soak up storm water runoff; and green roofs, which are becoming increasingly popular across Europe.
In Copenhagen, authorities aim to transform 20% of the city into green space and manage 30% of storm water locally, so that it does not enter the sewage system.
In Lodz, authorities have created a ‘blue-green’ network to integrate storm water retention, river valleys and green spaces.
Rotterdam city council provides subsidies for its residents to grow their own green roofs. As well as contributing to improved air quality, green roofs can retain rainwater, provide insulation and lower city temperatures.
When it comes to urban water management, nature based solutions are also an essential element in social ecology, as they contribute to a larger acceptance of climate adaptation measures and have the potential to generate jobs at the local level.
The JRC is also working closely with city municipalities to develop an urban water scoreboard so that authorities can track progress on establishing sustainable water solutions.
The scoreboard is being designed with an inclusive and collaborative approach, stimulating cohesion and inter-city cooperation with a solid scientific evidence base.
Providing advanced warning of floods and droughts
The JRC manages the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), which increases the preparedness for floods in Europe under the umbrella of the Copernicus emergency management service.
The aim of EFAS is to gain time for emergency measures before major flood events strike, particularly for trans-national river basins both in the Member States as well as on European level.
This is achieved by providing information to the national forecasting services and by keeping the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) informed about ongoing floods and about the possibility of upcoming floods across Europe.
The JRC also manages the Global drought Observatory (GDO), which provides drought-relevant information such as maps of indicators derived from different data sources (e.g., precipitation measurements, satellite measurements, modelled soil moisture content).
Data from the GDO is being used to assess the drought situation in Southern Africa to produce regular reports and maps of the drought situation.
Where is the world’s water?
The JRC has also collaborated with Google Earth Engine to produce maps which show, for the first time, a globally consistent view of the changes in the Earth’s surface water over the past 30 years.
The global surface water explorer shows that no EU country has registered a significant loss in water, and some show large increases: Spain, Portugal and Cyprus have expanded by 43%, 64% and 90% respectively since the 1980s.
The maps provide essential information concerning surface water supplies and water distribution, and identify climate change impacts, threats to biodiversity and signs of desertification.
The information from the global surface water history also supports other disciplines ranging from disaster reduction and recovery, to the spread of waterborne pollution and disease.
The JRC will also soon launch a new edition of the World Atlas on Desertification.
The Atlas takes a fresh look at land degradation – a phenomenon triggered by human land use that is likely to threaten our ability to make productive use of the Earth while still maintaining critical global environmental goods and services in the future.