Water and agriculture

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Agriculture occupies more than 40 % of the European land area and it is an important sector for the European economy, providing food security for European citizens and livelihoods for a large share of its population.

Introduction

Agricultural activities affect the ecological, chemical and quantitative status of surface water and groundwater across Europe, due to diffuse pollution from nutrients and chemicals, water abstraction and hydromorphological changes. In consequence, around one third of surface water bodies fail to achieve good status because of agricultural pressures.

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Reducing pressures from agriculture is key to achieving good status of all water bodies

Agriculture is the largest water user, accounting for up to 60% of net water use in Europe

Nitrate concentration in rivers has reduced by 20% since 1990 and water abstraction by 25%

Water and agriculture in Europe

In 2016, around 50 % of surface water bodies and 25 % of groundwater bodies in the then 28 EU Member States and Norway were not achieving good status according to the Water Framework Directive, in part due to pressures from agriculture. Reducing pressures from agricultural activities is key to achieving good status of all surface water and groundwater bodies. Agricultural activities affect the ecological, chemical and quantitative status of surface water and groundwater across Europe and are a main pressure on Europe's seas. 

The main pressures from agriculture are linked to diffuse pollution from nutrients and chemicals, water abstraction and hydromorphological changes. Often several pressures act at the same time.

Several management measures to tackle agricultural pressures on the water environment already exists within the EU policy framework. Their focus is on efficiency gains in the use of nutrients, pesticides and water which has led to some improvements by reducing nitrogen surplus, nitrate concentrations in water, and agricultural abstraction of water. Despite improvements, pressures remain at unsustainable levels in large parts of Europe.

FIGURE 1 shows the average river nitrate concentration in the time period 1992-2018. The shorter time series (2000-2018) is parallel to the longer time series, but the concentration level is lower. As the shorter time series includes more monitoring sites, this lower level is more representative of the nitrate conditions in European rivers. Agriculture contributes most to nitrogen pollution but, reduced pollution from agriculture has reflected in lower river nitrate concentrations. However, the apparent stabilisation of river nitrate concentrations in recent years may call for further measures to be taken

Annual renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant showed a decreasing trend across all regions except eastern Europe over the period 1990-2017 with large decreases observed in Spain, Malta and Cyprus. Water scarcity conditions and drought events are causing significant risks not only in southern Europe but, in specific areas of other European regions as well.

FIGURE 1

Nutrient trends in European water bodies

Source: Nutrients in freshwater in Europe. EEA Indicator Assessment, 2020

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Note
The data series are calculated as the average of annual mean concentrations for river stations in Europe. Only complete series after inter/extrapolation are included (see indicator specification). The number of river stations included per country is given in parentheses:
1992-2018: Europe (966), Albania (2)***, Austria (39), Belgium (26), Czechia (19), Denmark* (37), Estonia (38), Finland** (65), France** (180), Germany (120), Ireland** (4), Latvia (12), Lithuania (22), Norway** (82), Poland (4), Slovakia (8), Slovenia (8), Spain** (151), Sweden* (109), Switzerland (6), United Kingdom** (36).
2000-2018: Europe (1390), Albania (7)***, Austria (41), Belgium (34), Cyprus (13), Czechia (19), Denmark* (38), Estonia (40), Finland** (76), France** (238), Germany (124), Iceland (1), Ireland** (50), Latvia (16), Lithuania (24), North Macedonia (19), Norway** (89), Poland (5), Romania (99), Serbia (34), Slovakia (8), Slovenia (10), Spain** (247), Sweden* (112), Switzerland (16), United Kingdom** (37).
*all data total oxidised nitrogen, **some data total oxidised nitrogen

FIGURE 2 shows decreasing trend of agricultural water abstraction in last decades on the level of EU and regions of Europe.

FIGURE 2

Trend in agricultural water abstraction in EU-28

Source: Water and agriculture: Towards sustainable solutions. EEA Report No 17/2020

Changing precipitation patterns and increasing temperatures under climate change affect water resources and water demand in agriculture. Precipitation has increased in some parts of Europe and decreased in others. The growing season is getting longer, increasing the number of crops produced and demand for water.

In southern Europe, precipitation is expected to decrease, increasing the existing water scarcity issues. In other parts of Europe, extreme precipitation will increase the transport of nutrients and chemicals into streams, potentially increasing pollution and its impacts.

Wider uptake of sustainable management practices based on agroecological principles, organic farming and nature-based solutions is essential for achieving the objectives of the WFD. Such practices have multiple sustainability benefits, contributing to reducing the pressures on water, while they also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance the long-term resilience of agriculture to climate pressures and benefit biodiversity.

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Background

Agriculture is an important sector for the European economy and, particularly in the second half of 20th century, agricultural yields have increased, thanks to changes in crop varieties and breeding techniques, new technologies and machinery, new farming practices and increased use of inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation water.

However, growth in agricultural productivity has been accompanied by increased pressures and impacts on water and aquatic ecosystems in the form of pollution from nutrients and pesticides, together with over-abstraction of water for irrigation, and hydromorphological alterations.

By adopting the European Green Deal in order to achieve sustainable development, EU will need to reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector, in particular on freshwater ecosystems.

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References

The main reference are the EEA Indicator Assessments:

The EEA Reports

See also:

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Other European Information Systems: