Drowning in nitrates: fixing Europe’s water pollution mess

From droughts and floods to controversial plans surrounding its privatisation, water is increasingly occupying headlines. Water scarcity, once a faraway concept for much of Europe, today poses a real menace not only to our environment but also to livelihoods and social stability. And as we drain these precious reserves, we are polluting what remains! But the solutions are staring us in the face. Ben Snelson reports.

Europe’s natural waters are in crisis. On one hand, abrupt changes to water cycles show this to be one of both alarming scarcity and devastating overabundance. But that’s not all, as many of Europe’s waters are further threatened by widespread pollution. Indeed, currently less than 50% of EU water bodies (lakes, rivers, streams, deltas, lagoons, groundwater reserves) are classified as holding good ecological status.

The scale of the threat

Rainfall once played a dependable role in Europe’s meteorology. However, in recent years a rapidly changing climate has radically distorted weather patterns and water cycles, throwing this formally steady relationship into serious doubt.

The recent risk assessment by the European Environment Agency, the first such report focusing on Europe, warns that the continent is woefully underprepared for the threats it faces, with the “cascading and compounding” climate risks far “outpacing” the development of policy.

With water scarcity a recurring theme, the 400-page report also cites threats to food security, critical infrastructure, and financial markets. In short, it was an emphatic and authoritative reminder that the European society and lifestyles we have come to view as ‘normal’ – and perhaps take for granted – sit in the crosshairs of a rapidly warming continent, and the ever-costly consequences that brings with it.

These risks and challenges demand serious policy responses – both at the European level and from national governments.

The false solution bandwagon brigade

However, the spectre of water scarcity has invited worrying policy reactions that securitise water around the issue of agriculture – in many cases plastering over the problem while ignoring root causes and disregarding expert judgement.

Agriculture accounts for around 40% of total water use in Europe – a figure that exceeds 80% in some water-stressed regions. Short-sighted water policy not only drives water scarcity and imperils its long-held status as a ‘public’ good; it threatens to devastate vital ecosystems too.

In a normal universe, Europe’s multi-faceted water crisis would be met by level-headed responses informed by scientific fact. What might those include?

For a start, the publication of both the EU ‘Water Resilience Initiative’ (see our vision paper) promised as a guiding step towards responsible management of water across Europe, and its Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan proposed to reduce Europe’s unsustainable nutrient flows. But alarmingly, the European Commission has put both of these ‘on hold’

If the Commission and EU governments were to respond in a level-headed manner to these crises you would not expect them to allow for the illegal draining of wetlands and freshwater wildlife reserves to prop up the cultivation of thirsty, non-seasonal agricultural produce (that continue to benefit a small few at huge environmental and social cost).

And these responses would certainly not include the continued pollution of what remains of our water sources…

Polluting what remains…

And yet bizarrely, that is precisely what we see. The pollution of EU water bodies is a growing problem across Europe. One of the most concerning forms of such pollution? Nutrients.

Nutrient pollution occurs when excess nitrates and phosphates leach into waterways such as streams and groundwater, feeding thick algal blooms and depriving water of oxygen in a process of ‘eutrophication’, leading to aquatic ‘dead zones’. EU water reported as eutrophic now includes 81% of marine waters, 31% of coastal waters, 36% of rivers and 32% of lakes.

Across Europe, these waters – many of them vital habitats and ‘jewels’ of European natural heritage – are being transformed into lifeless “green soups”. By what? The cause of this environmental vandalism has been widely attributed to rapidly expanding livestock rearing, an industry that accounts for 81% of agricultural nitrogen in aquatic environments, but whose impacts on such ecology remain poorly regulated.

The social and human health cost

A recent study showed that, without action, the nutrient pollution crisis could leave over 3 billion people globally facing water scarcity by 2050.

Across Europe, this is already becoming a reality. With drinking water reserves and aquifers becoming compromised by nutrients (in Spain, for instance, 200,000 people have been left without drinking water due to nitrate pollution), we need our policymakers – at national and EU level – to act with urgency.

The nitrate pollution of drinking water reserves presents three options: diluting drinking water standards; expensive treatment paid by the public (this already costs the EU taxpayer 22 billion euros per year); or abandonment of the water source. None of these options is good.

The risks to human health is real, with research showing that nutrient-contaminated drinking water increases the incidence of cancers, as well as birth defects and fatal diseases among children and babies.

The good news?

Fortunately, the EU already has an answer to this growing pollution crisis: the Nitrates Directive. Adopted over 30 years ago, this key piece of legislation is currently under evaluation by the Commission.

The Nitrates Directive is a fundamental pillar of the EU’s overarching Water Framework Directive (WFD). The WFD mandates good water quality across the bloc by 2027 at the latest, and the Nitrates Directive is crucial to achieving this goal.

So, what’s needed?

First, for numerous social and environmental reasons, EU countries must implement these existing, legally binding rules to protect national water sources. The social consequences of failing to do this have in some instances been dire. Second, the Commission must live up to its role as the ‘Guardian of the Treaties’, and enforce their implementation and not grant any new or prolong any existing derogations.

Generally, more than simply reducing our consumption of animal products in favour of plant-based diets, we need the EU’s fundamental farming model to stop rewarding the industries and practices that are most damaging to both the environment and human health, much of which comes from factory-farmed animals.

Instead, we need a concerted and wide-scale push towards agroecology on Europe’s farms. Such practices present a real opportunity to not only ensure healthy and plentiful water sources, but also recover the biodiversity on which food security depends, and offer real hope for a future built on resilient farming, and stable, fulfilling and well-rewarded livelihoods.