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Europe’s water crisis – could Lithuania become a water-exporting country?

In 2022, Europe was hit by a historic drought, which made it re-evaluate its water reserves. Satellite data collected by scientists show that the continent has been experiencing a steady decline in freshwater for decades. Lithuania is not yet facing a shortage but may soon become one of Europe’s few freshwater exporters.

March 17, 2023 - LRT Patricija Kirilova - Articles and Commentary

Trakai Castle on an island in Galvė lake. Photo: Marek Dravnel / Shutterstock

Scientists have estimated that Europe loses around 84 gigatons of water every year due to climate change. This signals a freshwater crisis, says Gintaras Valiuškevičius, a hydrology professor at Vilnius University (VU).

According to him, many EU countries draw a large part of water for drinking and domestic use from surface sources, including rivers, lakes, and ponds. Such water usually requires additional treatment.

“Countries further south tend to have seasonal fluctuations in their surface water supplies, which can lead to freshwater shortages, especially in summer,” Valiuškevičius said. “In Lithuania, we are unlikely to be affected by this problem because we are among the countries that obtain all their water from deep boreholes.”

“It is safe to say that the crisis won’t touch us. But the world is global, so we might feel it indirectly, for example, when we start exporting water in the future,” he added

Declining reserves

A situation when the country’s population is virtually deprived of drinking water is called “day zero”. At the beginning of 2018, South Africa’s capital Cape Town was on the brink of it when three years of drought and little rainfall led to unprecedented water scarcity in the region. Then, a per capita water consumption limit of 50 litres a day was introduced in the city.

“Cape Town’s water crisis was not the only such instance. Some 16 countries around the world are experiencing extreme water scarcity, caused by droughts, water pollution and other causes,” said Midona Dapkienė, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University’s Water Engineering Department.

“Major cities such as Sao Paulo, Beijing, Cairo, Istanbul, Tokyo, and Moscow are already facing or will face a freshwater crisis. London is projected to have water supply problems as early as 2025 and to face a severe shortage of drinking water by 2040,” she added.

Europe is also facing a shortage of fresh water, and this problem will only get worse in the future. Scientific analysis of satellite data has shown a steady annual decline in groundwater reserves in the continent.

According to Dapkienė, climate change is among the major causes of the decline in freshwater. The lack of rain and high temperatures are drying up surface water bodies and lowering groundwater levels in aquifers.

“In the summer of 2022, most of Europe – France, Spain, Portugal, and England – were hit by drought. Agriculture was severely affected, water restrictions imposed in many of the affected regions, and even our neighbouring Poland asked people to save water,” the professor said.

She stressed that an increasing frequency of droughts due to climate change means that water for agriculture and industry must be pumped from deeper aquifers that do not replenish as quickly.

“According to the European Commission, the loss of groundwater due to irrigation of fields and industrial and urban development increases the risk of water scarcity. Recently, around 11 per cent of the EU population and 17 per cent of its territory have been affected by water scarcity, and more than half of the population in the Mediterranean region suffers from water shortages in the summer,” Dapkienė explained.

Water footprints

The second reason for Europe’s declining freshwater reserves is the growing population, rising living standards, and increasing demand, according to the professor.

The amount of freshwater used in the production and consumption of a product is called the water footprint. Each person has a water footprint, calculated by adding the water footprints of all of the goods and services consumed by him or her.

“The joke is that the water footprint of a person who drinks a lot of coffee and eats a lot of meat is much higher than that of a vegetarian who drinks tap water,” Dapkienė said.

“The amount of water consumed to produce various products is staggering: the water footprint of one bar of chocolate is 1,720 litres, 2,393 litres of one hamburger, and 9,982 litres of a pair of jeans. A Spanish consumer has an average water footprint of 6,700 litres per day, while a Polish consumer of 3,830 litres per day,” she explained.

Exporting water

Experts stress that Lithuania is among the few countries in the world with abundant fresh groundwater resources. It amounts to 3.72 million cupid metres per day. Around 400,000 cubic metres of freshwater are used for industry, agriculture, household consumption, and other purposes in Lithuania every day.

“Lithuania’s climatic and geological conditions are favourable for the accumulation of water resources, and the country is not in a risk zone,” Dapkienė said.

However, she noted that climate change and summer heatwaves might limit the availability of quality water in the country.

“In the summer of 2018, there were water supply problems in some regions due to increased water consumption. In the summer of 2020, there was also a hydrological drought declared in Lithuania,” the professor pointed out.

During the dry season, the groundwater level closest to the surface drops due to reduced rainfall and evaporation intensity, causing wells to run down. But wells refill during the wet season.

Thus, Lithuania may one day start exporting its freshwater to other countries, according to Dapkienė.

“Lithuania and Denmark are probably the only countries in the EU with centralised underground drinking water supply. Lithuania has several times more groundwater than it consumes, and it is of good quality,” she said.

“The possibility of exporting our drinking water to other countries in the future is not out of the question, but the logistics of it would have to be worked out. On the other hand, we need to have a reserve, as the recent dry summers have caused difficulties for agriculture and the population,” the professor added.

Saving and valuing

As freshwater becomes scarcer, it should first become more expensive, according to VU professor Valiuškevičius.

“The first step would be to make water more expensive and try to regulate consumption. As long as something is relatively cheap, people do not save or value it too much,” he said.

He noted that countries facing water shortages could use water treatment technologies to turn used water or seawater into drinking water. Countries like United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel already employ such technologies. However, water treatment technologies are expensive.

“European countries probably think that there is another way to solve these problems. In the future, water may be a popular commodity, and Lithuania could then become one of the water-exporting countries,” Valiuškevičius said. “But the price is what is most important – countries will choose the cheapest solution.”

Whether water becomes a luxury product in Europe will depend both on the behaviour of the governments and the people, Dapkienė added.

“If countries continue with business as usual, nothing will change. Water-saving technologies in agriculture, industry and other areas need to be introduced as widely as possible. We also need to save water in all areas of our households,” she stressed.

According to the professor, people could save water by eliminating non-effective water use at home, such as bathing instead of showering, running washing machines or dishwashers on low load, leaving the water running while brushing their teeth etc.

“The use of modern technology can certainly help prevent a water crisis, but educating the public is crucial. People’s awareness must grow, they must realise that water is a valuable commodity that needs to be preserved and protected from pollution,” Dapkienė said.

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

Patricija Kirilova is a science and IT journalist with LRT.lt

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