Europe’s water pollution problem

Article by Elena Simidzioski


Water is an essential resource to enabling life while also playing an important role in growing crops and production. However, Europe’s waters, whether it comes to lakes, rivers or seas, are largely polluted. Therefore, even though drinking water is available to most of Europe’s population, the overall well-being of humans, just as plants and animals disturbed[b2]  by water pollution (European Environmental Agency, 2020). Among the key water pollutants can be named farming (i.e. diffuse pollution) and industrial waste (i.e. point source pollution) (European Environmental Agency, 2020). Importantly, the issue of water pollution is an intrinsically complex matter. The EU constantly works on the issue which is evident from the numerous policies designed to reduce water pollution.

The scope of water pollution in Europe

Statistics show that diffuse pollution – or farming – pollutes 22% of surface water and 28% of ground water in Europe, mainly through pesticides (European Environmental Agency, 2021). Fortunately, the sales of pesticides have remained more or less the same throughout the last decade (Eurostat, 2021). 34% of the water is distorted because of structural changes [b10] which can often impact biodiversity of seas and rivers (European Environmental Agency, 2021). Additionally, droughts are another impediment to water quality. Droughts imply decreased water flows which in turn impede the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water and affect the death rates of fish (Bunch, 2018). About 6% of surface water and 7% of groundwater is largely subject to abstraction of water – often because of farming purposes or industrial use (European Environmental Agency, 2021). The statistics refer to water pollution throughout Europe, and are not region specific.

Preventive action: What the EU does to limit or prevent water pollution

The EU put in place a Water Framework Directive (WFD) that demanded all waters (coastal, transitional, and inland) to reach a satisfactory ecological and chemical status by 2015 (European Environmental Agency, 2020). Nutrient losses are measured as part of determining the quality of water (European Environmental Agency, 2020). Additionally, WFD aims to address water pollution by promoting strategies of sustainable development (European Environmental Agency, 2020).

Furthermore, the EU also has several conventions in place that encompass preventive measures to water pollution. Examples include the Paris and Helsinki Conventions in prevention of marine pollution among other conventions, just as many river conventions (European Environmental Agency, 2020). Yet, the success rates of conventions are oftentimes unsatisfactory as targets are sometimes not met because participating parties free-ride on their duties due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms.

In Europe rivers are especially polluted[b14] . Many pipes are unable to channel large amounts of rainfall and cause wastewater to enter rivers and canals (De Radzizky, 2021). The EU has therefore started an initiative called ‘digital water city’ to advance research on technologies that improve water quality – such as placing sensors in rivers to prevent overflows (De Radzizky, 2021). Likewise, the EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan is put forward by the Commission to maintain the quality of waters while pollution is being reduced in rivers and seas (Frost, 2021).


Tackling the issue of water pollution is a complex task to accomplish. While technology is crucial in keeping water pollution down, there is always room for improvement in policies by EU authorities to decreasepollution caused by farmers and industries. The main pollutants need to be addressed to prevent pollution in the first place. Cleaning water after it is polluted is a very big and  less effective task to do. Simply put, the amount of waste that goes in waters is incomparably bigger than the amount of waste that can be extracted.

Picture by Adonyi Gábor published on Unsplash


Bunch, K. (15 November, 2018). Droughts can excacerbate water quality problems.,and%20lead%20to%20fish%20kills.

De Radzitzky (4 September 2021). Swimming in sewage. How can we fix Europe’s smelly rivers?

European  Environment Agency (24 June 2020). Water pollution – overview.

European Environment Agency (24b June 2020). Prevention strategies.

Eurostat (April 2021). Agri-environmental indicator – consumption of pesticides.

European Environment Agency (23 September 2021). Pollution and barriers are key problems for Europe’s waters.

Frost, R. (23 June 2021). How clean are Europe’s oceans, lakes and rivers?