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You are here: Home / Media / News / Europe's water quality generally improving but agriculture still the main challenge

Europe's water quality generally improving but agriculture still the main challenge

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The protection and quality of Europe's water is generally improving but there is little or no progress in combating some types of pollution or overuse of water in certain regions, both issues that are linked particularly to agriculture.

NEWS RELEASE

Copenhagen, 27 November 2003


Europe's water quality generally improving but agriculture still the main challenge

The protection and quality of Europe's water is generally improving but there is little or no progress in combating some types of pollution or overuse of water in certain regions, both issues that are linked particularly to agriculture.

This makes it important to monitor the effects of next year's enlargement of the European Union on agriculture and water resources in the new Member States. Economic restructuring in central and eastern Europe during the 1990s generally led to reduced pressures on the aquatic environment, but any widespread intensification of agriculture after EU enlargement is likely to reverse this trend.

The European Environment Agency today publishes a short briefing paper, Status of Europe's water, summarising the overall picture and highlighting the issues on which progress is and is not being made. The briefing is based on the EEA report Europe's water: an indicator-based assessment, published last month.

Nearly 30 years of European Union environmental legislation, together with national and international action, to protect and improve the aquatic environment are bearing fruit in many areas, although large gaps in data on some issues mean that related conclusions must be treated with caution.

Where overall progress is being achieved on an issue there can still be specific problems and geographical 'hot spots,' however.

The areas of progress include generally improving river quality in 14 countries for which information is available. Pollution of rivers and lakes by phosphorus and organic matter from industry and households has seen a notable reduction, and discharges of these substances into the seas have also fallen.

River pollution by heavy metals and other hazardous substances is generally decreasing and there is evidence that this is also lowering concentrations in Europe's seas. The total amount of oil spilt from vessels dropped during the 1990s.

There has also been progress in reducing overall water withdrawals ('abstraction') and use, except in the western part of southern Europe.

Furthermore, significant improvements in information about Europe's water have been achieved through the implementation of Eurowaternet, a water data and information gathering network coordinated by the EEA.

By contrast, no overall progress is being made on reducing nitrate and pesticide pollution or water withdrawals for irrigation, energy use and tourism.

Nitrate pollution, particularly from fertilisers used in agriculture, has remained constant and high. Nitrate concentrations in rivers remain highest in those western European countries where agriculture is most intensive. There is no evidence of changes of nitrate concentrations in groundwater, and nitrate in drinking water remains a common problem across Europe.

Pesticides from agriculture continue to be present at concentrations that are cause for concern in raw water used for drinking water production, but lack of data makes it impossible to establish trends.

Regarding water withdrawals, there has been a slightly increasing trend in agricultural water use, such as for irrigation, in western southern Europe. The same trend can be seen in water for energy production in the countries of central and eastern Europe that will join the EU next May.

Tourism is placing a significant and most probably growing burden on water resources in many parts of southern Europe. Excessive water withdrawal remains a major concern in areas such as the coast and islands of the Mediterranean where drinking water sources have consequently become contaminated with seawater.

The briefing paper is the first in an occasional series. It is published on the EEA website. The full report is available at http://reports.eea.europa.eu/topic_report_2003_1 and the summary at http://reports.eea.europa.eu/report_2003_0617_150910/en/tab_abstract_RLR.

Notes for Editors

The countries that will join the EU next May, known as the acceding countries, are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania are negotiating to join at a later date, while Turkey has applied for EU membership but has not yet started negotiations.

About the EEA

The European Environment Agency is the main source of information used by the European Union and its Member States in developing environment policies. The Agency aims to support sustainable development and to help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policy-making agents and the public. Established by the EU in 1990 and operational in Copenhagen since 1994, the EEA is the hub of the European environment information and observation network (Eionet), a network of around 300 bodies across Europe through which it both collects and disseminates environment-related data and information.

The Agency, which is open to all nations that share its objectives, currently has 31 member countries. These are the 15 EU Member States; Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, which are members of the European Economic Area; and the 13 EU acceding and candidate countries, namely Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, the Slovak Republic and Turkey. The EEA is the first EU body to take in the acceding and candidate countries. Negotiations on EEA membership are also under way with Switzerland.



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