Freshwater: a pivotal resource in achieving the interlinked SDGs

Joep Schyns

Freshwater is a renewable, yet finite resource. The amount of precipitation that falls on EU territory each year is limited. Although water that is used in one place will eventually come down as precipitation in another place, we cannot use more water than is available within a certain period of time. We can put the available water to use in several ways: to produce drinking water, food, or energy, or let it flow through the landscape to support ecosystems that depend on freshwater flows as well (Schyns et al., 2019; Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2016). The increasing competition between alternative uses of limited freshwater resources leads to water scarcity. In Europe, water scarcity affects 10% of the population and 17% of the territory (European Commission, 2007). Water scarcity particularly manifests itself in semi-arid areas like Southern Europe, although it also affects the generally wetter parts of the EU in dry months of the year.

The UN Sustainable Development Agenda contains a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) focused on water (SDG6), which includes targets to reduce the level of water stress and to increase water-use efficiency. Yet, freshwater resources are linked to many other SDGs, including food security (SDG2), energy security (SDG7), life below water (SDG14), and life on land (SDG15) (Figure 1; Vanham et al., 2019b). Assessing the (water-related) interlinkages across the SDG agenda is key to achieving the targets, without impairing progress towards others.


Figure 1. Graphical representation of the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem (WEFE) nexus, with representation of different environmental footprints of the footprint family. The green arrows represent resources and ecosystem services (ES) (where certain provisioning ES also relate to resources) required to provide the securities. The red arrows represent pollution and impacts on the ecosystem due to the provision of the securities. Source: Vanham et al. (2019b).


The objective of the EU project “Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security” (MAGIC) is to assess the interlinkages in the water-food-energy-ecosystem nexus to better inform policy-making. Several MAGIC contributions have shed light on the role of freshwater in this nexus domain and the interlinked SDGs:

Water, energy and the environment

  • A MAGIC case study on the water footprint of energy from wood sources in the EU (Schyns et al., 2019) has contributed to a comprehensive assessment of the water needs of the EU energy sector (Vanham et al., 2019a), which has led to a clear call to consider water impacts in EU energy planning (European Commission, 2020).
  • A recently published MAGIC report on the environmental footprint of transport by car using renewable energy (Holmatov & Hoekstra, 2020) shows that the choice of which technology to promote in the transition to low-emission transport has trade-offs in terms of pressure on water and land resources.

Water, food and the environment

  • In another recent MAGIC report, water savings in irrigation have been explored through five different narratives on the role of crop production in the EU (Vargas-Farías et al., 2020). The study illustrates a lack of coherence between current EU agriculture and water management policies. The analysis increases the understanding of viable narratives and preferred water-saving innovations with the aim to contribute to more effective EU policies that safeguard both food supply and water resources.
  • MAGIC researchers (Krol, 2019) evaluated the Water Framework Directive (WFD), looking at the links between water, agriculture and the environment. The study concludes that over the first planning period of the WFD, changes in agricultural production practices showed desired tendencies towards lower intensity of water use (case study: Spain) and water pollution (case study: the Netherlands). However, shifts in production between commodities, or volatility in production volume, prevented these tendencies to translate into stable reductions of pressures on water resources.

All these examples illustrate that to achieve SDGs on food, energy and water security within safe environmental boundaries, a coherent inter-sectoral policy framework informed by quantitative assessments is a must.



European Commission (2020), Energy policy must consider water footprint of energy sector, suggests EU study. Science for Environment Policy: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol. 

European Commission (2007), Commission staff working document - Accompanying document to the Communication from the Commission to the European parliament and the Council - Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union - Impact Assessment, COM(2007) 414 final, SEC(2007) 996 /* SEC/2007/993 */. Retrieved from 

Holmatov, B. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2020), The environmental footprint of transport by car using renewable energy. Earth’s Future, 8(2):e2019EF001428

Krol, M.S. (2019), Report on the quality check of the robustness of narratives behind the Water Framework Directive. MAGIC (H2020–GA 689669) Project Deliverable 5.3. 

Mekonnen, M.M. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2016), Four billion people facing severe water scarcity, Science Advances, 2(2): e1500323.

Schyns, J.F. & Vanham, D. (2019), The water footprint of wood for energy consumed in the European Union, Water, 11(2): 206.

Schyns, J.F., Hoekstra, A.Y., Booij, M.J., Hogeboom, R.J. & Mekonnen, M.M. (2019) Limits to the world’s green water resources for food, feed, fiber, timber, and bioenergy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(11): 4893–4898.

Vanham, D., Medarac, H., Schyns, J.F., Hogeboom, R.J. & Magagna, D. (2019a) The consumptive water footprint of the European Union energy sector. Environmental Research Letters, 14(10): 104016.

Vanham, D., Leip, A., Galli, A., Kastner, T., Bruckner, M., Uwizeye, A., van Dijk, K., Ercin, E., Dalin, C., Brandão, M., Bastianoni, S., Fang, K., Leach, A., Chapagain, A., Van der Velde, M., Sala, S., Pant, R., Mancini, L., Monforti-Ferrario, F., Carmona-Garcia, G., Marques, A., Weiss, F. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2019b) Environmental footprint family to address local to planetary sustainability and deliver on the SDGs, Science of The Total Environment, 693: 133642.

Vargas-Farías, A., Hogeboom, R.J., Schyns, J.F., Verburg, C.C.A, Hoekstra, A.Y. (2020) Saving water in EU agriculture – What are plausible alternative pathways? MAGIC Policy Brief.