More than half of EU surface waters below ‘good’ ecological status

News Published 13 Nov 2012 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
3 min read
Photo: © Cat Burton
Water pollution and physical modifications are still affecting the ecology of many of Europe’s lakes, rivers, transitional water bodies and coastal waters. These problems are likely to prevent the water bodies reaching ‘good’ status by 2015, a target set by the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD).

EU Member States look set to miss upcoming targets by a wide margin, so they need to urgently step up efforts to protect both human health and the ecosystems we rely on.

EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade

The report, ‘European waters - assessment of status and pressures’, published this week by the European Environment Agency (EEA), considers the status of 104 000 rivers, 19 000 lakes, and 4000 transitional and coastal water bodies reported by EU Member States according to the WFD and the river basin management plans (RBMPs). The authors conclude that water bodies are generally improving, but not quickly enough to meet the targets set by the WFD – in fact only 52 % of water bodies are predicted to achieve good ecological status by 2015, according to Member States own plans.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director, said: “European waters have improved a great deal over the last two decades, as legislation has successfully reduced many types of pollution and improved wastewater treatment. But EU Member States look set to miss upcoming targets by a wide margin, so they need to urgently step up efforts to protect both human health and the ecosystems we rely on.”

For surface waters, there are two separate classifications: ecological and chemical status. Groundwater bodies are classified according to their chemical status and quantitative status. For a water body to be in overall good status, both types must be at least good.

More than half of the surface water bodies in Europe were reported to be below good ecological status or potential status, according to the latest data showing status up to 2009.

Many European water bodies remain polluted by excess nutrients, mainly from fertiliser, the report notes. When fertilisers run off from croplands into a water body, it can create eutrophication, a process characterised by increased plant growth and harmful algal blooms, depletion of oxygen and subsequent loss of life in bottom water. Diffuse pollution from agriculture is a significant pressure for more than 40 % of Europe’s water bodies in rivers and coastal waters, and in one third of lakes and transitional waters.

Ecological status also includes considerations of ‘hydromorphology’ – the extent to which the shape of water bodies and natural flow of the river has been altered. Dams, straightening and dredging alter habitats and damage ecosystems. Hydromorphological pressures resulting in altered habitats is the most common pressure on water bodies, affecting around 40 % of rivers and transitional water bodies and 30 % of the lakes. The report calls for the ‘re-naturation’ of many water bodies to restore their natural features, such as restoring the natural continuity of rivers.

Chemical status refers to levels of heavy metals and other harmful substances. While 10 % of Europe’s surface water bodies are in poor chemical status, there are no chemical status data available for 40 % of Europe’s surface waters. Ground water bodies are in a worse condition – approximately 25 % of groundwater, by area, has poor chemical status across Europe. Sixteen Member States have more than 10 % of groundwater bodies in poor chemical status. This figure exceeds 50 % in Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Belgium (Flanders) and Malta.

Overall, concentrations of several water pollutants are falling in many river basins. For example, if ammonium and phosphorous levels continue to decline at their current rate, they will be at levels that meet good status by 2015 and 2027 respectively. Nitrates are also falling, although this pollutant will still be too high for several decades at the current rate of decrease, according to the report.

The challenges for river basin management are numerous and diverse, the report says. The RBMPs submitted by Member States distinguish between different types of pressures faced by river basins, however they include less detail on how these pressures will be addressed and to what extent selected measures will contribute to achieving environmental objectives in 2015.

To maintain and improve the essential functions of our water ecosystems, they need to be managed better, the report says. This can only succeed if an integrated approach is adopted, as introduced in the WFD and related water legislation. All sectors in a river basin need to fully implement the WFD to reduce pressures on water bodies, ensuring all users are committed to healthy water bodies achieving good status.

The report is launched to coincide with the launch of the European Commission’s Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s water resources, intended to improve implementation of existing water legislation and show opportunities for further policy improvements.