Why should we care about this issue
Water quality affects the freshwater ecosystems and thus the vital ecosystem services. Water quality must be at a high enough level to avoid problems with, for example, drinking water, eutrophication and biodiversity.
In addition to making the environments in which we live more attractive, clean waters give better opportunities for recreation and fishing. Health risks posed by algae, the sliminess of shores and fishnets, and aesthetic nuisances will be reduced. Cleaner waters benefit people who live or have holiday houses along shores, as well as municipalities and entrepreneurs. Further, the safety of drinking water is important while, at the same time, water treatment costs will be reduced. Another benefit is that reintroducing migrating fish and other aquatic organisms into dammed waters improves the usability of water resources.
The state and impacts
Surface waters 
Finland is rich in surface waters, with a total of 187 888 lakes and ponds larger than 500 square metres, and rivers totalling 25 000 kilometres in length. Almost a tenth of the country‘s land area is covered by water. Finland’s lakes contain only 235 cubic kilometers of water (Main characteristics of the surface waters in Finland). Finland’s shallow lakes are easily contaminated by pollution. Even relatively low concentrations of excess nutrients, acidic deposition or other harmful contaminants can easily disrupt their sensitive aquatic ecosystems.
Discharges of harmful substances into Finland’s inland and coastal waters have fallen considerably during the last few decades.
The monitoring and state of surface waters
The monitoring is composed of both administrative monitoring and compulsory inspections by industrial operators and other businesses. The frequency of water quality observations and the factors under analysis vary according to local needs. Biological monitoring has been expanded, and the process will continue over the coming years.
Ecological and chemical state of surface waters
Most of Finland’s classified water bodies are in a high or good ecological state. Waters with lower ecological status than ‘good’ include almost a third of the classified lakes, half of the classified stretches of rivers, and more than half of the total extent of coastal waters. With a few exceptions, the chemical state of the water is good.
New classification system for the surface waters
The classification in 2008 was carried out to meet the obligations under the EU Water Framework Directive and related national legislation. A target has been set that all surface waters should have a good or excellent ecological status by 2015, and conditions in waters already classed as good or excellent should not deteriorate.
The amount of work needed to achieve the goal of a good ecological status is greatest for rivers and coastal waters. Particularly in southern, western and southwestern Finland, many rivers are still only in a poor or passable state. Problems include diffuse loads of nutrients from farmland, and constructions such as dams along watercourses. In northern Finland, most rivers are in an excellent or good state.
Currently, the ecological quality status of most of Finland’s inland waters is either good or high. However, the quality of over 40% of total river length and 60% of the coastal water areas included in the plans is moderate, poor or bad. The water quality of Finland’s lakes is generally better. Only 2% of the groundwater resources important to and suitable for water supply purposes are classified as bad, even though approximately 500 groundwater areas are at significant risk from human activity.
The status of lakes is worst for small and medium-sized lakes in agricultural areas, where problems associated with eutrophication, such as algal blooms, are widespread.
High or good
Moderate, poor or bad
Map of the ecological state of Finland’s surface waters
A provisional map of the ecological state of Finland’s surface waters has been completed. Water bodies are classified largely according to monitoring data mainly compiled over the period 2000–2007.
Link to a more detailed map:
- Clear regional patterns observable in ecological conditions in Finland’s rivers
- Large lakes faring well, but some smaller lakes have troubled waters
- The state of the environment in Finland in 2008 p 17: Water bodies mainly in good ecological condition
Chemical status of surface waters
The chemical state of surface waters is classified on the basis of environmental quality norms defined for 42 harmful or hazardous substance and substance groups. The norms, which refer to annual average concentrations of the substances in aquatic environments, were included in Government Decree 1022/2006 on Substances Dangerous and Harmful to the Aquatic Environment. Some of the norms applied in evaluating the chemical state of water bodies have not yet been fully enacted in official legislation, but they still serve as useful guidelines in the classification procedure.
The concentrations of harmful and hazardous substances measured in Finland’s surface waters have generally been below the provisionally defined norms (environmental quality standards), and in many cases the substances have not been detected at all. Chemical statuses worse than “good” have been assigned to several rivers in Ostrobothnia which flow through regions with acidic, sulphate-rich soils, and contain high concentrations of substances including cadmium. Some of the metals that affect the chemical state of water bodies also occur naturally, and this factor must be considered in classifications to ensure that statuses are not misleadingly lowered by naturally high concentrations of metals.
Map 2: Finnish lakes classified by total phosphorus levels (median in 2005-2010). Total P levels were compared to status class boundaries of total p in different lake types.
The earlier general usability classification
The general usability classification of water bodies gives an idea about the average suitability of the water bodies for water supply, fishing and recreation in Finland. The quality class is determined based on the natural quality of the water and human impacts. The water bodies have been classified as: excellent, good, satisfactory, passable and poor (Criteria for the general water quality classification in Finland).
The latest classification was based on data from the period 2000–2003. It covered 82 % of the total area of lakes larger than one square kilometre, 16 % of the total length of rivers more than two metres wide as well as the sea area inside the Finnish territorial waters.
The quality of water was excellent or good in 80 % of the classified lake area. In general, the water quality in rivers was worse than in lakes, because human activities, such as agriculture and development, are concentrated along rivers. Moreover, many rivers are sensitive to the effects of nutrient loading because of their low flow rates. The quality in 43 % of rivers is classified as excellent or good. These rivers are mostly located in northern Finland (Map of water quality of lakes, rivers, and sea areas in 2000-2003), (Comparison of classifications in 1984-2003).
Water quality affected by diffuse loading
In the vicinity of towns and industrial plants, water quality had improved considerably already at the beginning of the 1990s, because of long-term measures for water protection. These measures were further improved during the 1990s. However, a similar improvement in the state of water bodies has not been observed in areas with heavy diffuse loads.
Acidification problems first became evident in the 1960s. It took some time for action to be taken, and ultimately international agreements were signed to curb harmful emissions. The concentrations of sulphur compounds declined and buffering capacity increased in all types of lakes in Finland during the 1990s. Some 5 000 smaller lakes in Finland are now considered to be recovering well from serious acidification problems.
Declining atmospheric deposition has also reduced acidification problems in Finland’s groundwater reserves, although it may take decades for groundwater to recover completely.
In water bodies, eutrophication particularly boosts the growth of planktonic algae. Its effects can be seen in reduced water clarity and the increased growth of filamentous algae and aquatic plants. In the worst cases, eutrophication may result in the increased occurrence of massive blue-green algal blooms, oxygen depletion in winter, and in dramatic changes in fish stocks.
Eutrophication is basically a natural phenomenon. Certain lakes or habitats are naturally poorer in nutrients than others are, but over time they may become richer in nutrients through natural processes. Where nutrient pollution is widespread, however, eutrophication often becomes a problem.
Badly affected lakes can be restored to some extent by removing nutrients from the ecosystem through selective fishing or the removal of excess plant growth. The nutrient-rich silt on lake-beds may also be dredged or covered over. During the winter, air may also be pumped into lakes to improve the oxygen content of their deeper waters and slow the release of nutrients from bottom sediments.
- Eutrophication in Finland, Finnish Environmental Administration
- Current information on algal blooms, Finnish Environmental Administration
Information on concentrations of toxic substances is mainly limited to major point sources of emissions, such as large industrial plants. Municipal wastewater treatment plants, for instance, routinely measure only variables linked to eutrophication and heavy metal concentrations in their treated effluent and sludge. Calculations and extrapolation are also used to estimate the point loads and diffuse loads.
EU legislation and Finland’s other international commitments mean that in future, environmental loads of hazardous substances must be monitored much more widely than they have been so far.
Finland’s groundwater reserves are replenished in the spring when the winter snow and ice melts, and often again in the autumn – typically the rainiest season.
Although Finland has plenty of aquifers – a bit over 6 000 – these resources are not distributed evenly across the country. Water is typically clean, well oxygenated, and often also easily extractable. Especially the Salpausselkä deposits in southern Finland hold important aquifers.
Groundwater can be found in almost every part of Finland, but is particularly widespread in areas with extensive deposits of permeable sands and gravels formed during the last ice age. The depth of the water table may vary from less than a metre to more than thirty metres, but is typically about two to five metres below ground level.
Groundwater reserves can be significantly reduced, and the water table lowered, due to the excessive use of groundwater, or after major groundwork or excavation, as well as following droughts.
In Finland, groundwater is widely used by local residents and by waterworks, since it is often much purer and better protected from contamination than the water in lakes and rivers. Groundwater can usually be consumed safely without any treatment.
Approximately 60 % of the total water supply distributed by Finland’s waterworks consists of groundwater. This figure also includes water from artificially maintained reservoirs of groundwater fed from lakes and rivers.
- See also: Groundwater level, Finnish Environmental Administration
The aquifers in Finland’s glacial deposits rank in quality among the best reserves of groundwater in the world. Groundwater in Finland is generally soft, with low concentrations of dissolved substances and low pH (6-7).
Most of Finland’s groundwater is of good quality, since it is better protected against contamination than surface water. Harmful concentrations of arsenic, fluorine and radon as well as iron and manganese occur in certain areas due to local geological features. Groundwater reserves in Finland do not normally suffer from contamination on a wider scale, since individual bodies of groundwater tend to be small. Considerable contamination may be caused locally where salts are used to de-ice slippery roads, on over-fertilised farmland, at garages and service stations where oils may accidentally enter the soil, and following accidents involving chemicals.
- Groundwater quality and risks to groundwater
- Background concentrations of chemical substances in groundwater in Finland
- Arsenic in groundwater
- Fluoride in groundwater
- Chloride in groundwater
- Radon in groundwater
- Pesticides in groundwater.
Water resources in Finland
During the period 1961-1990, the Finnish territory received a mean precipitation of 660 mm. Of this amount, 341 mm evaporated, while 318 mm flowed into the seas or passed over the national borders. The water storage was increased by 1 mm during this period. The mentioned value 318 mm corresponds to a mean discharge of 3400 m3/s.
The study of some main hydro-meteorological variables (precipitation, snow cover, river discharge) since early 1980s show decreasing snow volumes in southern and central Finland. Consequently, some decrease in spring high flows have been observed in these areas. Precipitation does not reveal statistically significant trends or changes in general. The study of longer time series – starting from 1910s or 1960s – highlights some increasing wintertime river discharges.
The water plants deliver over 1.1 million m3 water daily, and the households consume 3/5 of the water. About 60 % or 0.7 million m3/day of the water is groundwater or artificial groundwater. Supply networks of water plants cover about 90 % and sewage networks about 80 % of Finnish households.
The Water exploitation index (WEI) is one of EEA’s core set indicators. The WEI is the ratio between the annual total water abstraction and the available long-term freshwater expressed as a percentage. The WEI for Finland is about 2 % that is one of the best WEI values in Europe, and far below the value 20 % that is seen as the critical value of WEI.
- Hydrological observation networks, Finnish Environmental Administration
- Water resources, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry
- Isomäki, Eija et al.: Yhdyskuntien vedenhankinnan tulevaisuuden vaihtoehdot. Finnish Environment 27/2007, Finnish Environment Institute (in Finnish).
Water-borne diseases in Finland
The notification of food or water-borne epidemics came into effect in February 1997. The municipal health authorities are responsible for the reporting. It is clear that the identification of a water-borne epidemic is not always straightforward.
A total of 56 epidemics were reported in 1998–2006 with about 16 800 persons fallen ill. In more than 90 % of the cases, the municipal waterworks had delivered the water. Private water supply was used in the rest of cases, for example in different holiday or camping centres or rehabilitation centres. Of the waterworks, most were small units with less than 500 customers. Almost always, the reason for the epidemic is some harmful microbe infecting the drinking water. Even if the groundwater in general is cleaner than the surface waters, the water-borne epidemics are more often caused by the groundwater. WHO publishes regularly fact sheets of outbreaks of water-borne diseases. However, the level of monitoring and the quality of reporting varies greatly between countries.
International evaluations of water policies in Finland
Finland has been placed near the top or at the top in several recent international comparisons of the water and environmental sectors. Water policies in Finland are described in more detail in the report to the UN: Country Profile: Freshwater and Sanitation, Finland, 2004.
United Nations World Water Assessment Programme
United Nations/UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) monitors freshwater issues in order to provide recommendations, develop case studies, enhance assessment capacity at a national level and inform the decision-making process. In the first World Water Development Report in 2003 water quality indicator values were assessed in 122 countries and Finland was ranked number one in this assessment. WWAP has published three reports, the most recent one in 2009.
Water Poverty Index, 2003
In the international Water Poverty Index published by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in 2003, Finland was ranked the best in the world. A total of 147 countries were included in the comparison. The study assessed the extent of water resources, the comprehensiveness of water supply, and water use, as well as environmental impacts and general readiness for addressing water-related concerns.
 Surface water bodies include distinct and significant sections of river systems, i.e. lakes; reservoirs; streams, rivers or canals in their entirety or parts thereof; as well as specific areas of Finland’s coastal waters.
 Source: Map of the ecological state of Finland’s surface waters. Finnish Environmental Administration
 Source: The general usability classification of surface waters. Finnish Environmental Administration
 Source: International evaluations of water policies in Finland. Finnish Environmental Administration
The key drivers and pressures
Water quality is also affected by weather conditions and variations in runoff. During 2000–2003, there were periods where the water quality clearly deteriorated. In 2002 most of the country suffered from the worst drought in several decades, which caused water levels to drop in many water bodies. During the winter of 2002–2003, extremely poor oxygen conditions were observed in about 450 small and shallow lakes, especially in southern and western Finland, and mass die-offs of fish occurred in many of these lakes. The main reasons for the severe oxygen problems were an early ice cover and the low water levels. Low water levels also contributed to the degradation of rivers, especially in south-western Finland.
The nutrient load and natural leaching
Nutrients from diffuse and point sources cause the water quality to deteriorate. The share of the diffuse sources of the total anthropogenic load for phosphorus is about 80 % and for nitrogen about 60 %. The anthropogenic load is higher than the natural leaching for both nutrients. The deposition affects the water quality, too. The input of nutrients due to deposition and natural leaching was estimated to enable the comparison with the amount of nutrient inputs from different anthropogenic sources in 2008.
The comparison between the situation in 2008 and 2004 shows no significant changes. Many of the point source categories as well as the deposition show a slight decrease in the nutrient load. Agriculture is the largest source both in 2004 and in 2008 and the share of agriculture of the total load has slightly increased.
Even if the changes in the nutrient inputs have recently been small, some cases show significant decreases over a longer period of time. Especially emissions of phosphorus from industry and municipalities have had a clear decrease after 1980.
Nutrient balances in agriculture
The use of phosphorus in agriculture has decreased considerably during the last two decades. In the late 1980s, the phosphorus balance was around 30 kg/ha and has decreased smoothly since then to the 5 kg/ha of today. There is a decrease of almost 70 % in the use of phosphorus fertilisers and the phosphorus content in manure has fallen by 15 %. However, no clear signs have been observed in the water bodies despite the decrease in the phosphorus balance. This is basically due to the earlier accumulation of phosphorus in the soil.
In Europe the highest values of phosphorus balance are 15-20 kg/ha (Belgium, the Netherlands). The balance in Finland is slightly lower than in Denmark and Norway but higher than in Sweden (1 kg/ha) and Ireland (7 kg/ha).
The nitrogen balance has had a similar development; from values slightly above 100 kg/ha to below 50 kg/ha which is the average European level. The nitrogen content in the fertilizers has decreased by 20 % and the content in manure by 25 %. This decrease has not yet been visible in the water quality.
Urban wastewater treatment
There were over 200 municipal wastewater treatment facilities in 2004. With a very few exceptions, the treatment facilities use the biological-chemical (i.e. tertiary) process. The total incoming loads of BOD7, phosphorus and nitrogen have steadily increased but the effect of the reduction processes has increased even more. The percentage of reduction, calculated as the ratio between the amount of reduction and the load of the influent, is about 95-96 % for BOD7 and phosphorus. For nitrogen, the improvement of the reduction process has been as clear but the percentage of reduction remains slightly below 50 %
Wastewater treatment in rural areas
The treatment of wastewater in rural areas with no centralised sewerage system will be improved greatly over the coming years, thanks to legislation in the Onsite Wastewater System Decree (542/2003), which came into force on 1 January 2004. The Decree sets minimum standards for wastewater treatment and the planning, construction, use and maintenance of treatment systems. The treatment facilities should in most cases meet the new requirements by 2014.
 Nyroos et al. (eds.): Vesiensuojelun suuntaviivat vuoteen 2005 Taustaselvityksen lähtökohdat ja yhteenveto. Finnish Environment 55/2006. Finnish Environment Institute. p 24 (in Finnish)
 Nyroos et al. (eds.): Vesiensuojelun suuntaviivat vuoteen 2005 Taustaselvityksen lähtökohdat ja yhteenveto. Finnish Environment 55/2006. Finnish Environment Institute. p 24 (in Finnish)
The 2020 outlook
Water protection targets for 2015
In November 2006, the Finnish Government approved a new set of national Water Protection Policy Outlines to 2015 in a decision-in-principle that also defines measures needed to improve water quality.
Aiming to achieve good water quality by 2015
The new outlines define needs and objectives for the period until 2015, aiming:
· to reduce the nutrient loads that cause eutrophication
· to reduce the risks caused by hazardous substances
· to protect groundwater bodies
· to protect aquatic biodiversity
· to restore ecologically damaged water bodies
The decision-in-principle particularly stresses the need to combat eutrophication, which is the most serious ecological problem facing Finland's inland waters and the Baltic Sea today. Nutrient releases must be considerably reduced from their present levels in order to restore the natural ecological balance to water bodies.
The key objective in the decision-in-principle is that nutrient loads entering water bodies from agriculture should be reduced by a third by 2015 compared to their levels over the period 2001-2005, and halved over a longer timescale.
Municipal wastewater treatment must be further improved wherever wastewater is released into water bodies that are suffering from eutrophication. Nitrogen removal rates must be improved to ensure that at least 70 % of all nitrogen is removed in treatment plants dealing with wastewater from areas with more than 10 000 inhabitants.
 Available in Finnish and Swedish: http://www.ymparisto.fi/download.asp?contentid=66351&lan=fi
Existing and planned responses
Water policies have been based on long-term-strategies. Three national water protection programmes identifying targets, measures and instruments have been prepared since the beginning of the 1970s. In November 2006, the Government adopted a new set of national Water Protection Policy Outlines to 2015.
The EU Water Framework Directive, enacted in 2000, gives guidelines for water management policy for many years to come. In Finland an act on organising river basin management planning was adopted in 2004. The objective of the river basin management plans is to achieve a good state of surface waters and groundwater by the end of 2015. The first river basin management plans are due to be completed by 2009.
Groundwater is protected through legislation prohibiting the pollution and altering of aquifers. Where activities potentially harmful to groundwater are placed in areas important or suitable for water supply, special attention is paid to their not affecting the groundwater, and the environmental permit decision will lay down the relevant conditions. As a rule, such activities are preferentially placed outside groundwater areas. Groundwater protection is also taken into account in other permit decisions, such as for land extraction or other industrial activities, and it is a common element in environmental impact assessments of projects. The environmental permit authorities may also establish a buffer zone around a groundwater extraction site.
In addition, it has recently become customary for local authorities and waterworks to voluntarily draw up protection plans to ensure good quality and quantity of groundwater.
Land use planning may also considerably improve the protection of groundwater; therefore, groundwater areas are taken into account in the placing of various activities and in the pertinent plan regulations. According to the Water Act, land use planning should be taken into account when a permit is granted for water management projects.
The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) (60/2000) sets the framework and objectives for water protection in Finland. The Act on the Organisation of River Basin Management forms part of Finland's ongoing implementation of this Directive. (This act is available only in Finnish and Swedish.)
The two main laws in Finland for the protection of groundwater are the Water Act and the Environmental Protection Act. A good chemical state of groundwater is safeguarded by means of the prohibition against groundwater pollution laid down in Section 8 of the Environmental Protection Act. In accordance with this regulation, no substance shall be deposited in or energy conducted to a place or handled in a way that:
· groundwater may become hazardous to health or its quality otherwise materially deteriorate in areas important for water supply or otherwise suitable for such use;
· groundwater on the property of another may become hazardous to health or otherwise unsuitable for usage; or
· the said action may otherwise violate the public or private good by affecting the quality of groundwater.
The prohibition of groundwater pollution means that a permit may not be granted for an activity that does not conform to this regulation. There is also a legal obligation to remediate polluted groundwater and the polluter is held responsible. The prohibition on altering groundwater in the Water Act refers to maintaining a good quantitative state of groundwater.
The Water Act contains provisions on groundwater extraction. A permit is required if the extraction causes effects contrary to the prohibition on altering groundwater or surface water, or if the extraction amounts to at least 250 cubic metres a day. The extraction of groundwater, or other activities affecting groundwater, must not essentially harm the natural state of springs, brooks, and ponds and lakes of at most one hectare.
The environmental permit authorities may order in a permit decision that a water supply buffer zone be set up around a groundwater extraction site if this is found to be necessary for health reasons or to preserve the purity of the groundwater for other important public reasons.
In addition, the Water Services Act contains provisions on the organisation of water supply and on water supply plants and rates.
Regulation of waters
Of the thousands of lakes in Finland, 310 are regulated. This usually serves several objectives such as hydropower production, flood protection, water acquisition and recreational use.
So far, Finland has sustained no major flood damages. However, extreme weather events, e.g. storms and floods, are expected to become increasingly common in the future. Communities have to be protected against, for example, exceptionally large floods. The best way of preventing the creation of new risk sites in areas that may be flooded is through steering of land use and building.
In the future, flood risk management is controlled by the Directive on the assessment and management at flood risks. It requires identifying areas where significant flood risks exist. For these flood risk areas, flood maps and flood risk management will be prepared.
The guidelines for the tasks relating to the use and management of water resources are set down in the Water Resources Strategy of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The Strategy was adopted in 1999 and it extends until 2010. A set of indicators has been developed to measure and evaluate the functional efficiency and social impacts of water resources management. (See also: Water Resources Strategy, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (in Finnish)).
Organisation of river basin management
The organisation of river basin management in Finland is covered by the Act on Water Resources Management (1299/2004), the Decree on Water Resources Management (1040/2006) and the related Decree on Water Resources Management Regions (1303/2004). This legislation forms part of Finland's ongoing implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive.
· Act on Water Resources Management (1299/2004) - Unofficial translation of the original Act, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation)
Controlling water pollution and hydrological engineering
Legislation designed to prevent pollution of water bodies is included in broader environmental protection statutes that came into force in the year 2000.
· Environmental Protection Act (86/2000) - Unofficial translation of the original Act, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation
· Environmental Protection Decree (168/200) - Unofficial translation, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation
· Decree on Substances Dangerous and Harmful to the Aquatic Environment (1022/2006) - Unofficial translation, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation. The newest amendments of the Degree in 2009 are not included in this translation. The prohibition against discharges of dangerous substances is expanded to cover also groundwater when earlier this prohibition was elsewhere in the legislation.
Hydrological engineering work is controlled by the Water Act (264/1961), which comes within the administrative sphere of the Ministry of Justice.
The treatment of wastewater from households not connected to main sewerage networks is controlled through a Government decree that sets minimum standards both for wastewater treatment, and for the design, construction, use and maintenance of treatment facilities.
· Government Decree on Treating Domestic Wastewater in Areas Outside Sewer Networks (542/2003) - Unofficial translation, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation
The treatment of wastewater from industrial facilities and municipal wastewater collection systems is covered by a Government decision.
Discharges from farms into water bodies
Finland's Nitrates Decree is based on the EU Nitrates Directive, and controls the use of nitrate fertilisers in all farms across the country.
· Government Decree on the restriction of discharge of nitrates from agriculture into waters (931/2000) - Unofficial translation, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation
· Act on Water Services (119/2001) - Unofficial translation of the original Act, PDF format in Finlex, the Data Bank of Finnish Legislation
 Source: Finnish Environmental Administration
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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