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The European environment – state and outlook 2010

The European environment – state and outlook 2010

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Freshwaters - Why care? (SOER 2010)

Why should we care about this theme?

Key message

Sufficient water and water of good quality are essential for life and all economic activity.

The increasing demand by citizens and environmental organisations for cleaner rivers and lakes, groundwater and coastal waters has been evident for a considerable amount of time. This demand is one of the reasons why the EU established a Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) for water protection and management, in order to prevent and reduce pollution, promote sustainable water use, protect the aquatic environment, improve the status of aquatic ecosystems and mitigate the effects of floods and droughts. To achieve these objectives by 2015, the three Belgian regions and the federal government1 are working on integrated river basin management plans (for the Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine and Seine districts) and programmes of measures appropriate for each water body. The major measures seek to prevent deterioration, restore and improve the quality of aquatic environment (water resources and ecosystem) and associated wetlands, reduce and eliminate discharges of hazardous substances, achieve good chemical and ecological status and ensure a balance between groundwater abstraction and replenishment.

Water is not scarce in Belgium and water supply is generally continuous and of good quality. Nevertheless, Belgium still faces major water pollution challenges because of intensive agriculture (use of pesticides and nitrogenous fertilisers is among the highest in the OECD), industrial activity and densely populated areas. A large and increasing proportion of groundwater aquifers have high levels of nitrates and pesticides. Besides, wastewater treatment has long lagged behind. Thanks to the concerted effort of the three Belgian regions, industrial discharges to water continued to decline and the share of the population connected to a wastewater treatment plant grew from 42 % to 69 % between 2000 and 2007. As a result, the concentration of pollutants in many surface waters dropped, and aquatic life became more abundant. Moreover, further reforms in the financing of water infrastructure led to a more consistent application of the polluter pays principle. Overall, Belgium’s pricing policy reflects the fact that water is an economic commodity with a social dimension.


1 Belgium’s three regions bear most of the responsibility for fresh water management, whereas the federal government is responsible for protection of the North Sea and for setting product standards.