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Soil degradation

The increase in sealed surfaces together with a decrease in forest cover has led to increased flooding — as here in Portugal — mudflows and landslides

Source: UNEP, Angelo Sande, Topham Picturepoint

Damage to Europe’s soils from human activities is increasing, including sealing of soil surfaces, local and diffuse contamination, and soil erosion. Despite the general recognition that soil degradation is a serious and widespread problem in Europe, it has not been quantified, and its geographical distribution and real extent are not accurately known.

The increase in sealed surfaces due to changes in land use together with a decrease in forest cover has increased the frequency and size of storm run-off, causing flooding, mudflows and landslides (EEA and UNEP 2000). Increases in damage from flooding have also resulted from the development of floodplains for industry and habitation.

Soil contamination occurs throughout Europe, although soil acidification from acid rain is no longer considered a major problem, having decreased by 50 per cent since the 1980s (EEA 1999). Contamination is particularly severe in urban areas due to industrial activities and inadequate waste disposal as well as in areas with a long tradition of heavy industry, mining and military activities and accidents. Throughout southeastern Europe, land which was already under stress from poor land management practices has been further damaged by military and refugee settlements, land mines (as much as 27 per cent of Bosnia’s ploughed land is still mined) and other unexploded devices (REC 2000). In Eastern Europe huge irrigation and hydroelectric projects coupled with poor water management have resulted in salinization and waterlogging of large areas, especially in Azerbaijan, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

Soil erosion in Europe is mainly caused by water and is largely a result of unsustainable agricultural practices, clear cutting of forests and overgrazing. Soil erosion is most serious in the Mediterranean region. It has become irreversible (meaning a loss of more than 1 tonne/ha/year over 50-100 years) in some Mediterranean land areas and in the black soil regions of the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Erosion is a particular problem in the Commonwealth of Independent States: in 12 countries, 475 million ha (79 per cent) of agricultural land are affected by soil erosion to some degree (Interstate Statistical Committee 1999).

Floods and landslides in Italy (number of events)

In the past 20 years floods and landslides have affected more than 70 000 Italians and caused economic damage of nearly €11 000 million. Real impacts are underestimated since data are available for only a few events

Source: EEA and UNEP 2000

Water erosion vulnerability: Europe

Soil erosion in Europe is mainly caused by water and is most serious in the Mediterranean region and in the black soil regions of the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine

Source: USDA 2001

Unlike other media, no specific objectives and targets have been set for soil conservation, and it is rarely considered in sectoral planning activities such as transnational transport corridors. At the national level, some countries have produced legislation, policies and guidelines to ameliorate or prevent further soil degradation but policy measures are primarily aimed at combating pollution in other areas, and affect soils only indirectly. Statutory soil monitoring is carried out in a number of countries but rarely specifically for soil protection; policy performance can therefore not be quantified and comparability at the European level remains weak. The development of a common policy framework that recognizes the role of soil, aimed at sustainability, would have multiple benefits and improve Europe’s environment as a whole.