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Sound and independent information
on the environment

Iceland

Freshwater (Iceland)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Iceland has the highest renewable freshwater availability per person in Europe. Heavy rainfall, an average of 2 000 mm per year, and the fact that Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, means that there is abundant water per person and the majority of the population has access to plentiful freshwater supplies.

For centuries, this water was considered a serious obstacle for travel and transport. Rivers are short with rapid currents and great volumes of water were difficult to cross. Rivers on the oldest impervious bedrock with little vegetation cover react instantly to precipitation and snow melting. The runoff from melting glaciers contains, in addition to great volumes of water, an immense amount of suspended load and bottom drift. These river types react very strongly to increased temperature and precipitation (1).

The benefit, on the other hand, is a general good access to good quality drinking water, especially in areas with lava run in recent times where the bedrock is very permeable. There the precipitation seeps down into the ground creating large groundwater reservoirs and spring fed rivers with very stable runoff characteristics of clear water throughout the year. These waters, entirely different and much richer than the North American, Greenland and Scandinavian lakes on similar altitudes that drain old continental shield rocks, provide habitats for spectacular plant and animal communities (2).

The productive rivers and lakes are an important amenity for recreational activities. Salmon and trout fisheries have been of high economic value since Iceland’s initial settlement, contributing as much as 50 % of the total income for residents in productive salmon areas.

In addition, Iceland’s fresh waters are of high economic value for hydro- and geothermal power. With district heating services, based on geothermal water, that started distributing hot running water early in the last century, people's access to house heating and hot water for hygiene changed the quality of life markedly. The shift to utilising hot geothermal water instead of oil, coal and gas for space heating improved air quality during the last century due to decreased emission of polluting gases and particles. In addition, annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in Iceland are estimated to be 45 % lower because of this shift (c.f. 3).

Although abundant, these resources are not limitless and not evenly distributed. There is also a growing public demand to take a greater account of nature conservation concerns and sustainable management in the utilisation of hydro- and geothermal energy sources.

 

References

(1) Sigurjón Rist, 1990. Vatns er þörf. Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs.

(2) Pétur M. Jónasson, 1992. Iceland – an island astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. – Oikos 64: 9-13.

(3) Hrefna Kristmannsdóttir og Sigríður Halldórsdóttir, 2008. Heilsufarsáhrif heitavatnsnotkunar á Íslandi. Ritröð Heilbrigðisvísindastofnunar Háskólans á Akureyri nr. 1, 2008. Unnið fyrir Samorku. Útgefandi: Heilbrigðisvísindastofnun HA. ISSN 1670-8040.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

With few exemptions, the coast is the main recipient for wastewater discharges, but this is not problematic.

Ecological quality

Iceland is a volcanic island predominantly formed of basaltic rock of the Quaternary and Tertiary Ages. The classification of Icelandic running waters and their ecosystem has mainly been based on bedrock type and topography (1, 2). Rivers running from well-vegetated moors and rivers with lake influences within the catchments seem to have higher biological productivity and diversity than rivers draining barren areas (3). In spite of diverse freshwater types, the number of species is low. Seven species of freshwater fish are present, 146 species of rotifers, around 120 species of insects, 89 species crustacean, 26 species annelids and 10 species hydracarina. Two species of chironomids (4) and two species of subterranean freshwater amphipods are endemic. The low number of species can be explained by Iceland’s climate and isolation from continental Europe (5).

Three wetland areas are Ramsar sites, Mývatn-Laxá, Þjórsárver and Grunnafjörður, and three others are under consideration.

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History advises on sustainable use of natural resources and land development, and assesses the conservation status of species, habitats and ecosystems.

The Institute of Freshwater Fisheries conducts research on freshwater fish and publishes annual reports with freshwater fisheries statistics and fish stocks management evaluation.

In the EU´s water framework directive, Iceland´s fresh waters are classified as unique eco-region.

Nutrients in rivers and streams

Monitoring of river chemistry started on a regular basis in 1998. First stations were located in rivers in South and East Iceland. A fair survey of the nitrate concentration in the country's principal rivers exists (6, 7, 8). Riverine transport has been estimated (Table 1. (7)). Based on Table 1, the total N runoff is estimated as 4360 tons.

 

Area  km2

Water runoff ∑Qm3/s

Water runoff mm/yr

TP
kg km-2 yr-1

TN
kg km-2 yr-1

South Iceland

28 537

1 786

1 970

47

59

West Iceland

20 207

689

1 075

7

31

North Iceland

30 812

1 328

1 360

33

30

East Iceland

23 499

1 497

2 009

17

48

SUM:

103 055

5 300

1 621

 

 

Table 1. Estimated riverine transport from Iceland (7)

 

The ranges for nitrate nitrogen (NO3-N) are:

  •           South Iceland, between <0.002 and 0.055 mg NO3-N/l;
  •           in East Iceland, between <0.002 and 0.124 mg NO3-N/l.

The ranges for phosphate (PO4-P) are:

  •           in South Iceland, between 0.00 and 0.055 mg (PO4-P)/l,
  •           in East Iceland, between 0.002 and 0.081 mg (PO4-P)/l.

In Figure 1, the results of total phosphorous (Tot-P) and total nitrogen (Tot-N) for 20 rivers in Iceland are shown. The rivers were sampled regularly over one or two-year periods (9) and most of the rivers have no significant human pressure. Rivers within urban settlements reveal some elevated values.

 

Figure 1. Mean and 90 percentile values (10 to 14 samplings) of Tot-P and Tot-N in 20 rivers in Iceland

Figure 1. Mean and 90 percentile values (10 to 14 samplings) of Tot-P and Tot-N in 20 rivers in Iceland (9).

 

Eutrophication in lakes

The nutrient status of 59 lakes was measured in the period 1997-2000 (ESIL database, 17). Forty-nine have nitrate nitrogen concentrations (NO3-N) of less than 0.005 mg/l and all the lakes have concentrations less than 0.05 mg/l. For total Tot-N, 52 lakes have less than 0.3 mg/l-N, 5 0.3-0.75 mg/l-N and 2 0.75-1.5 mg/l-N. For Tot-P, 48 lakes have less than 0.025 mg/l-P and 11 0.025-0.125 mg/l-P. Many Icelandic lakes may thus have rather high natural concentrations of Tot-P possibly because of high weathering rates of volcanic bedrock.

 

Airborne deposition

Long-range air pollutants originate largely from emissions from industry, transport and agriculture in Western and Central Europe. The nearest distances from Iceland to the European continent are 970 km to Norway and 798 km to Scotland. The country is thus far from the industrialised and heavily populated regions in Europe and is only mildly subjected to anthropogenic long-range sulphur (S) and N-deposition.

 

Critical loads for S acidity in 48 Icelandic lakes have been calculated based on the steady-state water chemistry (SSWC) of Henriksen and Posch, (10).

Percentile

5

10

25

50

75

90

95

Critical loads

233

343

451

693

1017

1189

1380

S acidity dep.

20

22

23

40

50

68

80

Table 2. Percentiles for critical loads and S acidity deposition (meq m-2 yr-1) for 48 lakes in Iceland.

Because of the high threshold of critical loads and the low S (acid) deposition, critical loads are not exceeded in any of the lakes (11).  

Modelled total annual nitrogen deposition in the Administrator of the Oslo and Paris Conventions (OSPAR) regions in 2004, shows as less than 200 mg/N m2 in Iceland (12). The national contribution to oxidised nitrogen is estimated as 8 % and 27 % to reduced nitrogen (13).

Volcanic emissions are important for the chemical composition, in particular in periods during eruptions. The initial explosive phase of the 1991 eruption of the Hekla volcano caused acid snow to fall over much of north and east Iceland, and snow close to the vent was found to be enriched in fluorine, chlorine, silicon, aluminium, iron, manganese, titanium and phosphorous. There were some, but not striking enrichments, in sulphur. Increased concentrations of some chemical constituents were found in a river near the volcano during snowmelt (14).

Groundwater quality

Available analyses of drinking water quality – spring water, well water and surface water –show that the nitrate expressed as nitrogen concentration in water used for drinking is under 3 mg/l-N, or less than 13 mg/l nitrate (NO3), well below 25 mg/l- NO3 guideline (15).

Figure 2. Nitrate in drinking water in Iceland

Figure 2. Nitrate in drinking water in Iceland (15)

Survey of 20 waterworks that serve 80 % of the population shows maximum Nitrate-N concentration of 1.3 mg/l, minimum of 0.04 and mean of 0.34 mg/l-N (16). The Bláfjöll groundwater body of 300 km2 serving the Reykjavik Metropolitan Area with drinking water is the city’s principal reservoir (Gvendarbrunnar). Thus, the Bláfjöll groundwater body serves almost 60 % of the nation.

 

References

(1) Jonsson, G.S., I.R. Jonsson, M. Björnsson & S.M. Einarsson. 2000. Using regionalization in mapping the distribution of the diatom species Didymosphenia geminata (Lyngb.) M. Smith in Icelandic rivers,  Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 27: 340-343.

(2) Jón S. Ólafsson, Gísli Már Gíslason and Hákon Aðalsteinsson. 2002. Icelandic Running waters: anthropological impact and their ecological status. In: Marja Ruoppa and Krister Karttunen (eds.). Typology and ecological classification of lakes and rivers. TemaNord 2002:566. Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen 2002.

(3) Gislason, G.M., H. Adalsteinsson & J. S. Ólafsson. 1998. Animal Communities in Icelandic Rivers in Relation to Catchment Characteristics and Water Chemistry. Nordic Hydrology -An International Journal 29 (2):26 - 33.

(4) Hrafnsdottir, Th. 2005. Diptera 2 (Chironomidae). The Zoology of Iceland III, 48b: 1-169.

(5) Gísli Már Gíslason, 2005. Origin of freshwater fauna of the North-Atlantic islands; present distribution in relation to climate and possible micration routes. Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 29 (1): 198-203.

(6) Unnsteinn Stefánsson & Jón Ólafsson, 1991.  Nutrients and fertility of Icelandic waters. Rit fiskideildar 12, 1-56

(7) Sólveig R. Ólafsdóttir 2006. Næringarefnaástand í hafinu við Ísland. Hafrannsóknastofnunin, skýrsla. Október 2006 (Nutrient concentrations in Icelandic waters, report in Icelandic).

(8) Sigurður Reynir Gíslason, Árni Snorrason et. al Annual reports. Gagnagrunnur Raunvísindastofnunar og Orkustofnunar. (University of Iceland, Science Institute and Energy Authority Database)

(9) Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. River Varma, Hveragerdi. Water quality monitoring 2001 – 2002. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Botnsa. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Brynjudalsa. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Bugda. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Fossa. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Kidafellsa. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Laxa in Kjos. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Leirvogsa in the Town of Mosfellsbær and the City of Reykjavik. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2003. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Ulfarsa. Rannsókna- og fræðasetur Háskóla Íslands í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2004. Classification of Human Impact on the Rivers Sudura, Holmsa and Ellidaar. Háskólasetrið í Hveragerði

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2004. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of North East Iceland, Rivers Eyjafjardara, Glera, Hoerga and Svarfadardalsa. Háskólasetrið í Hveragerði

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2005. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of North East Iceland, Rivers Fnjoska, Skjalfandafljot and Laxa in the district of Þingeyjarsysla. Háskólasetrið í Hveragerði.

Tryggvi Þórðarson, 2005. Classification of lakes and rivers in the district of Kjos, River Varma. Háskólasetrið í Hveragerði.

(10) Henriksen, A. and M. Posch, Steady-state models for calculation critical loads of acidity for surface waters. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution: Focus, 1: 375-398, 2001.

(11) Skjelkvåle, B.L. 2001 et. al. Chemistry of lakes in the Nordic region – Denmark, Finland with Åland, Iceland, Norway with Svalbard and Bear Island, and Sweden. NIVA, Acid Rain Research, Report No. 53/2001, Serial No. SNO 4391-2001, 2001.

(12) OSPAR Commission, 2007: Atmospheric Nitrogen in the OSPAR Convention Area in 1990 – 2004. ISBN 978-1-905859-83-2. Publication Number No. 344/2007

(13) Norwegian Meteorological Institute, 2007. Transboundary air pollution by main pollutants (S, N, O3) and PM. Iceland.  EMEP/MSC-W: Heiko Klein, Anna Benedictow and Hilde Fagerli. ISSN 1890-0003

(14) Sigurður Reynir Gíslason, et. al. 1992. Local effects of volcanoes on the hydrosphere: Example from Hekla, southern Iceland. In: Kharaka and Maest (eds.): Water-rock interaction. Balkema, Rotterdam

(15) Environment Agency of Iceland, 2008. Report concerning Art. 10 of the EU's Nitrate Directive. 2008 report.

(16) Chemical quality of drinking water in Iceland and protection of the water resources. MSc thesis in Icelandic. http://www2.hi.is/Apps/WebObjects/HI.woa/1/swdocument/1006286/MS_UB_MJG_2005.pdf

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Nutrient concentrations in Iceland’s rivers and lakes are low.

Reduced woodland, soil erosion and draining of wetlands by ditching are factors that may have affected lakes and perhaps rivers for a long time. Soil dust and leached chemicals due to erosion may have affected the ionic composition and productivity in lakes as far back as 1500, as is the case with Lake Þingvallavatn. Increased productivity was explained partly by increased wind transported erosion material, but primarily because of increases in leached nutrients as a consequence of reduced vegetation cover (1, c.f. 2).

More recent pressures include road works, bridges and gravel mining in rivers and hydroelectric development. In addition are factors like fertiliser-use in agriculture, pollution discharges and aquaculture (3). A comprehensive study and evaluation of the effects of recent demographic factors, developments and constructions is still missing, but it is worth noting that according to the CORINE Land Cover programme, only 396 km2, or 0.38% of the land area, are classified as man-made surfaces (4).

Population density

Around 70 % of the population, out of a total of around 320.000, lives in the southwest of the country, in the Faxaflói bay area. Only about 6 % of people live in rural areas and fewer than 1 000 people live 200 m above sea level. Population density is therefore not a significant pressure on freshwaters.

Figure 1. Regional distribution of population density in Iceland (mean: 3 inh/km2)

Figure 1. Regional distribution of population density in Iceland (mean: 3 inh/km2).

 

Use of freshwater resources

Over 95% of Iceland's drinking water is untreated groundwater extracted from springs boreholes and wells. Surface water constitutes around or less than 5 % of Iceland's drinking water. Surface water used for drinking is obtained from mountain lakes and from river basins.

The freshwater resources are estimated to be around 170 000 million m3 of which 6 000 million m3 of groundwater are available for extraction.

Total annual gross extraction is estimated at 165 million m3 of which public water use is an estimated 67 million m3 per year.

Use of geothermal water

Around 90% of households in Iceland are heated with geothermal water or geothermally heated fresh water from district heating services. Nine percent is heated with electricity and one percent with oil. The district heating services use advanced technologies for the processing, transferral, and use of geothermal heat. Most district heating utilities sell water according to measured water use; however, three sell previously determined quantities and two according to measured energy use.

Of the electric power produced in Iceland, 18% is produced geothermally. Other uses of geothermal heating are for swimming pools, snow melting, greenhouse farming, aquaculture and industry. Measured or estimated hot water consumption in 2005 was more than 118 million m3, 23,462 TJ, most of it for space heating (c.f. 5).

Water use in the Reykjavík area

Reykjavik Energy (Orkuveita Reykjavíkur) provides, as a public water service, cold freshwater and hot geothermal or geothermally heated water for Reykjavík city and some areas outside the capital. Overall it serves about 115 000-120 000 people, more than a third of Iceland´s population, with cold water. In 2008, the water use amounted to 460 l/person/day.

Figure 2. Cold water service in the city (bars) and the population served (line)

 

Figure 2. Cold water service in the city (bars) and the population served (line).

Reykjavík Energy distributes hot water over a much larger area, in 20 municipalities, of 2 500 km2 with a population of 210 000 – approximately 70 % of the population of Iceland (6).

Figure 3. Reykjavík city water service

 

Figure 3. Reykjavík city water service

The services provided by the company reach 20 municipalities, home to approximately 70 % of Icelanders.

The amount of hot water distributed by Reykjavík Energy (Figure 3) is about twice the consumption of cold fresh water. These proportions are perhaps similar for the rest of the country.

Discharges to inland fresh waters

Hazardous substances

In 2008, two landfills with discharges to fresh water were obliged to report according to the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR). Discharges from both of them were under the threshold for releases of hazardous substances according to Regulation No. 166/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning E-PRTR. Five agglomerations of more than 2.000 people discharge to estuaries or fresh waters, with a total number of inhabitants of 13.636. Information of any discharges of hazardous substances is not available for those agglomerations.

Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous)

The point and diffuse discharges from the dwellings of about 11 % of the population goes to fresh waters or estuaries (Table 1).

 

Year 2008                     Tonnes

Total Nitrogen                   316

Total phosphorous              66

Table 1. Estimated sewage discharges to inland fresh waters and estuaries

Use of fertilisers

Agricultural areas cover 2.4 % of the country. Ninety-seven per cent is pastures, the remainder being very small patches of non-irrigated arable land and land under complex cultivation patterns (7).

In 1980, the use of artificial chemical N fertilisers reached a maximum of about 15 000 tonnes per year. The use decreased but rose again to 15 300 tonnes in 2008 (Table 2).

Year:

1981

1991

2001

2006

2008

Nitrogen (N)

14.900

12.200

12.400

12.300

15.321

Phosphorous (P)

3.500

2.600

2.400

2.400

2.400

Table 2. Use of artificial chemical fertilizers in Iceland (tonnes).

In 2008, 2 400 tonnes of P was used as fertiliser. It has been estimated that around 2.000 tonnes of N are spread on cultivated fields annually in the form of animal manure. The total N-balance is around 110 kg N/ha for cultivated land which covers just 1.4 % of the country's total area. Combined with low population density and high annual precipitation – averaging 2 000 mm per year, with local variations ranging from 400-4 000 mm – low concentrations in watercourses with limited direct discharges (Table 1 and Figure 1) are not surprising.

 

References

(1) Hafliði Hafliðason, Guðrún Larsen and Gunnar Ólafsson, 1992. The recent sedimentation history of Thingvallavatn, Iceland. OIKOS 64: 80-95.

(2) Skjelkvåle, B.L. 2001 et. al. Chemistry of lakes in the Nordic region – Denmark, Finland with Åland, Iceland, Norway with Svalbard and Bear Island, and Sweden. NIVA, Acid Rain Research, Report No. 53/2001, Serial No. SNO 4391-2001, 2001.

(3) Jón S. Ólafsson, Gísli Már Gíslason and Hákon Aðalsteinsson. 2002. Icelandic Running waters: anthropological impact and their ecological status. In: Marja Ruoppa and Krister Karttunen (eds.). Typology and ecological classification of lakes and rivers. TemaNord 2002:566. Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen 2002.

(4) Corine Land Classification in Iceland 2000-2006. Report in Icelandic. http://www.lmi.is/Files/Skra_0038437.pdf

(5) Thorgils Jonasson and Sveinn Thordarson. 2007. Geothermal district heating in Iceland: Its development and benefits. A paper presented at the 26th Nordic History Congress 8 - 12 August 2007.

(6) A Dynamic Company – a Leading Power. Report in English. http://www.or.is/media/PDF/ORK%2038077%20Adalbaeklingur_ENS_Lowres.pdf

(7) Corine Land Classification in Iceland 2000-2006. Report in Icelandic. http://www.lmi.is/Files/Skra_0038437.pdf

 

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Climate change may increase the potential for agriculture and thus may increase pressures and change the nutrient balance in the long run. The number and size of grain fields are insignificant today – 36 km2 – but have increased rapidly over the last decade.

 

Figure 1. Trends in grain cultivated areas in Iceland, 1991-2007

Figure 1. Trends in grain cultivated areas in Iceland, 1991-2007 (1).

 

Riverine transport values of N and P (2) for the glacier fed rivers Þjórsá and Ölfusá in the period 1997-2007 are shown in figure 2. The mean water discharge for Þjórsá is 350 m3/sec and for Ölfusá 376 m3/sec. The figure shows no change for P over time, but a increase in N transport over the last few years. The most likely explanation for this observation is increased transport due to increased glacier melting as an effect of climate change.

Figure 2. Riverine transport of Tot-N and Tot-P in the Ölfusá and Þjórsá rivers

Figure 2. Riverine transport of Tot-N and Tot-P in the Ölfusá and Þjórsá rivers (2).

 

References

(1) Grain cultivation in Iceland, future prospects. Report in Icelandic. http://www.sjavarutvegsraduneyti.is/media/Skyrslur/Kornrakt_a_Islandi_-_takifari_til_framtidar.pdf

(2) Sigurður Reynir Gíslason, Árni Snorrason et. al Annual reports. Gagnagrunnur Raunvísindastofnunar og Orkustofnunar. (University of Iceland, Science Institute and Energy Authority Database).

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Acts to protect water areas: Act on protection of Lake Myvatn and River Laxá (2004) and Act on protection of Lake Þingvallavatn and the catchment area (2005). The implementation of the Water Framework Directive is in preparation.


In order to take nature conservation concerns into account in the utilisation of hydro-, geothermal and other energy sources, the Ministry of Industry has been developing a Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources in cooperation with the Ministry for the Environment.

 

A new nature conservation strategy for 2009-2013 was passed by the Icelandic Althingi in February 2010. The strategy focuses on protection of species, habitats and ecosystems in line with international agreements.

Recovering drained wetland areas: in the period 1941-1990, about 32 000 km of ditches were dug draining more than 4 000 km2 of wetlands (1). Now the environmental policy is for recovering as many wetland areas as possible to improve biodiversity and slow the release of greenhouse gases. Although the recovery is slow for the time being, the development is in the right direction (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Area of recovered wetlands since 1990. The bars show the recovered area each year and the line the accumulated number

Figure 1. Area of recovered wetlands since 1990. The bars show the recovered area each year and the line the accumulated number.

Three wetland sites are being prepared listing under the Ramsar convention.

 

References

(1) Strategy for recovery of drained wetland areas. Report in Icelandic. http://www.sjavarutvegsraduneyti.is/media/Skyrslur/votlendisskyrsla.pdf

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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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