Nitrate pollution of water sources: new impulses for EU Water Policy?

karmenu-vella-cop22

Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Environment, on the left, at the podium, speaking during the opening ceremony at COP22 in Marrakech which took place last November. © European Union , 2016 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

This article was written by one of our passionate readers, Mrs Viviana Vaira. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not The European Sting’s position on the issue. 

In 2015 expired the first five-year management cycle related to the implementation of the Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for the Community action in the field of water policy (EU- Water Framework Directive). Nevertheless, the results leave something to be desired.

In force since the 22nd of December 2000, the WFD expresses a response to European citizens’ concerns upon the current status of water in its natural sources, concerns which are principally related to influence of human activity, demographic growth and climate change on water supply system. This response aims to boost a new water policy at European level under the consideration that water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.

In this mindset, the goals that Europe and European Countries set out in the WFD and its implementation are focused on water resources management with a purpose aimed to be realised  within 2015 : the achievement of a “good ecological status” of  inland surface waters, groundwater, estuarine waters, and coastal waters. Through the monitoring of the effective physical and chemical properties of the water founts, it is possible to state that water pollution caused by agriculture, industrial activity as well as by often inadequate urban sewage water disposal, still reaches a high level in many areas, especially in North-continental Europe.

Infringement procedure against Germany over nitrate pollution

According to the European Commission, Germany is indeed a glaring example of a region with increasingly nitrates-polluted ground and surface waters. Therefore, the Commission brought  the matter before the EU Court of Justice, arguing the inapt and insufficient implementation of measures against nitrate pollution, as prescribed by the EU Nitrate Directive. Building up an integral part of the WFD, the Nitrates Directive of 1991 (Directive 91/676/EEC) carries out a precise implementation of water-protection policy in  European countries towards the enhancement of the quality of water via measures seeking to prevent nitrates to contaminate ground and surface waters. Thus, nitrates represents a zealous menace to ecological state of water caused by the environmental pressure of  agricultural sources, in particular by fertilisers.

That’s why in 2003 the Communities felt the need for  another measure to be enacted: the Regulation (EC) No 2003/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council relating to fertilisers. The Commission adopted, in March 2016, a proposal of simplification of the existing legislation on fertilisers alongside a deeper harmonisation of the regulation of fertilisers’ production and trade. Specifically, a proper control and administration of agricultural strain on water resources would de facto considerably trim down the nitrates-threat, while dealing with the issue literally from the roots. Given the inaction over years of both German Federal and States governments in the face of the increasing contamination level, the Commission was left no other choice but to take position sanctioning the Country which, as reported by the EEA, owns the widest portion of water bodies throughout different River  Basin Districts holding less than good ecological status, followed  immediately by Denmark.

The impact of ammonium and nitrite in Water on environment and human health

Nitrite derives from biological denitrification, acid rain and industrial waste and may be the cause of toxic disorders as methaemoglobinaemia. As notable, Ammonium and Nitrite potentially react with secondary and tertiary amines forming cancerous nitrosamines. Nurslings and babies are more sensitive to this danger, as well as pregnant women. Also, Nitrite and Nitrate are responsible for considerably severe environmental pollution damages.

These first considerations aim to underline the burthen and reach of this problem, which is being registered in both drinking water and in environmental samples. Nonetheless, because of the nature of the good “water” and its cycle, the mutual relation of water sources, even between drinkable and non-drinkable ones, is crucial. In this sense the nitrate contamination has to be seen as an obstacle to the achievement of a good, sustainable ecological state of waters and this consequently means that the most threatened interests at stake (human health and environmental salubriousness) are strictly interlinked themselves, and so shall be the action seeking for the solution.

How to achieve concrete improvements?

In the light of these considerations, even though the definition of good ecological state of waters is still in process and leaves room for uncertainties, the European Union plays a key role hiking the path of regulation, harmonisation of quality standards and water policy in general. However, its warhorse remains the pursuit of the so-called Effet util not only with regard to preservation of continuity and authority of European Law, but also  – and above all – with regard to the efficiency in achieving its goals.

The tools the EU posses for the enhancement of environmental sustainability and health-standards are precious for each single European Country. The decision of the EU-Commission of sanctioning Germany because of its lacking implementation stresses the need of a strict flexibility about the interpretation of the meaning of the intended objectives, as well as a metaphorical iron fist for the attainment of said objectives.

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