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Adaptation option

Water restrictions and water rationing

In dry regions or regions that face water shortages due to recurring droughts, water restrictions and water rationing are commonly applied soft measures. Water restrictions limit certain uses of water, for example irrigation of lawns, car washing, filling swimming pools, or hosing down pavement areas. Restrictions can limit water availability in terms of volume and/or time when it can be used. Water rationing includes a temporary suspension of water supply or a reduction of pressure below that required for adequate supply under normal conditions that affects all water users. Rationing ensures that critically limited water supplies are distributed in a way that sufficient water is delivered to preserve public health and safety.  

Water restrictions and, to a lesser extent, water rationing, is frequently used in situations of temporary water scarcity, e.g. during droughts. They allow local or even regional and national administrations to cope with water crises, by reducing consumption. Whenever those temporary low-cost measures are not complemented by any behavioural change towards more conscious water use by people,  water demand and use are expected to rise again and return to previous levels once restrictions are removed.  

To facilitate the implementation of water restrictions and water rationing as emergency measures during prolonged drought situations, prioritisation schemes for different water uses are a useful tool. These schemes can be developed as part of drought management plans and rank the various water uses according to their local priority. For defining the prioritisation scheme, different indicators to understand the impacts of prolonged droughts on both environmental and socioeconomic uses can be used such as: 

  • impacts on drinking water supply; 
  • Environmental impact indicators: e.g., mortality of fish species, impacts on river banks and biodiversity (flora), loss of biodiversity in terrestrial areas depending on the aquatic system, impacts on wetlands, increased forest fires risk, ecological status, etc.; 
  • Impact indicators for socio-economic uses (e.g., industrial uses, power production, agriculture, tourism, water rights, transport, etc.).

Drinking water supply is the priority usage in most European countries, and prioritisation schemes should always ensure a sufficient volume to be provided to the population. 

Droughts affect a considerable fraction of the European population each year and are expected to increase in frequency and severity due to the impacts of climate change. Southern Europe is expected to be affected the most. Water restriction and water rationing can provide a temporary, emergency response to droughts and water scarcity conditions. Due to the expected effects of climate change and in the case of persistent or recurrent water scarcity other measures should be preferred and maintained in the long-term, for example water saving measures to reduce water demand and innovative strategies to increase water supply through water reuse, such as rain water harvesting, grey-water recycling and desalination. 

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Social: Behavioural

Stakeholder participation

Stakeholder participation of various actors is needed to facilitate the adoption and implementation of water restriction and water rationing measures. The most important sectors affected are domestic water supply, agriculture, industry, and tourism with stakeholders being individuals, organizations, institutions, decision-makers, or policymakers, who determine or are affected by these measures. Besides the possibilities for direct control and enforcement by public authorities, stakeholder involvement is crucial for broad and proper implementation and fine tuning of such measures to obtain the highest possible effectiveness. 

Water restriction and water rationing measures are often implemented as part of drought management plans or strategies. It is important to foster active participation of all relevant stakeholders during the elaboration of these plans to obtain different stakeholder opinions and mitigate conflicts between interested parties prior to the decision-making process. A purposeful description of legitimate stakeholders, including their interests, values and approaches to risk is a pre-requisite for the development of such plans and strategies and for ensuring an understanding of their link with institutional drought policy. Local stakeholders have the best knowledge of the different water use sectors and components of the hydrological cycle and can ensure that targets are coherent and are implemented where the socio-economic costs are the lowest. Active participation contributes to achieving the optimum sustainable equilibrium, considering social, economic, and environmental aspects and facilitating the continuation, in the long-term, of the decision making by consensus. 

An example of a potential source of conflict is the distribution of water resources between the drinking water sector and the agricultural sector during drought situations. Priority is usually given to the drinking water sector satisfying 100% of the needs, while quantities allocated to agricultural irrigation depend on the remaining water availability and rarely match the needs. To increase the acceptance of the prioritization of water uses during droughts as set by drought management plans and strategies it is important to bring stakeholders from the drinking water and agricultural sector together and allow for discussions on how to set priorities and balance different interests. 

Success and Limiting Factors

Water restrictions and rationing are very efficient measures to reduce water demand during water scarcity and emergency drought situations. They can be implemented very quickly and have a fast effect on reducing water demand. In some cases, they are even effective in the long term, when restrictions are not imposed anymore due to learning effects. However, both measures should not intentionally be implemented to alleviate water scarcity problems in the long term. An important success factor in general is the conscious involvement of stakeholders and of the general public and the legal power to enact the water restrictions on the society. 

A limiting factor is that the measures are only effective if compliance is controlled which may lead to high monitoring costs. Besides, creating the necessary drought management plans, procedures and laws is a very time consuming process associated with administrative costs. 

Costs and Benefits

Compulsory water restrictions can produce significant water savings in a short time, comparable only to significant price increases. Restrictions are usually favoured over economic instruments in temporary situations with critically limited water supplies. However, such measures are associated with a reduction of socioeconomic wellbeing and significant cuts of government revenue streams which may be needed to implement system efficiency measures. Water restrictions impose inconvenience costs, allocative efficiency costs as well as significant enforcement costs. 

Other measures such as detailed drought management plans and the introduction of a reliable drought early warning system allowing for a more cautious use of the remaining water resources are relevant from an economic perspective as they can help to reduce the risk of imposing severe water restrictions or rationing measures. 

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) can orient competent administrations towards water saving in general. Art 9 (water pricing) of the WFD can be implemented in combination with water restrictions. Drought Management plans, which can also be subject to the WFD Program of Measures normally include restrictions and methods for rationing in the case of drought events. The practice to restrict water use in times of water scarcity or drought is included in many Member States' water allocation policies and in some Member States, restrictions are determined according to a hierarchy of water users. Abstraction rules are sometimes more stringent in areas suffering from chronic water shortage. A new EU regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation has been released in 2020 (regulation (EU) 2020/741). Reused water is a relevant resource during times of water scarcity. 

Implementation Time

Water restriction and rationing measures can be implemented very quickly during water scarcity and drought situations (within a few days to weeks). Clear procedures, for instance defined in a drought management plan, can speed up the implementation of these measures. The agreement on such procedures may, however, be a more time-consuming process as it should involve all relevant stakeholders, and they may have conflicting interests, for example on the prioritisation of water supply to various sectors. 

Life Time

The lifetime of water restrictions and rationing measures is usually less than 1 year since they are applied as emergency measures during water scarcity and drought situations. The efficiency of these measures should continuously be evaluated and procedures implementing these measures adjusted accordingly. In case of persistent water scarcity, other measures should be preferred that are implemented and maintained long term. 

Reference information


Florke, M., et al., (2011). Final Report for the project “Climate Adaptation – modelling water scenarios and sectoral impacts”. 

EC (2007). Drought management plan report, including Agricultural, Drought Indicators and Climate Change Aspects. Water Scarcity and Droughts Expert Network, Technical Report, 023 

Ameziane, T., Belghiti, M., Benbeniste, S., Bergaoui, M., Bonaccorso, B., Cancelliere, A., et al., (2007). Drought management guidelines. EC-EuropeAid Co-operation Office, MEDA Water and MEDROPLAN 

EC, (2012). Report on the review of the European water scarcity and droughts policy. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council, 67.  

Strosser, Pierre, et al. (2012). Final report gap analysis of the water scarcity and droughts policy in the EU. European Commission Tender ENV.D.1/SER/2010/0049.

Published in Climate-ADAPT Jun 07 2016   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Aug 17 2023

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