A new assessment of Europe’s rivers, lakes, and coasts reveals that the impact of hydropower dams, disconnection of floodplains and altering the natural path of rivers have joined pollution from industrial farming at the top of the list of major causes of damage to Europe’s water environment.

The ‘State of Water Report 2018’ study, published today by the EU’s own environment agency, shows that 40% of water bodies across the EU are affected by dams, land reclamation, and changes to the natural flow of rivers. 38% of water bodies are also affected by excessive use of nitrate and phosphorus and chemical pollution by pesticides mainly from industrial agriculture.

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, said:

“We must increase efforts to ensure our waters are as clean and resilient as they should be — our own well-being and the health of our vital water and marine ecosystems depend on it. 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.”

Campaigners from the Living Rivers coalition say that these findings show EU countries are not adequately implementing the Water Framework Directive – a flagship EU law that aims to protect and restore the EU’s rivers, coasts and aquifers by 2027. They say the problem is a lack of funding, water protection not being made enough of a priority, and opposition from those with a vested economic interest in not cleaning up their act and continuing to contribute to pollution and destruction of our water environment.

The law, adopted back in 2000, will be evaluated this year and a public consultation is expected to begin this autumn.

The Living Rivers coalition members are the European Anglers Alliance, the European Environmental Bureau, the European Rivers Network, Wetlands International and WWF. The group campaigns for significant improvements by EU countries on implementation of the Water Framework Directive and for other EU policies and budgets to be coherent with the law’s objectives on protection and restoration or our aquatic ecosystems.

Sergiy Moroz, Senior Policy Officer for Water and Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said:

With healthy freshwater ecosystems essential for our health and wellbeing, our economy and our wildlife, today’s findings on the worrying state of Europe’s rivers, lakes, and coasts should serve as a serious wake up call to EU and Member State decision makers. Back in 2000, EU countries agreed on a groundbreaking, ambitious and necessary law to protect and restore our precious freshwater, now they must use the current evaluation of the law to urgently improve its implementation in order to bring our water environment back to health.”

While the EEA report shows that 40 % of the lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters monitored between 2010 and 2015 achieved a ‘good’ or ‘high’ ecological status – a lower percentage than in the last water assessment from 2012 – better monitoring techniques have actually masked the fact that some improvements have taken place since the last survey. This is as a result of better wastewater treatment, limited action to tackle agriculture run-off as well as some successful schemes to help fish migrate and restoration work on degraded aquatic ecosystems.

Data from 89,000 rivers, 18,000 lakes, 13,000 groundwater sites, and 3,600 coastal and estuary waters was included in the report. Proper comparison between EU countries is difficult however with no data from Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and parts of Spain available and some countries only basing their assessments on a very limited number of quality elements such as benthic invertebrates or aquatic plants that define the ecological health of freshwater ecosystems.

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office, said:

“The state of our freshwater bodies is shocking. The findings are not surprising, though, given the fact that Member States have been skirting around their legal commitments under the EU’s water laws for the best part of two decades. Governments have been avoiding effective delivery on the legally binding objectives and allowed for further deterioration of our rivers and lakes by using (and misusing!) the various exemptions provided for by the EU Water Framework Directive. It’s absurd that exemptions seem to have become a norm in implementing the legislation!”

Despite some progress in tackling chemical pollution from industry and households, 62% of water bodies looked at in the study, published today, have concentrations of pollutants that are in excess of EU-wide environmental limits, in particular mercury as a result of the dangerous neurotoxin’s historical use in thermometers, batteries, and paints. Cadmium – a toxic carcinogen present in many phosphate fertilisers – was also found in many water samples.