Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries: «Clean water is vital for healthy ecosystems and for citizens’ quality of life. I am happy to see that EU rules to reduce pollution from nitrates in water are delivering. Member States’ longstanding efforts to put them into practice are paying off. Still further effort is needed to achieve a more sustainable agriculture in the EU. Farmers should always be looking for ways to manage the nutrient cycle more sustainably. This will reduce the costs for public authorities to treat polluted water, make it safe for drinking and is in the long-term interests of the farmers themselves.”
Thanks to the EU Nitrates Directive, nitrates concentrations have fallen in both surface and groundwater. Eutrophication – the excess growth of weeds and algae that suffocates life in rivers and seas – has also decreased, while sustainable agricultural practices in relation to nutrients’ management have become more widespread. Despite this positive overall trend, nitrates pollution and eutrophication continue to cause problems in many Member States. They need to step up their efforts to bring the waters in the European Union to a good status.
Agricultural pressures on water quality are still increasing in some areas, as some agricultural practices are heavily dependent on fertilisers that can cause local water quality to deteriorate. The trends observed in the report thus may have a bearing on the supply of clean drinking water, and the costs that public authorities have to carry to treat polluted water.
Several Member States and regions still have a high percentage of nitrate-polluted and eutrophic waters. Based on the reported data, the highest percentage of polluted groundwater stations are found in Malta, Germany, and Spain. Regarding fresh water the highest percentage is found in Malta, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Overall, the quality of national action programmes has improved, with tightened measures and improved methodologies to reach balanced fertilisation and sustainable manure management. Some Member States are developing innovative manure processing technologies. However, challenges remain, such as how to properly take into account all nutrient inputs from different sources, and how to prevent nutrient losses to water and air through effective manure management.
Although water monitoring steadily improved in 2012-2015, strengthened water monitoring, especially of saline surface waters, would improve the comparability of the data on nitrogen pollution and provide a more detailed picture of the overall quality of the EU waters.
This report, mainly based on the information submitted by Member States for the period 2012–2015, is accompanied by a Staff Working Document (SWD(2018)246, insert link) which includes maps and tables on indicators of nutrient pressures from agricultural sources, water quality and designated nitrate vulnerable zones, both at EU level and at Member State level.
While nitrogen is a vital nutrient that helps plants and crops to grow, high concentrations are harmful to people and nature. In particular, nitrates from livestock manure and mineral fertilisers have been a major source of water pollution in Europe. Excessive concentrations of nitrates in waters cause algal blooms, disrupting aquatic ecosystems, and threatening biodiversity. This puts human health at risk notably by polluting drinking water. It also has economic impacts: in terms of cleaning the water for human consumption and impeding ecosystem services provided by water bodies. More than 25 years ago the EU recognised the problem, adopting the Nitrates Directive, which promotes good agricultural practices across Europe by reducing water pollution from nitrates from agricultural sources. The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against pollution. The Directive sets out a number of steps to be fulfilled by Member States, notably: monitoring of all water body types; identification of waters that are polluted or at risk of pollution; designation of nitrate vulnerable zones; and establishment of codes of good agricultural practices and national action programmes. The Nitrates Directive also contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the EU by helping reducing negative environmental impacts associated with food production (SDG 2), by supporting improved water quality (SDG 6) and by reducing pollution affecting freshwater and ecosystems (SDG 14 and SDG 15).