Europe's clean bathing waters – success in environmental policy and management

News Published 26 Feb 2021 Last modified 09 Feb 2023
2 min read
Photo: © Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, Unsplash
The share of bathing sites with excellent water quality in Europe has increased from 53 % in 1991 to 85 % in 2019, thanks to local actions guided by binding European legislation. A new European Environment Agency (EEA) report shows how improving bathing water quality can serve as a model for successful environmental legislation and management.

The EEA report ‘Bathing water management in Europe: Successes and challenges’ showcases the success story of the improvements in bathing water quality since the introduction of the EU Bathing Water Directive in 1976, while also identifying challenges for future bathing water management.

In Europe and many other parts of the world, the quality of coastal waters, rivers and lakes generally degraded from the 19th century onwards, mainly owing to growing towns and industries discharging untreated waste water. During the 20th century, the increased use of pesticides and fertilisers on agricultural land added to this pollution.

However, European environmental policy and management have dramatically improved bathing water quality across Europe during the past 40 years. Safe bathing is now possible in many European capitals, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Copenhagen, London, Riga and Vienna, the report notes. Significant investments in urban waste water treatment plants and improvements in sewerage networks have been the key measures behind this success.

EEA data show that the number of bathing sites monitored under the Bathing Water Directive has increased from about 7,500 in 1990 to more than 22,000 in 2019. From 1991 to 2019, the share of bathing sites with sufficient water quality has increased from 74 % to more than 95 % and the share of sites with excellent water quality from 53 % to 85 %.

While bathing water quality in Europe is improving and today bathing is possible even in some heavily urbanised areas, there is still a need to mitigate both existing and emerging pressures. The report warns that climate change will bring new challenges for bathing water management, for example, due to rising sea levels, more frequent and stronger storms, increased river flow or water scarcity. Nutrient and chemical pollution as well as plastic pollution also remain problems that require stronger action.



All EU Member States, plus Albania and Switzerland, monitor their bathing sites according to the provisions of the EU's Bathing Water Directive. The assessment of the bathing water quality under the Bathing Water Directive makes use of the values of two microbiological parameters: Intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli.

The legislation specifies if the bathing water quality can be classified as 'excellent', 'good', 'sufficient' or 'poor', depending on the levels of faecal bacteria detected. Where water is classified as 'poor', EU Member States should take certain measures, such as banning bathing or advising against it, providing information to the public, and taking suitable corrective actions.

The contamination of water by faecal bacteria continues to pose a risk to human health, especially if it is found at bathing water sites. Swimming at contaminated beaches or lakes can result in illness. The major sources of pollution are sewage and water draining from farms and farmland. Such pollution increases during heavy rains and floods due to sewage overflow and polluted drainage water being washed into rivers and seas.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage

Document Actions