2. The Need for Information on Europe’s Environment

2.1. Why is Information Needed?

Over the past two decades four European Community Action Programmes on the environment have given rise to about 200 pieces of environmental legislation. While a great deal has been achieved, the general state of the environment continues to slowly deteriorate. This assessment was made in The Fifth Environmental Action Programme based on a Report on the State of the Environment. The Action Programme highlighted the need for ‘a more far reaching and more effective strategy’ which could only be assured if the quantity and quality of information was good enough. Several deficiencies in the available environmental information were highlighted:

  • a serious lack of base-line data, statistics, indicators and other quantitative and qualitative material required to assess environmental conditions and trends, to determine and adjust public policies and to underpin financial investments;

  • an almost complete absence of the more precise, quantitative data on human interventions and influences on the environment which are needed for meaningful modelling exercise and the optimisation of policy and large scale investment decisions;

  • information which is available is often not processed or presented in a suitable form for potential end users, administrations, enterprises and the general public and does not take into account the different levels of sophistication or simplification required, nor the fact that different types of decision require different types or levels of information.

Against this background, it was decided to establish a European Environment Agency.


2.2. Role of the EEA

The European Environment Agency (EEA) was established by Council Regulation (EEC) No. 1210/90 of 7 May 1990. The Regulation describes in detail the role and tasks expected of the Agency. The main task of the Agency is to provide the European Union and the EEA Member States with:

‘objective, reliable and comparable information at a European level enabling them to take the requisite measures to protect the environment, to assess the results of such measures and to ensure that the public is properly informed about the state of the environment’.

In 1995 the EEA published a major ‘State of Europe’s Environment’ report (the Dobríš report) based on the best available data/information at that time, mainly from national and international monitoring programmes. The aim of the report was to present an assessment of environmental status in relation to the pressures and human activities impacting on it. The report supported goals to:

  • develop a comprehensive Environment for Europe programme addressing in particular transboundary environmental problems;

  • provide a sound basis for effective measures, strategies and policies to address environmental problems nationally and regionally; and,

  • inform the public and raise awareness about the common responsibility for the environment.

Information was presented on the status and trends of Europe’s water resources, and comparisons made, where possible, of differences between Member States. It also identified key issues involving water resources, which should be addressed by the policy makers if improvements were to be achieved.

Though a very comprehensive report it highlighted significant gaps as well as large discrepancies in the quality of environmental data and information. One of the most significant gaps was the almost complete lack of comparable and reliable data on groundwater quantity and quality. In general comparison of surface water quality across Europe was very difficult because of the lack of comparable and reliable data. There was in particular a lack of data on small rivers and lakes.

The EEA has the duty to update the Dobríš report in 1998 and is also required to produce monographs on specific issues such as groundwater quality/quantity and eutrophication.


2.3. What are the Key Water Resource Problems and Related Policies?

The Dobríš report defined Prominent Environmental Problems (PEPs) for Europe. The PEPs in relation to water resources are:

  • Management of freshwater in terms of availability and quality (for example, groundwater pollution, eutrophication and organic pollution including pathogens), and in terms of physical changes of water bodies.

  • Acidification.

Further problems were identified in a state of the environment report for the European Union (EU) produced by the EEA to update the one presented in 1992 by the European Commission, and to contribute to the review of the 5th Environmental Action programme. In terms of water resource issues, the problems identified include, acidification and nitrate levels in drinking water. Current policies were also considered not to be sufficient to tackle issues such as water abstraction, the quality of groundwater and chemicals in the environment.

These and other issues and problems have been further detailed in policy developments such as the Groundwater Action Programme, the proposed Directive on the Ecological Quality of Water and the 5th Environmental Action Programme (EAP). The latter was published in March 1992 and states that community policies must aim at:

  • prevention of pollution of fresh and marine surface waters and groundwater with particular emphasis on prevention at source;

  • restoration of natural ground and surface waters to an ecologically sound condition, thus ensuring a suitable source for extraction of drinking water;

  • ensuring that water demand and water supply are brought into equilibrium on the basis of more rational use and management of water resources.

This section discusses these problems which need to tackled or are being tackled by the policy makers within Europe. These problems raise questions which when answered will provide the information on whether policies are working and problems are being solved. It is also necessary to identify measurable indicators in terms of the information needed to answer these questions. Table 2.1 summarises the problems and questions, and gives examples of indicators that will give the information needed to address Europe’s prominent environmental problems.


Table 2.1 Summary of the aims, policies, questions and information needed for Europe’s prominent environmental problems




Example of indicators

Quality of surface water Directives such as the Dangerous Substances Directive What are the levels and significance of, and what are the spatial differences and temporal trends of: pesticides, organic pollution, pathogens, heavy metals in, Europe’s surface waters; and, how do these relate to human activities? concentrations of biochemical oxygen demand, cadmium, mercury, atrazine, PAHs
catchment: land use; population density; loads from point and diffuse sources.
Eutrophication UWWT Directive

Nitrates Directive

What is the level and significance of, and what are the spatial differences and temporal trends of nutrients in Europe’s surface waters; and,

how does this relate to human activities?

nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations
chlorophyll a concentrations
trophic status
catchment: land use; population density; loads from point and diffuse sources.
Reduction and control of pollutant discharges 5th EAP What are the loads of contaminants entering the estuaries and seas of EEA area? River flows
Flow related concentrations of nutrients, heavy metals, organic material, synthetic organic substances such as pesticides.
Quality and quantity of groundwater GAP

Nitrates Directive

What is the level and significance of, and what are the spatial differences and temporal trends of: pesticides, nutrients, pathogens, heavy metals in, and availability of, Europe’s groundwater; and, how do these relate to human activities? pesticide and nitrate concentrations
volumes abstracted, land use
usage of pesticides and fertilisers
Water availability 5th EAP


What is the geographic spread of, and trends in, water availability (and eventually water usage), and how does this relate to human activities, land use, agricultural practices, point and non-point sources of pollution in catchments? Rainfall, run-off, water availability, water abstraction and usage
reservoir usage,
Physical changes 5th EAP

proposed Water Resources Framework Directive

What is the scale and importance of physical interventions in the hydrological cycle? Degree of modification of rivers, lakes by, for example, damming and flood prevention works.
Ecological quality 5th EAP

proposed Water Resources Framework Directive

What is the level and significance of, and what are the spatial differences and temporal trends of ecological quality in Europe’s surface waters; and,

how does this relate to human activities?

invertebrate, fish, and plant communities, physicochemical indicators, flow

reference ecological conditions

Acidification 5th EAP

SO2/NOx Directives

UN-ECE protocols

What is the level and severity of, and what are the spatial differences and temporal trends of acidification in Europe’s waters; and, how does this relate to human activities? pH, invertebrate communities,

catchment soil, characteristics

sulphur and nitrogen oxide deposition in the catchment

















GAP Groundwater Action and Management Programme

5th EAP 5th Environmental Action Programme
UWWT Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive


2.3.1. Management of Freshwater

a)  Surface Water Quality

Poor water quality has effects not only on aquatic ecosystems but also on the suitability and treatability of water for drinking. In particular pollution of water by organic material, (for example in sewage effluent), toxic and persistent substances (such as heavy metals and pesticides), and pathogens (viruses and bacteria) have been addressed through directives. The enrichment of water by nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can also lead to eutrophication again which can have significant environmental effects. Effective control and reduction in pollutants requires an assessment of their loads and sources. Thus information on fluxes (and hence loads) of these pollutants for example discharging into Europe’s sea and flowing across international boundaries is essential.

Within the European Union (EU) these problems have been addressed by the European Commission formulating directives which have to be implemented by EU States. Water pollution policy was the earliest to be developed at a EU level, with the first major proposals appearing between 1973 to 1975. At the present time there are more than 25 directives and decisions covering both freshwater and marine pollution.

b)  Quality and Quantity of Groundwater

A European Ministerial seminar held at the Hague in 1991, on the long term deterioration of the quality and quantity of water resources, emphasised the special significance of groundwater in the water cycle and in ecosystems, and as a source for drinking water. There is, however, a lack of information on Europe’s groundwater resources on which to make quantitative assessments and comparisons of status and trends. This has led to a European Commission proposal for an action programme for integrated groundwater protection and management, loosely called the Groundwater Action Programme (GAP). This programme, while not legally binding, will aim to better integrate water policy into other policy areas such as regional, industrial and agricultural policy. Binding provisions will be set out in the Framework Directive on Water Resources which the Commission plans to propose before the end of 1996. Actions at national and Community level should be aimed at sustainable management and protection of freshwater resources.

c)  Water Availability

Europe as a whole faces no water shortage problem but there exists a regional imbalance between supply and demand. In addition to the regional imbalance, the natural runoff variation from season to season, or from one year to the next, can set constraints on water usage. Multi-annual dry or wet periods can occur simultaneously over large regions in Europe. Climate change may also worsen the resource situation in many regions.

Around many large urban and industrial centre of many western European countries water abstraction has surpassed the natural recharge of groundwater and surface water resources. In the case of groundwater abstraction over-exploitation leads gradually to lowered groundwater levels, which can in turn damage vegetation which is dependant upon shallow groundwater. It may further induce salt water intrusion in coastal aquifers preventing their use for drinking purposes.

d)  Physical changes

Physical changes (by human interventions) can have profound effects on water resources, water quality and aquatic and riparian ecology. There is a need to quantify both their extent and importance, and to quantify the nature and significance of the effects they have. The inter-relationship between intervention and effect must be understood before proper planning and control can be undertaken and so that the benefits of the intervention can be properly balanced and assessed against any environmental effect. The importance of human interventions in terms of effects on ecological quality has been recognised by policy makers and are included in Article 4 of the proposed European Commission’s Directive on Ecological Quality of Water (COM(93) 680). Under this proposal Member States will be required to assess the effects of ‘any other anthropogenic factors which impair or might impair the ecological quality of surface waters’.

Major river regulation works have been carried out in almost all European countries for multiple purposes. The most common include those aimed at improving navigation and flood control, production of hydroelectricity, and draining of adjacent farmland. Whatever the purpose of the regulation work, the natural interactions between the river and its floodplain are reduced or even destroyed. In addition the migration of fish, such as salmon, trout and sturgeon, to their spawning grounds upstream river reaches is prevented because of barriers at locks, dams and weirs.

e)  Ecological Quality of Water

Poor water quality and modified water quantity/quality regimes can have significant and adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems such as the deterioration of fish stocks. In many parts of Europe the ecological quality of waters has been degraded through human activities, in others the status of the aquatic ecology is not known. The concept of directly assessing ecological quality rather than relying solely on chemical and physical measures has gained support over recent years. In recognition of this the European Commission proposed a directive on the ecological quality of water (COM (93) 680 final) which will require Member States to determine the ecological quality of their surface waters. Monitoring of a representative portion of all surface waters in the EU area will be required and will place the emphasis on biological determinands and indicators rather than solely on chemical and physical determinands. The Commission’s Communication on EC Water Policy (COM (96) 59 final) proposes to replace the Ecological Quality of Water proposal with a Water Resources Framework Directive which would have a wider scope of application. The basic requirement to assess ecological quality will, however, remain.

2.3.2. Acidification

Surface water acidification has been of public concern since the early 1970s when awareness of the problem was increased by episodes of severe fish kills in rivers and lakes in the southern most part of Norway and along the west coast of Sweden. These episodes of fish kills were attributed to ‘acid rain’ that is precipitation acidified by the combustion products of fossil fuels. Over the last two decades surface water acidification as a consequence of the atmospheric emission of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides has been recognised as a serious environmental problem in most other European countries as well as in North America.

Directives controlling emissions of sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen were published in the 1980’s. Further reduction in emissions is being sought through protocols of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE).


2.4. What Information is Required?

Information is required on:

  • the status of Europe’s water resources (status assessments); and,

  • how that relates and responds to pressures on the environment (cause-effect relationships).

Status assessments need to be based on the most up-to-date information (ideally only a year between collection and reporting) and be comparable in terms of the water types (e.g. lakes, small rivers, large rivers) and in terms of how and what aspects are being measured. A judgement of how ‘good’ or ‘reliable’ the status information is must also be made. For example are the values given correct to within 10%, 50% or 200% of the true value. A statistical framework for collecting and presenting information is therefore required. The status information must also be collected and presented at the correct scale. For example, many water-related problems are caused from within the catchment and, for proper assessment, information must be collected at this level. There will also be a need to aggregate such information at a later stage so that statements about national or European water resources can be made.

The assessment of the effectiveness of policies and legislation also needs information on the ‘pressures’ (causes) that might be effecting the ‘status’ of water resources. Thus the aim will be to establish ‘cause-effect’ relationships. This assessment will be across media. For example, atmospheric deposition can cause problems such as lake acidification, and land-use can also significantly impact water quality/quantity. Pressures include sources of contaminants entering water bodies at single points or more diffusely, agricultural and land-use practises in catchments, human interventions such as flood defence/engineering, reservoir construction and over-exploitation of groundwater resources.

Examples of possible cause-effect relationships for large rivers are given by Kristensen (1996). Here it was demonstrated that annual average concentration of ammonium increases with increasing population density in the river catchment (Figure 2.1). In addition the ammonium concentration at 85% of 130 large river stations in the EEA area decreased between the beginning of the 1980’s and 1992, with the concentration decreasing at 58% of the stations by more than 25%. This trend was associated with the increased use of biological treatment of domestic and industrial waste waters.

Figure 2.1. Annual average ammonium concentration in relation to catchment population density (- median value, D upper quartile, à lower quartile)

In the case of nitrate a positive relationship with the percentage of agricultural land in the large river catchments (Figure 2.2) was reported.

Figure 2.2. Annual average nitrate concentration in relation to the percentage catchment used for agricultural land (- median value, D upper quartile, à lower quartile)

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