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The state of Europe's waterways proves that water quality is "critical" in meeting our goal of living within the limits of our planet. Sustainability, life below water, and climate change are all tackled by the UN’s Global Goals, and you can join us by taking action on these issues here

Some 60% of Europe’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries are failing to meet even the minimum ecological standards set by the EU. 

A new report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) found that, of 130,000 waterways, most are slipping up on habitat degradation and pollution. 

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The “State of Our Waters” report, released on Tuesday, examined the ecological status of Europe’s bodies of water. Ecological status is the best overall indicator of how healthy a body of water it — and it takes into account how factors like pollution, climate change, and other pressures, are impacting the quality of the water. 

But just two-fifths of Europe’s waterways were found to be in a good state, in the years from 2010 to 2015. 

“We must increase efforts to ensure our waters are as clean and resilient as they should be — our own wellbeing and the health of our vital water and marine ecosystems depend on it,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA executive director. 

“This is critical to the long-term sustainability of our waters and in meeting our long-term goals of living well within the limits of our planet,” he added. 

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A “good” status means that the body of water is meeting the EU-set standards for the ecology, chemistry, and quantity of water. 

But the main problems holding back progress were factors like man-made dams, land reclamation, channelisation (changing the flow of rivers and streams), higher population densities, and more intensive agricultural practices. 

Factors like pollution from farm runoff and waste water discharge from sewers were also found to be significant problems, along with mercury and cadmium contamination. 

“Once widely used in thermometers, batteries, and paints, mercury continues to be found in water samples, followed by cadmium, which is used in phosphate fertilisers and in metal production,” according to the report. 

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England did pretty poorly overall, ending up in the bottom half of the European results table after deterioration in water quality since 2010. 

Scotland, however, was included in the better performing countries, alongside northern Scandinavia, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania, and several river basin districts in the Mediterranean region.

In contrast, many of the central European river basin districts, showed poorer performances. And results from Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, and parts of Spain couldn’t be included in the report, according to the EEA. 

But it’s not all bad news. The report did note a slight improvement since 2010, and said that EU member states have made “marked efforts” to improve water quality by improving wastewater treatment and lowering the runoff of pollutants from farmland. 

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Steps have also been taken to make barriers passable to migrating fish and restore degraded aquatic ecosystems, it said. 

“The quality of Europe’s freshwater is gradually improving, but much more needs to be done before all lakes, rivers, coastal waters, and groundwater bodies are in good status,” said EU environmental commissioner Karmenu Vella. 

He said that “tackling pollution from agriculture, industry, and households requires joint efforts from all water users throughout Europe.” 

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Meanwhile Andreas Baumueller, the World Wide Fund’s (WWF) Europe head of natural resources, told the Guardian: “The legislation is there in the form of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, but the political will is clearly lacking to make it work on the ground.”

This is the second EEA water assessment since 2012 and, the report said, our knowledge of Europe’s waters has grown significantly since then. It said we now have a better understanding of the status, the problems that lead to failure, and the measures needed to generate improvement. 


Defend the Planet

60% of Europe's Lakes and Rivers Are Failing Pollution Tests

By Imogen Calderwood