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Clean fresh water is essential to life. Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, most of Europe's rivers have been treated more like a convenient way of transporting waste to the sea, destroying the biodiversity of thousands of kilometers of waterways, harming human health, and polluting coastal waters in the process. The past decades have seen significant progress in treating the sewage and industrial wastes which are being pumped into Europe's river systems, resulting in lower levels of most pollutants and a measurable improvement in water quality.
The agricultural sector, on the other hand, has not made as much progress. Nitrate levels in Europe's rivers are still as high as they were at the beginning of the last decade. Not only the quality of water but also the quantity available for human use is of importance, and more and more frequently, there are problems with water scarcity around water is one of the most comprehensively regulated areas of EU environmental legislation.
The European Union has firm principles upon which its approach to water management is based: High level of protection: In the context of water management, this requires that the level of protection of human health, of water resources and of natural ecosystems should be ambitious, not setting for the minimum acceptable level but instead aiming at a high level of protection; Precautionary principle: Given the fact that the scientific knowledge base is incomplete - both in relation to our understanding of water systems and, in particular, regarding the impacts of pollution on human health and the health of the environment - the precautionary principle leaves a margin for error. According to this principle, policy should always be based on recognized scientific knowledge, but it should err on the side of caution whenever there are doubts or insufficient information; Prevention principle: This principle recognizes the moral duty to prevent damage to the environment. It also recognizes the difficulty and cost of reversing or rectifying damage to the environment; Polluter pays principle: Those who use water and produce wastewater or contaminate the environment should pay the full costs of their actions. This principle helps prevent distortion in competition by ensuring that external costs are included in the production costs, and acts as an incentive towards the effective control of pollution at the source; Rectification of pollution at the source: This principle follows logically from the "prevention principle", but applies once environmental damage has been identified. Wherever possible, action should be taken to rectify the pollution at its source, rather than seeking technical solutions to solve the problem "downstream".
The first wave of European water legislation began with the Surface Water Directive in 1975 and culminated in the Drinking Water Directive in 1980. Legislation focused mainly on water quality objectives for particular water types and uses, such as fishing waters, shellfish water, bathing waters and groundwater. A 1988 review of European water legislation was based more on an emission limit value approach, which resulted in important new directives in 1991 on urban wastewater treatment and on the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources. For the future, a new European "Water Framework Directive" was adopted in 2000. It requires integrated water management planning in river basins based on a combined approach of water quality standards and emission limit values. This new legislation will also expand the scope of water protection to all waters, surface waters and groundwater, and set an obligation to achieve good status for all these waters within a set deadline. large cities and in southern Europe.
Europe's water quality generally improving but agriculture still the main challenge. The protection and quality of Europe's water is generally improving but there is little or no progress in combating some types of pollution or overuse of water in certain regions, both issues that are linked particularly to agriculture. This makes it important to monitor the effects of next year's enlargement of the European Union on agriculture and water resources in the new Member States. Economic restructuring in central and eastern Europe during the 1990s generally led to reduced pressures on the aquatic environment, but any widespread intensification of agriculture after EU enlargement is likely to reverse this trend. The European Environment Agency today publishes a short briefing paper, Status of Europe's water, summarizing the overall picture and highlighting the issues on which progress is and is not being made.
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Nearly 30 years of European Union environmental legislation, together with national and international action, to protect and improve the aquatic environment are bearing fruit in many areas, although large gaps in data on some issues mean that related conclusions must be treated with caution. Where overall progress is being achieved on an issue there can still be specific problems and geographical 'hot spots,' however. The areas of progress include generally improving river quality in 14 countries for which information is available.
Pollution of rivers and lakes by phosphorus and organic matter from industry and households has seen a notable reduction, and discharges of these substances into the seas have also fallen. River pollution by heavy metals and other hazardous substances is generally decreasing and there is evidence that this is also lowering concentrations in Europe's seas. The total amount of oil spilt from vessels dropped during the 1990s. There has also been progress in reducing overall water withdrawals ('abstraction') and use, except in the western part of southern Europe. Furthermore, significant improvements in information about Europe's water have been achieved through the implementation of Eurowaternet, a water data and information-gathering network coordinated by the EEA.
By contrast, no overall progress is being made on reducing nitrate and pesticide pollution or water withdrawals for irrigation, energy use and tourism. Nitrate pollution, particularly from fertilizers used in agriculture, has remained constant and high. Nitrate concentrations in rivers remain highest in those western European countries where agriculture is most intensive. There is no evidence of changes of nitrate concentrations in groundwater, and nitrate in drinking water remains a common problem across Europe. Pesticides from agriculture continue to be present at concentrations that are cause for concern in raw water used for drinking water production, but lack of data makes it impossible to establish trends. Regarding water withdrawals, there has been a slightly increasing trend in agricultural water use, such as for irrigation, in western southern Europe. The same trend can be seen in water for energy production in the countries of central and Eastern Europe that will join the EU next May.