Ensuring clean waters for people and nature

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Article Published 15 Oct 2020 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
6 min read
Photo: © Jacob Kaptein, REDISCOVER Nature/EEA
Water covers more than 70 % of the Earth’s surface and is essential to all life on our planet. Of all the Earth’s water, 96.5 % is contained within the oceans as salt water, whereas the remaining 3.5 % is freshwater — lakes, rivers, groundwater and ice. Good management of this limited and precious resource is indispensable for the well-being of people and nature.

Throughout history, people have settled close to rivers, lakes and coastlines. Rivers and streams brought clean water and took away waste. As human settlements grew, so did their use of clean water and discharge of polluted water. From the 18th century onwards, Europe’s water bodies also started receiving pollutants from industry.

With sewage systems, waste water treatment facilities and the regulation of pollutants from industry and agriculture, Europe has come a long way in reducing emissions to water bodies. Nevertheless, water pollution continues to be a problem, with over-exploitation, physical alterations and climate change continuing to affect the quality and the availability of water.

A mixed picture — the state of Europe’s water bodies

About 88 % of Europe’s freshwater use comes from rivers and groundwater. The rest comes from reservoirs (about 10 %) and lakes (less than 2 %). Like any other vital resource or living organism, water can come under pressure. This can happen when demand for water exceeds its supply or when pollution reduces its quality.

Waste water treatment and reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus losses from agriculture have led to significant improvements in water quality. However, according to the EEA’s most recent data, only 44 % of surface waters in Europe achieve good or high ecological status, partly because of pollution. The situation of Europe’s groundwater is somewhat better. About 75 % of Europe’s groundwater areas has a ‘good chemical status’.

Marine environment under threat

The current condition of Europe’s seas — from the Baltic to the Mediterranean — is generally poor, according to the EEA’s Marine messages II assessment. Despite some positive developments achieved through regional cooperation, a range of pressures from historic and current human activities could cause irreversible damage to marine ecosystems.

Moreover, the EEA’s report on contaminants in Europe’s seas showed that all four regional seas in Europe have a large-scale contamination problem, ranging from 96 % of the assessed area in the Baltic Sea and 91 % in the Black Sea to 87 % in the Mediterranean Sea and 75 % in the North‑East Atlantic Ocean. The contamination problem is mainly caused by synthetic chemicals and heavy metals originating from human activities both on land and at sea.

Similarly, the EEA’s report on nutrient enrichment and eutrophication in Europe’s seas showed that eutrophication as a consequence of nutrient losses, mainly from agriculture, is another large-scale problem, especially in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.

Coastal and maritime activities, such as fishing, shipping, tourism, aquaculture and the extraction of oil and gas, cause multiple pressures on the marine environment, including pollution. Marine litter is present in all marine ecosystems, with plastics, metals, cardboard and other waste accumulating on shorelines, the seabed and surface waters. Ships and offshore activities also cause underwater noise pollution, which can negatively affect marine life.

Tackling water pollution — waste water and diffuse pollution

Much has been done across Europe to enable the collection and treatment of urban waste water. According to EEA data, most European countries were collecting and treating sewage at the tertiary level from most of their population by 2017. Still, in a number of European countries less than 80 % of the population was connected to public urban waste water treatment systems.

Meanwhile, existing infrastructure requires maintenance and new pressures require substantial investments, including adapting to climate change, providing improved waste water facilities and tackling new concerns, such as medicines or the so‑called mobile chemicals in waste water.

In addition to point source pollution from industry and waste water treatment plants, water bodies also suffer from diffuse pollution, for example from transport, agriculture, forestry and rural dwellings. Pollutants that are first released to air and soil often also end up in water bodies.

Intensive agriculture

Intensive agriculture relies on fertilisers to increase crop yields. These fertilisers often work by introducing nitrogen, phosphorus and other chemicals into the soil. Nitrogen is a chemical element abundant in nature and is essential for plant growth.

However, some of the nitrogen intended for crops is not taken up by plants. The amount of fertiliser applied may be more than the plant can absorb or it may not be applied during the plant’s growing period. This excess nitrogen finds its way into water bodies and there it boosts the growth of certain water plants and algae in a process known as eutrophication. This extra growth depletes the oxygen in the water, rendering it uninhabitable for other animal and plant species.

Pesticides used in agriculture aim to protect crops from invasive pests, ensuring crop growth. However, these effects can occur beyond the intended target, harming other species and reducing biodiversity. Often, these chemicals end up in water bodies.

COVID-19 and water pollution

Lower economic activity during lockdowns is likely to lead to lower emissions to water from industry, while emissions from schools and workplaces are likely to shift towards households. There may be less water stress in specific areas in Europe, depending on the impacts on agriculture and energy production. Reduced tourism is also likely to lead to lower emissions to water along European coasts and in other tourist destinations.

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Plastics in the water — size matters

Plastics have become integral to almost every aspect of our lives, and the issue of plastics entering our waterways, lakes and seas is dramatic and well documented.

Clearing visible plastic litter from rivers, beaches and even the sea might still be possible but, with time and exposure to sunlight, plastic waste fragments into ever-smaller pieces, known as micro- and nanoplastics. Waste water treatment plants can filter out most of these tiny particles but the remaining sludge is often spread on land, with plastic particles sometimes being washed into water bodies by rainfall. These smallest particles are hardly visible to the eye and their impacts on nature and our health are still poorly understood.

Many plastics are also highly adsorbent, attracting other contaminants. As noted in the EEA report on the state of Europe’s seas, concentrations of contaminants in pieces of microplastic can be thousands of times greater than in ambient seawater. This exposes marine life to harmful chemicals, which, in turn, can end up on our plates.

Towards zero water pollution

In the past decades, Europe has made significant efforts to improve water quality, treat waste water and protect marine and freshwater habitats and species. Today, EU policies address a wide range of issues affecting water, such as drinking water, urban waste water, bathing water quality, single-use plastics, industrial emissions and hazardous chemicals. Overarching programmes and legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, strengthen these specific pieces of EU legislation.

However, efforts to move towards zero pollution will require a major focus on water as part of the European Green Deal’s zero pollution action plan, including aiming to restore the natural functions of groundwater, surface water, marine and coastal waters, tackling pollution from urban runoff, and addressing new concerns, such as microplastics and chemicals.

As one of the key components of the European Green Deal, the farm to fork strategy aims to significantly reduce the agricultural use and risk of chemical pesticides, the use of antibiotics and fertiliser losses to the environment, for example through integrated pest management and an integrated nutrient management action plan. The EU 2030 biodiversity strategy also supports similar objectives.

To help tackle the plastics problem, the EU has already proposed a plastics strategy that aims to ‘transform the way products are designed, produced, used, and recycled in the EU’. Meanwhile, consumer attitudes are changing and innovations mean that some items previously made from plastics can now be produced from cellulose sourced from recycled paper, textiles, plants or algae.

State of water in Europe

Waste water treatment and reductions in nutrient losses from agriculture have led to significant improvements in water quality in Europe. However, many of Europe’s freshwater bodies are still not doing well and the condition of Europe’s seas is generally poor, partly because of pollution.

Sources: EEA 2018 water assessment; EEA report - Marine messages II; EEA report - State of Europe’s seasEEA infographic.

Find out more

Water and marine environment:

SOER 2020, Chapter 4 on freshwater:

SOER 2020, Chapter 6 on the marine environment:

EEA Signals 2018 — Water is life:


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