MOOC: Auditing Water Management

1.3. Access to water

In spite of the fact that an adequate and suitable water supply is taken for granted in many regions of the world, and most countries have signed or ratified core UN human rights conventions and relevant regional treaties, studies and empirical evidence suggest that significant parts of the global and European population face water supply issues. [] This is due to limited available quantities or the poor quality of the water.

In Europe, 18% of the population lives in countries that are water stressed, according to the EEA, while water supply is recognised as a concern for almost half of the EU population. [] The European Water Association reports that almost two thirds of European citizens consider water quality and/or quantity in their country to be a serious problem. [] According to the UN and the World Health Organisation, 12% of the population in the pan-European region do not have access to safe drinking water, mostly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. [] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that, in many regions of the world, changing precipitation patterns are one of the factors altering hydrological systems, which thus affect water resources in terms of quantity and quality. Europe is among the regions that the IPCC expects to be further affected by increased water restrictions in the future due to climate change. []

Limited access to water may have a number of different facets, such as:

  • Water shortages
  • Problems with water infrastructure
  • Unequal access to water
  • Groundwater salinization

1.3.1. Water shortages

Water shortages may arise in drought periods, which are becoming increasingly frequent and prolonged in parts of Europe due to observed changes in climatic conditions. Apart from drought and scarcity considerations, water access limitations may also take the form of poor quality available water resources.

Drought refers to a temporary decrease in water availability, usually due to low rainfall levels. The main impacts of droughts include water supply problems, shortages and deterioration of water quality, drops in groundwater levels with resulting intrusion of saline water in groundwater bodies and increased pollution of receiving water bodies (since there is less water to dilute pollutant discharges). Consequently, droughts have major economic impacts. []

Drought is differentiated from water scarcity, which occurs when demand for water exceeds the available sustainable resources. [] Increased demand for water is primarily attributed to population growth, but due consideration must also be given to tourism needs and changing population habits, for instance regarding hygiene, sanitation or leisure (e.g. swimming pools). The EEA reports that water scarcity brought about by population growth and urbanisation, including tourism, have particularly affected small Mediterranean islands and highly populated areas. [] The EC recognises the need to prevent water scarcity by cultivating water-saving habits and managing water resources more efficiently. []

The SAI of Cyprus approached the issue of water shortage with an audit monitoring the use of groundwater.


The audit of SAI Cyprus focused on the actions taken by the competent authority in order to monitor the use of groundwater extracted through boreholes.  The risks recognised during the SWOT analysis performed at the planning stage included weaknesses in the monitoring and control system implemented for the extraction of groundwater.

Audit questions

Source of criteria

Is an updated register of private and public boreholes kept?

National legislation (provisions regarding the boreholes register kept by the Water Development Department).

Are procedures in place to allow an effective mechanism for granting borehole licenses?

National legislation (provisions regarding licencing of boreholes and water extraction).

Good practice (good governance principles, justification of administrative acts, right to petition, equity, natural justice principles, best practice procedures regarding application handling).

How is compliance with licence conditions/terms monitored? 

National legislation (provisions regarding licence of boreholes and water extraction).

Good practice elements (especially regarding inspection planning and documentation).

What actions are taken by the competent authority in the case of unlicensed boreholes or non-compliance with license terms?

National legislation (provisions regarding licencing of boreholes and water extraction).

Good practice elements (preventive measures in cases of non-compliance, good governance principles, justification of administrative acts, right to petition, equity, natural justice principles).

Is the water extracted from boreholes invoiced?

EU legislation (cost recovery for water services).

National legislation (according to which all water resources belong to the State).

Good practice elements (equity).


The audit revealed that there was no centralized register of all licensed boreholes and the extracted quantities of water, so it was unknown which/how many boreholes were in use. Weaknesses in the procedures of handling applications for the issue of borehole licences and unequal treatment of applications among the district offices of the competent authority were seen as major causes of the problems. There was almost non-existent control of compliance with the maximum permitted volume of water to be extracted from licensed boreholes, while for a large number of older boreholes, a ceiling had not been specified.

1.3.2. Problems with water infrastructure

The lack of appropriate infrastructure (such as dams, treatment plants or distribution networks) may impede the efficient utilisation of existing water resources. In regions where demand continues to exceed water availability despite water-saving measures (e.g. a water pricing policy) additional water supply infrastructure can be constructed for mitigating the impacts of severe drought. The options of developing additional water infrastructure include storage of surface or ground waters, water transfers, or use of alternative sources (desalination or wastewater re-use). []

Conversely, operational problems for existing infrastructure may inhibit adequate water supply to citizens. Sixty-two million people in the European region have no access to basic sanitation. []  The European Water Association refers to the ageing of the water infrastructure in many European countries as a challenge, with the most apparent problems concerning water losses through bursting and leaking pipelines. []

Read more in the MOOC ‘Auditing Environmental Impacts of Infrastructure‘.

1.3.3. Unequal access to water

Inequalities in the distribution of water may arise due to infrastructure or network limitations (such as in remote or high-altitude areas) or due to pricing considerations. 

The physical location of a community may affect its ability to provide its population with a steady supply of water of satisfactory quality. For instance, remote settlements or towns at a high altitude may need to rely exclusively on groundwater sources for their water supply, contrary to urban areas which may easily be supplied with water from dams or desalination plants through the existing distribution network.

In its study ‘Environmental Health Inequalities in Europe’, [] the World Health Organisation concluded that the proportion of the population with inadequate water supply in rural and urban areas varies across countries in the wider European area, from 0% in most Euro 1 and Euro 2 countries to about 40% for the rural population living in Tajikistan, a Euro 3 country. [] Euro 3 countries are by far the most affected by inadequate water supply, followed by Euro 4 countries. However, water supply inequalities were also found among some Euro 1 and Euro 2 countries (Euro 1: Portugal and Greece, Euro 2: Estonia and Latvia).

The UN and the World Health Organisation report that many citizens in Western and Central Europe suffer from the lack of or inequitable access to water and sanitation services. Such inequities are often linked to socio-cultural differences, socio-economic factors and the geographical context. For low income households, the price of water and sanitation services may be unaffordable, while in many countries rural residents do not enjoy the same level of access to safe water and adequate sanitation compared to the urban population.  Persons belonging to vulnerable and marginalized groups (ethnic minorities, migrants, illegal settlers and persons with disabilities) often face additional barriers to access compared to other citizens. []

Empirical evidence also reveals significant differences in water pricing as well as invoicing frequency between local water supply authorities within countries, and even differential pricing by the relevant public authorities to local authorities, due to cost variations. []

1.3.4. Groundwater salinization

The EEA recognises that, in regions affected by water scarcity, particularly in southern Europe, groundwater bodies play a vital role in meeting water demand, not only regarding quantity and quality, but also when addressing issues of geographical location and timeliness. Uncontrolled water abstraction from coastal aquifers at a degree exceeding recharge rates causes a lowering of water levels, with the result of seawater flowing inland and contaminating these aquifers. This is called groundwater salinization.

In the light of this, the EEA suggests that there is a need to determine the maximum permissible penetration limit for each coastal aquifer and base decisions regarding the management of these aquifers on these limits. []

In ten of 12 countries where over-exploitation of groundwater was reported, the intrusion of saltwater is the consequence, with more than 100 areas having been reported to be affected by marine saltwater intrusion. []

According to the same source, salinity problems are mainly caused by a scarce recharge by rainfall, while the problem is further aggravated by the fact that the climate in the affected areas attracts large numbers of tourists, especially in the summer months. This causes imbalances, water shortage problems and costly and complicated management mechanisms. The solutions usually adopted are regarded by the EEA as inappropriate to the semi-arid zones of Europe. According to its report ‘Water resources – problems in southern Europe’, [] the most common technique used in these areas in an attempt to solve the problem is the increase of groundwater flow from the aquifers to the sea, or recharging water reserves in technically strategic coastal zones. The EEA stresses that such strategies involve the difficulty of obtaining freshwater recharge sources in semi-arid areas. 

info_new.pngTip for auditors

Identifying the types or causes of limited access to suitable water in the country may help direct the work of an SAI to areas where risks are greater, and the value added would thus be significant. 

info_new.pngTip for auditors

Focusing the audit on water shortages, find out which is the cause of water shortage: overuse, climate change or something else? Knowing the cause of the problem is necessary for targeting recommendations to solve the problem.