European Voice conference 'Europe's Water'

Speech Published 28 Feb 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011, 09:43 PM
Topics: ,
Head of 'water group' Beate Werner's speech at the conference, Thursday, 28 February 2008, Brussels

Threats to water quality

I am glad that the question of water quality at this workshop is discussed with the same intensity as the question of water scarcity and water resources. Whenever we talk about water resources, the quality question is inextricably linked to it in several ways. And we for sure still have a problem. Even if the focus of the discussion at the moment is on water resources, scarcity and flooding, far from all quality issues are resolved in Europe,. And with the intense discussions around bioenergy, next to the questions on water resources, new risks for water quality are coming up.

Let me give you a short overview on where we stand with water quality in Europe.

The most recent analysis on water quality we presented from the Agency side was as part of the big fourth assessment we provided to the Belgrade conference — UNECE Environment for Europe. This shows a quite differentiated picture across the pan-European region.

In the 'new' Member States and the eastern and south eastern European countries, high pollution from point sources is still a problem due to the slow implementation of basic measures for water quality protection. Old and unstable supply infrastructure, leakages and cross contamination pose a serious threat to drinking water quality. Working together with the WHO we found that more then 100 million people in the pan-European region still do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. I guess we will hear more about that later from the colleague from WHO.

On the other hand we see significant improvements in the 'old' Member States of EU-15, especially in the 90s. Whereas progress since then has been slower.

From our most recent data collection on nutrients in European waters we know that phosphorous concentrations have been decreasing in rivers and lakes over the last 14 years, with a big drop in the beginning 90s and a levelling out in recent years.

Next to the implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, the use of phosphate-free detergent was indeed a very important achievement, which I would like to stress here, is absolutely vital to keep!

This improvement in the 90s is also reflected in the quality of bathing water. In the first years after implementation of the directive there was a significant improvement towards about 90 % and 95 % compliance for freshwater and coastal zones respectively, but in recent years this level has remained constant, or is even dropping again. It looks as though improvements are now rather due to the careful selection of the Bathing water sites reported than to real improvements in water quality.

In contrast to phosphorous, nitrate levels have only fallen slightly or remained at the same level over the years. Just to give some numbers. Even if there was a decreasing trend for 32 % of groundwater bodies between 1992 and 2005, still 19 out of 31 countries had in 2005 groundwater bodies which exceeded the maximum allowable concentration of 50 mg/l. At 11 % of the groundwater bodies we even had increasing trends. Surface water monitoring shows a similar picture, with some remarkable reductions, but countries with greatest agricultural land use and highest population density (like Belgium, Denmark or the United Kingdom) had generally higher nitrate concentrations in rivers and lakes than countries like Norway, Finland or Sweden.

This picture is confirmed by the first analysis of characterisation of water bodies that member states reported under the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. This was published last year. This shows a worse picture then expected with 40 % of all water bodies (30 % for ground water) being at risk of failing to achieve the objectives of the Water Framework Directive in 2015, in particular in densely populated areas. Even if this might be worst case scenarios given by Member States to be later on the 'safe side', it shows that next to the already discussed problems of overexploitation, particular pressures from diffuse pollution, and for the eastern and south European countries also pollution from point sources, are still a problem.

To highlight the relationship between loads of nitrogen and phosphorous and with that the relationship between the pollution from diffuse or point sources, a so-called source apportionment has been carried out in several studies, allocating the pollution loads of both nutrients to their sources over time and for different areas.

All results clearly show that phosphorous loads, being linked mainly to inputs from waste water, fell widely. But nitrogen loads, coming from both urban waste water and agriculture, stay high particularly in areas with highly intensive agriculture. For several large river basins, such as the Rhine, Danube and Odra, significant relationships can be found between the use of fertilisers and the regional nutrient surplus on the one hand, and downstream nitrogen concentrations on the other. Statistical speaking, the surplus of nitrogen from agriculture (fertiliser the plants did not utilise) gives the best statistical explanation for high levels of downstream nitrogen.

From our agricultural indicator report we can provide more information on the so-called gross nutrient balances, which provide a picture of this nutrient surplus. The nutrient surplus is calculated by subtracting the output contained in harvested crops from the inputs of fertiliser and manure application. The higher the surplus, the higher the risk of nitrogen leaching into the water.

The average in Europe is around 55 kg/N per ha and year. The calculations for the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany all show values above 100 kg N/ha/year, and still over 75 for Greece and Danmark, which actually shows precisely the areas with high agricultural intensity.

So, diffuse pollution resulting from inappropriate use of nutrients and pesticides is still the Number one water quality problem in Europe. And we are not improving our performance. The basic measures in place (Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, Nitrate Directive, Drinking Water Directive) seem to have reached a high level of implementation, but struggle to reach the last step to full compliance.

The question of the cost efficiency of measures is also important. Another study carried out by the EEA on the effectiveness of implementation of the Urban Waster Water Treatment Directive showed that it is more cost efficient to reduce the pollution at source than to continuously count on 'end-of-pipe' solutions. But the focus on reduction at source might not only apply to the question of reduction of waste water, but also draw the attention to the diffuse sources of nutrients, which are not tackled so far. And as I said earlier, the main source for diffuse pollution remains agriculture!

And we are likely to see an even more pronounced intensification in agriculture, if we follow the path of using bioenergy as an important way of limiting carbon dioxide emissions. I see this as a very important area where we have to consider impacts and effects across several environmental media.

The fostering of bioenergy (and we have to talk about bioenergy, not only focusing on agrofuels) is for sure an important element in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

But we have to do it right and have to make sure not to put additional pressure on the water environment.

The sustainability criteria proposed by the Commission in January in the energy and climate change package aim to address this issue, but only focus on agro-fuels. We therefore need a broader approach to ensure that we do not end up with another deterioration of Europe's waters.

On top of nutrients we have an increasing variety of different loads of chemicals and emerging substances. The well known problems, lead, several pesticides DDT etc. seem to be on the way out. However, we still need consisted monitoring to confirm these signs of success. But more worrying for me are other emerging substances. Endocrine disrupting substances for example, which at the moment we simply don not know enough about.

The first analysis of implementation of the water framework directive showed that there is not enough information, or very varying information, about chemical pollution and priority substances. The monitoring networks have gaps which will only be addressed in the next few years.

Finally I would like to go back to where I began: our assessments of water quality recently in the Belgrade report. The comparison between the old and new Member States shows also another interesting aspect. The maintenance of the supply structure is absolutely vital not only for sustainable resource management but also for a high water quality/drinking water quality. And we have to be aware that currently in many countries the water supply infrastructure is getting aged and facing a phase of renewal. It is crucial in this process to have a clear understanding of the right dimension and size of the network and make it fit with a sustainable consumption, guided by the principles of a water saving culture. Too small dimensioned infrastructures create problems for sufficient water supply and in the drainage system with storm water overflow and related contamination. But too big dimensions create problems too as the time of stay of water in the pipes leads to microbiological problems in both the supply as well as the drainage systems.

Saying this I look forward to the discussion we will have later today in the afternoon on business and water.

I would even have liked to see the scope of this afternoon's discussion widened to include all stakeholders, also competent authorities as part of the question of how to manage water sustainable and cost efficiently for the sake of the environment and human health.

Water is a common good, but it is at the same moment also an economic good in the sense that it is the precondition for economic processes, such as the production of agricultural or industrial products.

Saying that we have to be aware that:

On the one hand good quality water has its price and a cost efficient maintenance of good water quality has also to include the polluter pays principle.

On the other hand water indeed is a common good and the management of water, more precisely 'the management planning in the river basin' is something that has to be provided in a joint effort from all stakeholders living on and living from a river, agriculture, local authorities, private households, small medium and larger business, using and needing water in different processes.

The Water Framework Directive with its tools, in particular the public participation gives us, gives the Member States and competent authorities good possibilities in hand to do a widely integrated water management involving all stakeholders and ensuring the achievements of the objectives of the water Framework Directive, but there is still some way to go.


Relevant EEA reports for further information on water quality

Sign up to receive our reports (print and/or electronic) and quarterly e-newsletter.
Follow us
European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100