Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Violeta Cabello & Ansel Renner

The integration of European water and agricultural policies is the subject of a long lasting debate. Within that debate, the importance of agriculture as the main driver of impacts on water bodies has been formally considered since the approval of the Water Framework Directive in the year 2000. Only recently, however, has the European Commission (EC) promoted alignment of water and agricultural policies in its Rural Development Programmes. One important step in that promotion was the creation of a joint working group between the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Directorate-General for the Environment – a working group tasked with steering integration of the two policy domains (EC, 2017). Currently promoted strategies focus primarily on the optimization of contemporary water and agrochemical use practices at the farm level (Rouillard and Berglund, 2017). In the light of on-going experiments, how to better harmonize water and agricultural policies, what concepts and instruments to use in that harmonization and at what governance levels are questions that will be addressed in the years to come.

One policy instrument that merits more attention in the ongoing policy discussion is the coupling of monitoring systems. Monitoring is the process by which the implementation of policies is followed up and evaluated, usually through a set of quantitative criteria and indicators. Indeed, indicators are the main tool used by the European Commission in their assessments, partially because they enable the bottom-up aggregation of information from the scale of implementation up through to the continental level. Both water and agricultural policies have innovated in their monitoring systems by developing varied sets of indicators and measurement procedures. Yet, these systems are not integrated. The recent Common Agricultural Policy monitoring and evaluation framework includes indicators on water quality and availability, but those indicators refer to the national scale and lack any connection with the monitoring efforts associated with the Water Framework Directive. Therefore, by looking at the set of numbers provided, it is impossible to know why and how agriculture impacts water resources in Europe. In a previous article of The Nexus Times, Völker and Kovacic caution against the performative role of numbers in evaluating progress towards policy targets. That is, the way indicators are conceived has an effect in the way policy goals themselves are perceived. Once measurement procedures are established, Völker and Kovacic argue, they become more rigid and difficult to change. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask now what indicators and accounting procedures are relevant and needed in the process of harmonization of water and agricultural policies.

As part of the MAGIC project, we are prototyping a coupled water-food accounting system that connects farming system typologies to the water bodies they depend on. The following data dashboard shows an integrated set of environmental and socio-economic indicators using data from the province of Almería in southeastern Spain. In our prototype, we focussed on quantitative impacts on aquifers and diagnosed social-ecological patterns in the year 2015. That is, we explored and relayed crucial information over what farming systems are driving the various levels of aquifer overexploitation.

Figure 1 – An example of an integrated monitoring system of water and agricultural policies for the region of Almería in Southern Spain. Source: Cabello et al. 2019.

During our research, we learnt that it is key to both monitor impacts in relative and absolute terms and to place environmental pressures such as water withdrawal and fertilizer leakage in the context of their wider eco-hydrological system. For instance, in the analyses of indicators in Figure 1 we observed that high overdraft rates were observed in both high-volume and low-volume aquifers. While low aquifer recharge rates were a major driving factor, we also learnt that similar levels of aquifer impact can be driven by various mixes of agricultural system types each with different production and market strategies. Attending to social-ecological diversity, such as that provided by mixes of agricultural system types, appears as a key challenge for future policy reviews and integration efforts. Current efforts are bogged down by sparse agricultural data defined at relatively aggregate scales, an aspect which creates difficulty as far as integration with water data goes. Difficulties aside, the integration of water and agricultural policies is an urgent task highly relevant for the future health of the European environment. Moving forward, the advancement of a coupled monitoring system between water and agricultural policies will require public administrations to make a serious effort to produce coherent databases.



Cabello, V., Renner, A., Giampietro, M., 2019. Relational analysis of the resource nexus in arid land crop production. Advances in Water Resources 130, 258–269.

European Commission. 2017. Agriculture and Sustainable Water Management in the EU. COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT. Available at:

Rouillard, J., Berglum, M. 2017. European level report: Key descriptive statistics on the consideration of water issues in the Rural Development Programmes 2014-2020. Report to the European Commision. Available at: