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Sound and independent information
on the environment

Belgium

Freshwater (Belgium)

Why should we care about this issue

Topic
Freshwater Freshwater
more info
NFP-Belgium
Organisation name
NFP-Belgium
Reporting country
Belgium
Organisation website
Organisation website
Contact link
Contact link
Last updated
22 Dec 2010
Content license
CC By 2.5
Content provider
NFP-Belgium
Published: 05 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 22 Dec 2010 original
Key message

Sufficient water and water of good quality are essential for life and all economic activity.

The increasing demand by citizens and environmental organisations for cleaner rivers and lakes, groundwater and coastal waters has been evident for a considerable amount of time. This demand is one of the reasons why the EU established a Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) for water protection and management, in order to prevent and reduce pollution, promote sustainable water use, protect the aquatic environment, improve the status of aquatic ecosystems and mitigate the effects of floods and droughts. To achieve these objectives by 2015, the three Belgian regions and the federal government1 are working on integrated river basin management plans (for the Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine and Seine districts) and programmes of measures appropriate for each water body. The major measures seek to prevent deterioration, restore and improve the quality of aquatic environment (water resources and ecosystem) and associated wetlands, reduce and eliminate discharges of hazardous substances, achieve good chemical and ecological status and ensure a balance between groundwater abstraction and replenishment.

Water is not scarce in Belgium and water supply is generally continuous and of good quality. Nevertheless, Belgium still faces major water pollution challenges because of intensive agriculture (use of pesticides and nitrogenous fertilisers is among the highest in the OECD), industrial activity and densely populated areas. A large and increasing proportion of groundwater aquifers have high levels of nitrates and pesticides. Besides, wastewater treatment has long lagged behind. Thanks to the concerted effort of the three Belgian regions, industrial discharges to water continued to decline and the share of the population connected to a wastewater treatment plant grew from 42 % to 69 % between 2000 and 2007. As a result, the concentration of pollutants in many surface waters dropped, and aquatic life became more abundant. Moreover, further reforms in the financing of water infrastructure led to a more consistent application of the polluter pays principle. Overall, Belgium’s pricing policy reflects the fact that water is an economic commodity with a social dimension.

 


1 Belgium’s three regions bear most of the responsibility for fresh water management, whereas the federal government is responsible for protection of the North Sea and for setting product standards.

The state and impacts

Published: 05 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 22 Dec 2010 original
Key message

High concentrations of nitrate in Belgian groundwater remains a point of concern

Figures

Figure 1 : Nitrate concentration in upper groundwater bodies in Belgium

Sources: EEA/WISE, ISC-CIE/SCALDIT, CIPM-ICBM, ICPR, IBGE-BIM, SPW-DGARNE (Survey nitrate)
Data source
http://etat.environnement.wallonie.be/index.php?mact=tbe,mf7538,default,1&mf7538what=fiches&mf7538alias=nitrate-in-groundwater&mf7538returnid=35&page=35
Figure 1 : Nitrate concentration in upper groundwater bodies in Belgium
Fullscreen image Original link

In rural areas, the degradation of groundwater quality is largely the result of excessively high concentrations of nitrate which usually appear when the amount of nitrogen fertilisers applied go beyond the needs of the crops. In urban areas, contamination of groundwater by nitrates derived mainly from the lack of sewers or leaks in the sewage network of residual urban waste water.

Generally, the highest levels of contamination (more than 50 mg NO3-/l) are observed in the northern part of Belgium (Flemish Region), especially in the less deep phreatic groundwater bodies (e.g. Quaternary sands, Tertiary Brusselian and Yperian sands, Quaternary Meuse-Rhine deposits and Terrace sediments…), in areas where agricultural activity and/or the density of population is particularly high.

Due to a change of monitoring system and monitoring practices between 2003 and 2004, no long-term trends can be determined in the three Belgian regions. For the Flemish Region, a complete new groundwater monitoring network consisting of 2.100 multi-level wells (located in agricultural areas) has been operational since 2004. For the Walloon Region, the application of the WFD required a restructuring and a redeployment of the existing groundwater monitoring network in 2006, in order to improve its representativeness by taking into account the less characterised water bodies and the non-exploited resources. The Walloon WFD network includes +/- 600 sites of control.

The nitrate concentrations in groundwater throughout Belgium have increased in recent years: the proportion of monitoring points with average nitrate concentrations higher than 25 mg/l went from 46,4 % (in 2004) to 49,8 % (over the period 2007-2008). This trend is not necessarily linked to the current development of agricultural practices, which goes towards a reduction in the application of (organic and mineral) nitrogen fertilisers. Next to the availability of external N-sources the degree of contamination of the groundwater bodies depends also on other factors such as rainfall, transfer time to aquifers, local manure, and the vulnerability of the shallow aquifers or the quantity of nitrogen still present in the soils. Groundwater bodies are ‘slow-response’ systems in general so that, due to the travel times of nitrate bearing infiltration water, effects of measures in shallow groundwater are visible earliest after several months, usually after years and locally after decennia.

 

Flemish Region

Walloon Region

Brussels Capital Region

Monitoring points

20041

20071

2004

2008

2004

2007-2008

Points sampled

1728

2031

439

615

17

24

% > 25 mg NO3/l2

45,4

48,1

50,6

55,9

41,2

37,5

% > 50 mg NO3/l3

35,7

38,2

11,1

13,8

29,4

25

1: Nitrate concentration measured in autumn

2 : Target value for (European Nitrate Directive)

3 : The European Nitrate Directive stipulates that the concentration anywhere in groundwater must not be higher than 50mg nitrate/l (norm for drinkability)

Sources : VMM (MAP- groundwater monitoring network), MIRA, IBGE-BIM, SPW-DGARNE (Survey nitrate )

 

Key message

Quality of surface waters improved in Belgium but additional efforts are still necessary to reach the targets

Figures

Figure 2: Oxygen related pollutants and nutrients

Oxygen related pollutants and nutrients
Data source
http://aquaphyc.environnement.wallonie.be/
Figure 2: Oxygen related pollutants and nutrients
Fullscreen image Original link

Nutrients in freshwater

Excessive discharges of nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, organic matter...) in fresh surface water may lead to eutrophication. This generally causes increased algae growth and less oxygen in the water, accompanied by an increased risk of mortality for some aquatic organisms. In these circumstances, many watercourses will probably not achieve the good ecological status required in 2015 by the European Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD).

When it comes to the levels of organic matter, nitrogen (excluding nitrates), and phosphorus compounds, the situation for Belgium's surface waters has improved over the last 20 years, especially in the Scheldt river basin district (as shown in Figure 2 for the major parameters monitored in the two main watercourses (Scheldt and Meuse) at the entrance and the exit of the Belgian territory). 

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 05 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 22 Dec 2010 original
Key message

The excess of nitrogen in the agricultural soils of Belgium is decreasing.

Figures

Figure 3: Gross nutrient balance for nitrogen

Sources: Statistics Belgium, ILVO
Data source
http://www.ilvo.vlaanderen.be/default.aspx?tabid=83&language=en-US
Figure 3: Gross nutrient balance for nitrogen
Fullscreen image Original link

High nutrient balances exert pressures on the environment in terms of an increased risk of leaching of nitrates to ground- and surface waters. The gross nitrogen balance was calculated to be 126 kg N/ha in 2006, which is 48 % lower than the balance in 1990 (241 kg N/ha). In 1990 the Belgian nitrogen balance was characterised by a huge difference between the northern (Flemish Region) and the southern (Walloon Region) part of the country. The balance surplus was nearly three times higher in Flanders than in the Wallonia, mainly due to high livestock densities in the north and north-west of the Flemish Region. Between 1990 and 2006, not only the surpluses were reduced in both regions but the range became much smaller. The nitrogen balance of Flanders was decreased to 147 kg N/ha in 2006 (-61 % compared to 1990). This reduction is mainly caused by a decrease in livestock nutrient production (-15 %), inorganic fertiliser use (-43 %) and atmospheric nitrogen deposition (-25 %). In the Walloon Region the nitrogen balance was reduced to 111 kg N/ha in 2006 (-20 % compared to 2000). This is mainly due to a decrease in livestock production (-9 %), inorganic fertiliser use (-24 %) and atmospheric N-deposition (-8 %) between 1990 and 2006. 

 

Key message

Fluctuating and slightly decreasing trend of nutrients discharge in the North Sea.

Figures

Figure 4: Total Nitrogen(N) and phosphorus (P) discharges to the Belgian coastal waters by rivers from 1990 to 2008

Source: Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models and the Scheldt estuary
Data source
http://www.mumm.ac.be
Figure 4: Total Nitrogen(N) and phosphorus (P) discharges to the Belgian coastal waters by rivers from 1990 to 2008
Fullscreen image Original link

Data sources

http://www.mumm.ac.be
Data sources
Source

Nutrients to the North Sea

The Belgian part of the North Sea covers approximately 3 454 km², which is barely half a percent of the total surface of the North Sea. The North Sea is a sensitive ecosystem that is under a great deal of pressures from intense human activities such as fishing, sand and gravel extraction, shipping, oil and gas extraction, tourism and industry. According to the last Quality Status Report of the OSPAR Commission, the consequences of fishing, the inflow of harmful substances and the excessive quantities of nutrients in the sea (eutrophication) cause the main problems in the North Sea.

In the Belgian coastal zone (BCZ), the Scheldt watershed is the main source of nutrients, contributing to 69 % of  the total emission of N and 73 % of the total emissions of P. The Coast watershed is responsible for some 20 % of N and P discharge while the Ijzer contribute to only 10 % of N and 7 % of P total emissions (Brion et al., 2006).

Long-term trends (1966-2005) of nutrient loads (N, P) from the Scheldt1 show marked variations during this period. Nutrients originating mainly from point source, such as NH4+ and PO43-, show a marked decreasing long-term trend in their loads. This improvement mainly comes from the progressive ban of phosphates from detergents, the increased wastewater treatment capacity and the intensification of estuarine nitrification resulting from the net improvement of the oxygenation of the Scheldt river system following the implementation of secondary wastewater treatment. However nutrients of diffuse origin (agriculture) are mainly modulated by fluctuations of the Scheldt runoff. Despite the fluctuations related to hydrological conditions, NO3+ NO2- loads show a global increase since the mid-seventies, reflecting not only the evolution of diffuse sources of nitrate through leaching of agricultural soils but also the improvement of the oxygen status of the river, which reduced denitrification but increased the nitrification of the ammonium load. As a result of NH4+ and NO3+ NO2- load fluctuations, total nitrogen loads show a slight decreasing trend from the early eighties up to 2008 (Brion et al., 20062).

From 1990 to 1996, the data comprise riverine as well as direct discharges in the sense of the OSPAR convention. Since 1997, there have been no direct discharges as a result of generalised water treatment in the coastal river and polder basins. From 1990 to 1996, these direct N and P discharges were only a minor fraction of the total N and P loads. 

 


1 This trends integrate changes in both nutrient emissions in the Scheldt watershed and their biogeochemical transformations along the aquatic continuum

The 2020 outlook

Published: 05 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 22 Dec 2010 original
Key message

Belgium still has a long way to go in order to achieve a good status by 2015

The 2000/60/EC directive requires integrated management of water by river basin district, and sets strict qualitative and quantitative objectives so that surface and groundwater can maintain or achieve a good status by 2015 (a good ecological and chemical status for surface water and a good quantitative and chemical status for groundwater). The Belgian territory is concerned by 4 international river basin districts (Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine and in a very small extent Seine).

At the current stage of the analysis, 62 % of the Belgian surface water bodies (348/559) run the risk of not achieving a good qualitative status by 2015. The problems are mainly in the district of the Scheldt and in certain sub-catchments in the Meuse district (e.g. Sambre and Vesdre for example). Regarding ground waters, the situation is quite similar in the sense that approximately 58 % of water bodies run the risk of not achieving a good chemical and quantitative status by 2015.

 

 

Failure to achieve a good (ecological and chemical) status in 2015 for surface waters (number of water bodies)

 

Flemish Region

Walloon Region

Brussels Capital Region

Total

Risk

195

151

2

348

No Risk

7

203

1

211

Undetermined Risk

0

0

0

0

Total

202

354

3

559

 

Failure to achieve a good (chemical and quantitative) status in 2015 for ground waters (number of water bodies)

 

Flemish Region

Walloon Region

Brussels Capital Region

Total

Risk

35

10

1

46

No Risk

7

23

4

34

Undetermined Risk

0

0

0

0

Total

42

33

5

80

Sources : VMM (Integraal Water Beleid - Vol van Water), SPW-DGARNE (directive-cadre eau), IBGE-BIM

 

Key message

The three Belgian Regions have drawn up their River Basin Management plans.

After a status report of the water bodies and the implementation of surveillance networks, the three Belgian regions have drawn up river basin management plans. These plans must, in particular, set the reference conditions for a good status, the environmental objectives, possible exemptions, and the measures to put in place within each river basin district (Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Seine). All the measures must be operational before 31 December 2012.

The current plans propose several measures mainly geared towards the agricultural and industrial sectors as well as towards protecting zones which are at risk (Natura 2000, bathing zones, groundwater catchment protection zones etc.). A large proportion of the actions proposed are already included in regulations (basic measures). Nevertheless, a series of supplementary measures must be applied for water bodies which are at risk, in other words, where the basic measures are inefficient. These supplementary measures are the subject of a cost/efficiency study, the results of which will have to justify, for some water bodies, the eventual recourse to exemptions in the form of a postponement of deadlines or objectives which are not as strict. 

 

Existing and planned responses

Published: 05 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 22 Dec 2010 original
Key message

Several measures are taken in various action programmes in order to reduce nitrate concentration in groundwater bodies.

Nitrogen management plans (Nitrates Directive)

To reduce the environmental nitrate pollution in general and to reduce treatment to make water drinkable, the three Belgian regions have taken several measures listed in different action programmes such as the Programme for the Sustainable Management of Nitrogen in Agriculture (PGDA-2) in the Walloon Region or the Manure decree and its related manure action plans in the Flemish Region (in accordance with the European ‘Nitrates’ Directive). These programmes not only impose various measures on farmers to reduce nitrogen leaching (e.g. norms for fertiliser application, ‘nitrate trap’ crops, storage of livestock effluent, measurements of potentially leachable nitrate in the soil...) but also promote the use of low nutrient feed, and foster farmer know-how and good agricultural practice. Furthermore the implemented expanded multifunctional monitoring networks in Flanders and Wallonia are part of the action programmes and help to evaluate the effects of measures and the related nitrates trend evolution.

The regions are also pursuing a programme to protect drinking water source areas by designating protection zones for groundwater and regulating some activities within these zones. If the quality of the groundwater does not improve, they intend to apply supplementary measures, which are detailed in river basin district management plans. 

 

Key message

Waste water collection and treatment are progressing.

Figures

Figure 5: Treatment of domestic waste water

Evolution of the part of population connected to Urban Waste Water Treatment Plants (UWWTP) in Belgium, by Region (Sources: IRCEL-CELINE, SPGE, AQUAFIN)
Data source
http://www.aquafin.be/nl/indexb.php?n=90
Figure 5: Treatment of domestic waste water
Fullscreen image Original link

Water treatment (Urban Waste Water Directive)

Between 2000 and 2007, the percentage of the national population connected to Urban Waste Water Treatment Plants (UWWT) (Belgium as a whole) increased from 42 % to 69 %. There are some differences between the regions but the overall trend is similar, after smaller progress in the middle of the decade, the level increased faster during the last few years. The new UWWT-plant of Brussels-North gives a boost to the percentage.

 

Estimation of the Evolution of the part (%) of population connected to Urban Waste Water Treatment Plants (UWWTP) in Belgium, by region:

 

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

Flanders

52,0

56,6

59,5

61,7

63,0

64,4

66,7

70,3

Wallonia

33,6

36,5

41,9

43,9

45,9

47,4

48,0

56,9

Brussels*

10,0

20,0

20,1

20,0

20,0

20,1

33,0

98,0

Belgium

42,0

46,5

49,9

51,9

53,3

54,5

57,2

68,6

 * For Brussels, the data are an estimation based on Equivalent Inhabitant instead of inhabitants

 

Key message

In the Flemish Region the level of wastewater treatment is increasing faster again and sewerage level is increasing slowly.

Sewerage level increasing slowly

At the end of 2007, the sewerage level was 87 %. As it would be too expensive to connect all inhabitants to the sewerage system, the sewerage level will never reach 100 %. For this reason, the level of implementation of the sewerage system is monitored. The implementation level is the number of inhabitants that currently are connected to this sewerage system with respect to the number of inhabitants that was foreseen by the municipalities to discharge into the sewerage system when drafting the total sewerage plans (TSPs). At the end of 2007, the implementation level in Flanders was 92 %.

The collection of wastewater is a joint responsibility of the region and the municipalities. Municipalities construct the sewers and connect the households, and the region connects the sewage systems to UWWT-plants. The region subsidises the construction of sewers and small-scale UWWT-plants.

Level of wastewater treatment increasing faster again

At the end of 2007, the level of wastewater treatment was 70.3 %, compared with 66.6 % in 2006. In 2003 and 2004, the contract award rate of Aquafin was very low, partly because of a number of blocked projects for which additional action was taken. In 2006 and particularly in 2007, the contract award rate was noticeably higher. In order to reach the 80 % target set in the MINAplan3+ (2008-2010), it will be necessary to keep the contract award rate in the coming years comparable with that of 2007. Estimates for 2008 indicate a further increase of the level till above 73 %. At the end of 2008, 232 regional UWWT-plants were operational in Flanders. Nine new plants were added, six of which had a capacity of more than 2 000 p.e. (important for the European Directive on Urban Waste Water). The average removal rate for 2008 for the entire Flemish Region of nitrogen and phosphorus reached 77 % and 84 % respectively.

 

Key message

The Walloon Region is catching up concerning waste water treatment capacity and the collecting system network widens.

The Walloon Region is catching up

As of 31 December 2008, Wallonia had 358 UWWTPs, 55 % of which were low capacity (treating urban wastewater from agglomerations with a population equivalent (p.e.) less than 2 000). In total, the treatment plants can treat ± 3 370 000 p.e., which makes the plants equipment rate for the Walloon Region 73 %. At the end of 2008, the treatment plants that are still to be installed represented 8.5 % of the objectives which needed to be reached at the end of 2005.

Since the creation of the Société Publique de Gestion de l’Eau (SPGE) in 2000, collective treatment of wastewater has improved, largely thanks to the building of large-capacity public treatment plants, Wallonia’s latest and biggest of which (Liège-Oupeye: 446 500 p.e.) was opened in November 2007. Among the 61 UWWTPs with a capacity of 10 000 p.e. and over, 49 are equipped with tertiary denitrification and dephosphorisation treatments (for a total capacity of 2 333 500 p.e.), so as to respond to the requirements of the 91/271/EEC directive. Furthermore, at the end of 2008, 99 % of urban wastewater treatment plants with a capacity of more than 2 000 p.e. were discharging water which complied with European requirements in terms of organic pollution.

The collecting system network widens

According to the PASHs (Plans d'Assainissement par Sous-Bassins Hydrographiques), the total length of the sewerage network should be 19 530 km in Wallonia. At the end of 2008, 84,5 % of sewers were constructed, and ± 60 % of municipalities had sewage rates higher than 80 %. Performance in terms of collection of urban wastewater does not seem so good, given that 40% of collectors are yet to be installed. However, existing waterways already collect most effluent, with the density of the habitat upstream of future collectors generally being less elevated than at the agglomerations centers. The region is encouraging the municipalities which have agreed a ‘contrat d’agglomération’ to complete their sewerage networks. Thanks to this contract, they can have access to a sewerage funding system which will halve their contribution to the total cost of the sewerage work.

 

Key message

Waste water of 98% of equivalent inhabitants is now treated in treatment plants.

In order to fulfill European obligations, the Brussels Capital Region has two operational wastewater treatment plants, one in the south (2000) and one in the north (2007) of Brussels. About 98% of wastewater (expressed as equivalent inhabitants) rejected in the Brussels-Capital Region is currently collected and treated. This level will reach 100% after construction and connection of two additional collectors at the South plant. Work to adapt the south purification plant is scheduled in order to equip it with so-called “tertiary” treatment that will improve its performance with regard to removal of nitrogen and phosphorus in order to comply with the prevailing European legislation. As these stations also treat a part of the wastewater produced in the Flemish Region, investment and exploitation costs are shared. A collaboration agreement stipulates the contribution of the Flemish Region at 15.7 % for the ‘North’ plant and at 11.7 % for the ‘South’ plant. Making the ‘North’ plant operational was a major step forward.

 

Disclaimer

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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