Within the European Union, the nitrate concentration in 14.1% of groundwater is higher than the limit value for drinking water. This is reflected in a new report by the European Commission on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive.
The nitrate concentrations in both surface and ground water, according to the newly published report, have fallen significantly in the EU since the introduction of the nitrates directive in 1991. But nutrient pollution from agriculture is still a serious concern for many countries. For example, the improvement of groundwater quality has been very slow over the last ten years.
Over-fertilisation remains a problem in many parts of the European Union. This requires more stringent measures at national and regional level in most member states. Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, said: “the pace of change is insufficient to prevent damage to human health and preserve vulnerable ecosystems. In line with the European Green Deal, more urgent action is now needed to achieve sustainable agriculture and protect our precious water supply.”
The European Commission’s publication is based on data from the years 2016 to 2019. During this period, 14.1% of groundwater exceeded the nitrate concentration limit set for drinking water. In Belgium (Flemish Region), Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal and Spain, a large number of groundwater monitoring stations still record levels above the maximum of 50 milligrams of nitrate per litre.
Many surface waters suffer from an excess of nutrients. Within the European Union, 36% of Rivers, 32% of lakes, 31% of coastal waters, 32% of transitional waters and 81% of marine waters are classified as eutrophic. Eight countries stand out in terms of their high number of eutrophic waters: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland and the Netherlands.
Most member states and farmers have made significant efforts to reduce nitrate pollution in waters, reports the European Commission. But this is not enough to achieve the objectives of the Nitrates Directive.
Twelve countries face the greatest challenge. They suffer from poor water quality throughout their territory and have a systematic problem with the management of nutrient losses from agriculture. This applies to the Netherlands, Belgium (Flemish region), the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands. Seven member states have hotspots where pollution is insufficiently addressed: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Italy, Portugal and Romania.
The European Commission therefore believes that some member states urgently need to take additional measures to achieve the objectives of the Nitrates Directive. The Netherlands belong to this list, as do Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and the Czech Republic. They are furthest away from the targets, the report says. Dutch prime minister Carola Schouten of Agriculture, Nature and Food quality, recently presented the design of a 7th-action nitrates directive, in which drastic measures, as required for sustainable housing growth and a wider buffer strips along waterways. The farmers ‘ organisations have a lot of criticism about this.
The European Commission announces reinforced actions to improve the implementation and enforcement of the Nitrates Directive. For example, the commission will present an integrated nutrient management action plan in 2022. Various initiatives also stimulate innovation. The Commission sees such actions as a prerequisite for reducing nutrient losses by 50% by 2030. This halving has been set in the framework of the European Green Deal.