There is a battle raging in Europe over the supply of water. A struggle in which the drinks sector is playing its part, being on one hand part of the problem and on the other part of the solution.

Since the late 1980s the amount of water abstracted for the public supply has dipped by about 10%. But the agricultural sector has swallowed up this saving by increasing its demand over the same period by almost 20% (about 80% of water used for irrigation is consumed, and therefore, is not available for other uses).

An Environmental Signals 2000 report by the European Environment Agency shows that the amount of water used for irrigation in Italy and Spain is about 10 times higher than in most central European Unions.

Climatic conditions have also been a factor and parts of Southern Spain, for example, have struggled to find supplies to keep their vineyards irrigated as drought conditions prevail.

If little can be done in the short term to curb agricultural demand in these food and drink producing regions of Southern Europe, environmental and water policies set by the European Union will continue to put pressure on industry to cut its use in production - food and drink industries included.

With demand exceeding supply, costs will also inevitably rise in the medium term. Work is now being carried out under the new Integrated Pollution and Prevention and Control System in Seville at the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies on developing BAT (best available techniques).

This involves clean up targets for each sector of industry and water savings will be among them.

The brewing industry has taken note and for the past 20 years it has been changing its process so as to curb its use of water and the UK industry claims to have cut its water consumption by more than 30%. Information produced by the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association shows that for the first 6 years between 1976 and 1996, specific water consumption hovered around 8.5 to 9 hectolitres for every hectolitre brewed.

By 1996, this had been reduced to around 6 hectolitres of water to each hectolitre brewed.

John Hammond, who runs the Brewing Research Foundation's microbiology laboratory said: "Minimising the use of new water is good and this should be recycled as much as possible. Minimising waste is also important and we must ensure the quality of effluent we produce as well."

"Costs for disposing of effluent have soared, so minimisation tends to go hand in hand with environmental improvements," he added.

The Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, Denmark, has achieved spectacular success with its own water-savings programme. The target Carlsberg set in 1977 has resulted in a 50% reduction in the amount of water used per litre of beer produced at its Copenhagen plant.

The company modified the plant so that washing, pasteurisation and bottling machines recycled the water used. At the same time processes were systematically revised and modified to encourage water saving. These changes to machinery and processes saved a total of 200,000 m3/year of water.

A similar approach was applied to the brewing area. Cleaning water is now collected in a tank, pumped through a filter and re-used. This saves 35,000 m3/year of water.

Reducing the amount of water used also cuts down the amount of effluent, leading to energy savings of about 25% per litre of beer produced.

The famous Guinness brewery in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland has another source of pride these days. It claims to be the first brewery worldwide to win ISO 14001 accreditation for its environmental management approach to its production process.

Under the ISO-approved plan, the Guinness Ireland Group sets objectives and targets over 5 years for all parts of its process at the St. James Gate Brewery. Each manager has a water reduction target, as part of a continual process of improvement.

As for other breweries, the water used in the brewing process is measured by volumes of water to each pint of beer produced. This, since ISO, has been by a volume of one. The process is running at 8 volumes of water to one of beer and the absolute target would be 5.

For target setting, one has to compare like with like and it depends on whether the process is brewing or bottling. Guinness uses a combination of town water and canal water. The canal water is used for rough processes, such as cooling, as it alleviates the demand on the town water supply.

Noted for the cleanness of its drinking water, Dublin claims to have the cleanest supply in Europe and when Guinness opened a new brewing plant in 1984, the company switched to the purer Dublin town supply.

Brewing is forging ahead on water saving but what about other sectors of the drinks industry?

Cadbury Schweppes and Coca-Cola, for example, highlight their general environmental improvement work on their websites but are strangely silent on the issue of water savings.

The wine-making industry varies enormously. Small operations find that water use is simply not a consideration. The picture maybe different for the large wine-producing co-operatives of France and Germany, but again, the hard figures are lacking.

Scotland is a famous whisky producer, so what are the pressures, if any, to save water use in distilling?

Campbell Evans of the Scotch Whisky Association said: "Scotland is not short of water. 90% of what we use is for cooling, so this goes straight back into the system, so there is not the same pressure."

"Yes, there are certainly issues such as discharges, but it's the treatment and the quality of the effluent that is an issue rather than the amount," he added.

Deirdre Mason.