Zero pollution: Commission report shows more needs to be done against water pollution from nitrates

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This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.


The latest Commission Report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive (based on data for 2016-2019) warns that nitrates are still causing harmful pollution to water in the EU. Excessive nitrates in water are harmful to both human health and ecosystems, causing oxygen depletion and eutrophication. Where national authorities and farmers have cleaned up waters, it has had a positive impact on drinking water supply and biodiversity, and on the sectors such as fisheries and tourism that depend on them. Nevertheless, excessive fertilisation remains a problem in many parts of the EU.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, said: “The implementation of the Nitrates Directive over the last 30 years has undoubtedly increased water quality overall in the EU. We also see that real efforts to switch to sustainable methods are paying off. However, the pace of change is not enough to prevent damage to human health and preserve fragile ecosystems. In line with the European Green Deal, more urgent action is now needed to achieve a sustainable agriculture and protect our precious water supply.”

Nitrate concentrations have fallen in both surface and groundwater in the EU compared to the situation prior to the adoption of the Nitrates Directive in 1991. However, the new report reveals that little progress has been made over the last decade and nutrient pollution from agriculture is still a serious concern for many Member States.

For the period 2016-2019, across Member States, 14.1% of groundwater still exceeded the nitrates concentration limit set for drinking water. According to the findings, water reported as eutrophic in the EU includes 81% of marine waters, 31% of coastal waters, 36% of rivers and 32% of lakes.

The Commission will act to improve compliance with the Nitrates Directive, which is a prerequisite for reaching the European Green Deal objective of reducing nutrient losses by at least 50% by 2030. This requires strengthened measures in most Member States at national and regional level.

Overall, the quality of national action programmes has improved, but in many cases the measures in place are not sufficiently effective in fighting pollution in areas where agricultural pressure has increased. Climate change impact in tackling nitrates pollution has to also be better factored in at national level.

Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Luxemburg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain are facing the greatest challenges in tackling nutrient pollution from agriculture. Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Italy, Portugal and Romania also have hotspots where pollution should be urgently diminished.

Background

While nitrogen is a vital nutrient that allows plants and crops to grow, high concentrations in water are harmful to people and nature. Nitrates from livestock manure and mineral fertilisers have been a major source of water pollution in Europe for decades. About half of the nitrogen in fertiliser and manure applied in Europe is lost to the surrounding environment. In economic terms, this amounts to a loss of potential benefits to farmers of around EUR 13 to 65 billion per year.

Nitrates put human health at risk notably by polluting drinking water. This has also significant economic impacts in terms of cleaning the water for human consumption and for the communities who depend from the polluted waters, such as fisheries and the tourism sector. The overall environmental costs of all reactive nitrogen losses in Europe are estimated at EUR 70–EUR 320 billion per year, much beyond the costs of reducing pollution at source.

The Farm to Fork and the Biodiversity strategies are key initiatives of the European Green Deal and set a target to halve nutrient losses by 2030. This should be achieved notably by implementing and enforcing in full the relevant environment and climate legislation. The Nitrates Directive is key in that. It is an important instrument to achieve the objective of the Water Framework Directive of good chemical and ecological status of all water bodies by 2027 at the latest. The Directive sets out a number of steps to be fulfilled by Member States.

The Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to reduce pollution in air, water and soil to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems by 2050, will also contribute to reduce nutrient pollution.

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