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Farming for a water resilient future

AUTHORS: Robin van Dijk, Melanie Muro

Global warming is rapidly transforming the European continent. Climate change is driving heatwaves and droughts that compromise food security in the European Union. Policy instruments need to support farmers in adopting sustainable practices that increase farm system resilience.

In recent months, many regions across Europe have been gripped by droughts. Local authorities in various Member States have taken measures to preserve water in the face of these dry spells, affecting the daily lives of citizens and entire sectors alike. In February, Catalonia declared a drought emergency, introducing water use restrictions for domestic consumption and setting the target of cutting water use for crop irrigation by 80% and for livestock by 50% [1],[2].

The same month, Sicily declared a “state of natural disaster” following the worst drought in almost twenty years[3]. The continued absence of rainfall has depleted water reservoirs, prevented farmers from irrigating their fields, and disrupted the production of wheat, olives and citrus fruits on the island[4].

Farmers are hardest hit by droughts and heat

Earlier this year, the European Environment Agency’s Climate Risk Assessment Report[5], noted that prolonged droughts and extreme heat in southern Europe pose a “critical risk” to crops and yields, requiring urgent action to safeguard food security. Indeed, the European Drought Observatory’s latest map of the Combined Drought Indicator[6] shows that 19.6% of the EU plus the UK territory is facing a soil moisture deficit. Whilst the map indicates that Southern Europe is most affected, some regions in Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia are also facing soil moisture deficits.

Increasing climate change resilience through sustainable cropping practices

While the impacts of water scarcity on agriculture are becoming increasingly visible, solutions exist that can help increase farm system resilience. This month, IEEP published a report identifying sustainable agricultural practices that can help increase farm system resilience. The analysis of evidence for wheat, potatoes and olives finds that such practices can maintain and improve biodiversity, soil and water parameters that help farmers adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change. Besides increasing the adaptive capacity of agroecosystems, sustainable practices can deliver other benefits for farmers, such as diversifying farm incomes and potentially improving yields.

Are existing policy instruments supporting the uptake of these practices?

Protecting and improving water quality and quantity in the EU are the key aims of the Water Framework Directive, the cornerstone of EU water policy since 2000. Meeting these objectives requires actions across different policy areas, with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) being the main framework to regulate and influence agricultural impacts and use of water.

The CAP for 2023 – 2027[7] establishes several safeguards related to investments in irrigation and sets out minimum standards for protecting water bodies (e.g. through buffer strips) and cropping practices that positively affect water retention in the soil (for example by keeping soil covered). In addition, the CAP incentivises the uptake of sustainable cropping practices through eco-schemes and agri-environment and climate measures.

However, a recent analysis of the CAP Strategic Plans[8] concludes that when it comes to water resources, more interventions focus on supporting actions benefiting water quality than water scarcity and droughts. The authors point out an overall emphasis on productive investments into water storage and irrigation installations as a response to limited water resources; considerably fewer measures incentivise the adoption of cropping practices that could increase water resilience. Expanding irrigation and storage will, however, only provide temporary relief. As water becomes a limited resource under climate change conditions, requirements by other sectors will constrain the amount available to agriculture.

More policy action is needed to increase the water resilience of farming

The current CAP provides the basic tools to improve the water resilience of farming, but they need to be used more effectively to buffer farming systems against water scarcity and droughts. Member States should use the flexibilities provided under the current CAP to design interventions that incentivise farmers to take up practices that help to conserve water and increase soil quality – an important condition for water retention capacities – especially in regions facing water scarcity. The European Commission should carefully assess, as part of the interim evaluation of the CAP scheduled for 2026, whether the safeguards related to irrigation have successfully reduced water abstraction levels.

Further, the proposed EU Soil Monitoring Law[9] will play a key role in identifying appropriate practices by providing precise and timely data on soil parameters and is expected to be adopted after the European elections. On the other hand, despite the devastating droughts that are gripping Europe, the European Commission decided to put its water resilience initiative[10] on hold earlier this year. This is a missed opportunity to prioritise water resilience and set out targeted actions for all policy areas.

As the latest IEEP report shows, adopting sustainable farming practices and improving water use can help farmers and food production become more resilient to increasingly extreme weather. These benefits need to be more clearly communicated and the policy framework put in place to support European farmers in the transition to a sustainable and resilient agriculture model, mitigating the financial or technical barriers they face.

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

[7] Regulation (EU) 2021/2115 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 2 December 2021 establishing rules on support for strategic plans to be drawn up by Member States under the common agricultural policy (CAP Strategic Plans).

[8] European Commission, Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, Chartier, O., Krüger, T., Folkeson Lillo, C. et al., Mapping and analysis of CAP strategic plans – Assessment of joint efforts for 2023-2027, Chartier, O.(editor), Folkeson Lillo, C.(editor), Publications Office of the European Union, 2023,

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