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Water quality

Overloading with organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in eutrophication of seas, lakes, rivers and groundwater throughout Europe. The main source of nitrogen is fertilizers in run-off from agricultural land. Most phosphorus comes from households and industry wastewater, though in areas with intensive agriculture in Western Europe, phosphorus from agriculture approaches 50 per cent of the total load (EEA 2001). In Western Europe, fertilizer consumption has fallen since the mid-1980s but eutrophication has continued due to increased nutrient run-off from intensive livestock production. In CEE, use of agrochemicals has declined markedly since the early 1990s, resulting in a reduction of nitrogen-phosphorus fertilizer use by about 50 per cent (Czech Republic 1999, Republic of Hungary 1999).

Pollution of groundwater is another serious problem, mainly associated with nitrates and pesticides from agriculture (EEA 1998). In the Russian Federation alone, more than 2 700 sources of groundwater were identified as polluted in 1999 (RFEP 2000).

Phosphorus discharges from urban wastewater treatment plants in Western Europe have fallen significantly (50-80 per cent) since the early 1980s, largely due to the huge increase in treatment of wastewater (ETC/WTR 2001) and wide-scale introduction of phosphorus-free detergents. By the end of the 1990s, 90 per cent of Western Europeans were connected to sewers and 70 per cent to wastewater treatment plants (ETC/WTR 2001). In CEE, however, 30-40 per cent of households were not yet connected to sewers by 1990 and treatment was inadequate (EEA 1999c). Since 1990, most Accession Countries have started to invest heavily in sewage collection and treatment but its high cost is one of the major financial issues in the accession process (Republic of Slovenia 1999). In the Eastern European countries of the former Soviet Union, little has been done to improve wastewater treatment.

Many lakes that had high phosphorus concentrations in the early 1980s have lower concentrations today. However, only slight changes in phosphorus concentrations have been observed in initially less-affected lakes (EEA 2000). This is mainly due to accumulation and (delayed) release of phosphorus from lake bottoms or continued contamination from small, scattered dwellings and from agricultural sources. Overall, water quality in many European lakes is still poor (ETC/WTR 2001). Heavy pollution in Western European rivers such as the Rhine has declined significantly since 1980 (ETC/WTR 2001) but improvements have been less significant in southern and Central Europe. In Eastern Europe, the situation is different. In the Russian Federation and Ukraine, the two most industrialized countries of the former Soviet Union, discharge of polluted water into rivers increased in the second half of the 1980s and in the 1990s, despite an alleged clean-up campaign for the Volga and Ural rivers as early as 1972 (see box below).

How the Volga and the Ural were not cleaned up

In the early 1970s, funds of 1.2 billion roubles were allocated for a clean-up plan for the Volga and the Ural rivers (Bush 1972) - one of the first publicly announced projects to clean up industrial rivers and safeguard the water supply. Many ministries were charged with negligence or slowness in implementing measures to correct the problem and with failing to make full use of the capital investment allotted for water protection measures. The authorities were given until 1980 to implement the measures needed to ensure a complete end to the discharge of untreated wastewater into the Volga-Ural river basins. However, by the end of the 1980s, the pollution level of the Volga and its tributaries was still assessed as 'extremely high', and it continued to increase in the 1990s.
Source: Interstate Statistical Committee 1999

Poor water quality impacts human health. In Europe, however, outbreaks of water-borne diseases affecting less than 20 per cent of the supplied population are rarely detected. Even so, occasional outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as gastrointestinal infections, affecting much of the population, are reported across Europe, even from countries with high standards of supply (WHO 1999). Lead from old distribution pipes and, in Eastern Europe, contaminated wells can affect the neuro-behavioural development of children (EEA/WHO 1999).

At sub-regional level, various EU Directives tackle water quality issues. Implementation of the Drinking Water and Nitrate Directives has been unsatisfactory in most member states, although the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive has led to a decrease in organic matter discharges by two-thirds and in nutrients by one-half (ETC/WTR 2001). Further improvements are likely as more countries invest in new infrastructure to comply with the objectives of the Directive. The same will be true for Accession Countries in Central Europe.

The mixed success of these measures can be related to the absence of integrated policies for water management. Policy development currently focuses on sustainable watershed management and freshwater protection through integration of quantity and quality aspects. Integration may be improved by the Water Framework Directive which aims to achieve good surface water status in all European water bodies by 2015 and addresses the issue of integrated management of water resources at the catchment level (EEA 1999a).