Many European Union agricultural imports at risk to water scarcity and drought

The future availability of everyday foods and essential agricultural crops imported into the European Union could be severely impacted by global water scarcity and drought a new report from the Water Footprint Network warns.

The Water Footprint Network has mapped the European Union’s (EU) global water demand and assessed how water scarcity and drought could disrupt supplies of key food crops the EU imports. They calculate the EU is dependent each year for 38 percent of its water from outside its borders in terms of the goods or products the EU imports. The vast majority of this water is ‘embedded’ in agricultural commodities. These account for 98 percent of the water the EU relies on from the rest of the world.

The report says that in the near term, imports of soybeans, rice, sugar cane, cotton, almonds, pistachios and grapes are most likely to be affected because they come from areas that currently have significant or severe levels of water scarcity. For example, 98% of soybeans are imported into the EU and of these 57% are highly vulnerable to water scarcity; 70% of rice and cotton imports and 56% of sugar cane imports are also highly vulnerable to water scarcity.

In the longer term, imports of products such as coffee and cocoa would be affected if climate change were to alter rainfall patterns and increase the risk of drought or other water-related problems in the countries of origin.

Small number of countries face possible water scarcity risks to EU

Two-thirds of the water footprint that the EU depends upon comes from just nine countries: Brazil (20%); Argentina (11%); Indonesia (8%); Ivory Coast (8%); Ghana (4%); the United States (4%); Ukraine (3%); Malaysia (3%); and India (3%).

Almost all the crop products imported to the EU from India and Pakistan are sourced from locations with high levels of water scarcity, the report says. For instance, sugar cane and rice from these countries are categorized as “very highly vulnerable” to water scarcity.

Dr. Christopher Briggs, Executive Director of Water Footprint Network, said: “The EU’s economy is dependent on the availability of water in other parts of the world for many crops such as soybeans, rice and cotton. That makes it vulnerable to increasing water scarcity and drought. These valuable insights can help us take steps now to ensure our food security and economic stability as climate change begins to affect water availability.”

Meat sector could be hit by reliance on soybeans for animal feed

The EU relies almost entirely on imports of soybeans to meet demand for animal feed for meat and dairy products. Yet soybean is the crop with the largest dependency on countries outside the EU in terms of water, the report says. Around 82% of EU soybean imports come from Brazil, Argentina and the United States. Any impact on soybean production, the report warns, poses a significant risk to the EU meat industry.

Dr. Ertug Ercin, co-author of the report said: “The highest risk that the European meat and dairy sector will face due to climate change and weather extremes lies outside its borders. This is because it is highly dependent on soybean imports from locations that are vulnerable to water scarcity and drought.”

The Water Footprint Network produced the report for the Improving Predictions and Management of Hydrological Extremes (IMPREX) project which is part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 grant programme which aims to improve society’s ability to anticipate and respond to the impacts of climate change.

Source: Ercin A.E., Chico D. and Chapagain A. K. (2016) Dependencies of Europe’s economy on other parts of the world in terms of water resources, Horizon2020 – IMPREX project, Technical Report D12.1, Water Footprint Network.