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Part 1 and introduction for free: Basic concepts

Content of Part 2

  • II. The sad state of the Union
  • II.1. Underground waters: overview of the evaluation [0mn45 on the youtube video]
  • II.2. Most surface water bodies below good status [2mn02s]
  • II.3. Explaining the status of surface waters [6mn46s]
  • [« Interlude » about lithium] [8mn35s]
  • II.4. Recent evolution of water quality: almost insignificant [11mn11s]
  • Sources
Weissensee lake in Austria. Its high ecological status (a rare case in the European Union) cannot be fully trusted because of a questionable assessment (Image: Going against the flow, Part 2).

II. The sad state of the Union

II.1. Underground waters: overview of the evaluation

AS SEEN IN BASIC NOTIONS (part 1), European Union [EU] directives demand that only twelve types of pollutants be controlled in underground water bodies, including ammonium, arsenic, chloride, lead, mercury, sulfate and trichloroethylene. Some EU member States take full advantage of these laws so tolerant of pollution, whereas other member States control up to 90 polluting substances. Even if 90 of them are controlled, thousands of substances and their cumulative effects are ignored (European parliament and council of the EU, 2014 ; EP and CEU, 2006, annexes I and II).

According to the latest report by the European environment agency (EEA), 26 percent of all EU underground water bodies do not reach good chemical status. 26 percent is quite significant considering the very limited number of measured pollutants. European law is so lax that these results cannot be considered serious. They grossly underestimate the existing pollution. Aside from that egregious legal loophole, It should be noted that nitrates and pesticides are the most common pollutants found in underground water bodies that do not reach good chemical status (EEA, 2018, p.50).

II.2. Most surface water bodies below good status

In the EU, more than 60 percent of surface water bodies, mostly of which rivers, coastal areas and lakes, have neither a good ecological status or potential, nor a good chemical status. As previously mentioned, this percentage is overoptimistic, especially when it comes to the chemical status that ignores way too many parameters to be reliable. As a reminder, the chemical status only applies to the tiny minority of polluting substances measured in the EU. That is why it is best to focus more on the ecological status of surface water bodies (EEA, 2020 [a]).

The status of water bodies varies greatly from one region or one water body to the next. There are over 130,000 surface water bodies and 13,000 underground water bodies in the EU. The disparities of ecological and chemical conditions, within the EU, within EU member States and river basin districts, are huge (EEA, 2020 [a]; European commission, 2007).

Let’s begin with what is positive. In some regions, good ecological status or potential applies to more than 60 percent of surface water bodies. This is the case in Ireland and Romania, in the northern portions of Spain, Finland and Norway or in southwestern Greece. 11 percent of EU surface water bodies even display a high ecological status, but these ones are usually concentrated in rather inhospitable mountainous areas. The assessment of high ecological status is flawed and disregards many species and vegetation covers that influence the quality of aquatic ecosystems as well as the physicochemical properties of water (EEA, 2020 [a], 2020 [c] and 2018, p.26).

A long way from high ecological status, the status or potential is not good for more than 60 percent of water bodies in most of France, most of Italy and Sweden. Even worse, more than 75 percent of surface water bodies do not reach good status or potential in Denmark, in Germany, in Hungary, in Latvia, in the Czech republic, in more than half of Poland and England or in southern Sweden (EEA, 2020 [a] and 2018, p.26).

When it comes to chemical status, there is little to nothing really positive in our continent. Beyond an official assessment that ignores most polluting substances and their cumulative effects, only 38 percent of surface water bodies reach good chemical status. Furthermore, 16 percent of EU surface water bodies have not been assessed. The situation is particularly troubling in Bulgaria, in Denmark, in Estonia, in Ireland, in Latvia and Portugal where the chemical status of more than 60 percent of water bodies is unknown (EEA, 2020 [a] and 2018, p.42).

A number of basin districts where the concentration of the 53 EU-regulated pollutants is measured stand out because bad chemical status is ubiquitous. Thus, in Austria, in Belgium, in Germany, in Slovenia and Sweden, more than 98 percent of surface water bodies display a bad chemical status (EEA, 2020 [a]).

II.3. Explaining the status of surface waters

What are the main causes of degraded surface water bodies across Europe? The percentage of surface water bodies that have been significantly degraded by specific pressures is particularly telling.

  1. 40 percent of EU surface water bodies have been significantly degraded by transformations caused by man named hydromorphological alterations. For example, banks have been transfigured, dams and canals have been built, river flows have been modified and riparian areas have been damaged or destroyed (EEA, 2018, p.35 and 2020 [a]).

  2. 38 percent of surface water bodies in the EU have been deteriorated by diffuse pollution. Diffuse pollution stems from multiple sources spread out over time and space. It stems mostly from agriculture, especially excess nitrogen and phosphorus and from pesticides (EEA, 2018, p.35, 67 and 2020 [a]).

  3. 38 percent of EU surface water bodies have also been seriously degraded by atmospheric deposition of pollutants. Mercury is the most common of these pollutants. It derives from the burning of fossil fuels, be it oil, gas or coal, but also from the burning of wood and wastes. Mercury is present in 45,000 surface water bodies across the EU (EEA, 2018, p.35-37 and 2020 [a]).

  4. Point source pollution affects in a significant manner 18 percent of EU surface water bodies. It primarily originates from urban waste water. To a lesser degree, point source pollution also comes from industrial discharges, and combined sewer overflows during heavy rainfall (EEA, 2018, p.35, 62 and 2020 [a]).

  5. Finally, water withdawals like irrigation downgrades in a significant way 7 percent of surface water bodies (EEA, 2018, p.35).

« Interlude » about lithium

The pollution of water bodies is an opportunity to make a digression and address lithium mining. Lithium is becoming a strategic resource across the world. It is notably being used to replace gasoline cars with electric cars based on lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are also used in smartphones, laptops, electric bikes and scooters for instance.

About half of lithium-ion batteries are recycled globally, with a recycling rate much higher in China and Korea than in Europe. But even recycled lithium-ion batteries raise big issues. Generally, recycling costs and its carbon footprint remain high while the fraction of batteries that can really be recovered out of the 50 percent of lithium-ion batteries recycled worldwide, is low. The polluting substances that these batteries contain (lithium salts and transition metals) can seep into water bodies and contaminate the local environment around landfills where battery wastes are disposed of (Abbott et al., 2020; Kumagai, 2021; Li et al., 2020; Reuters, 2018 [a]; Reuters, 2019 [a]; The conversation, 2020 [a]).

Our increasing dependence on lithium is generating water shortages and conflicts in South America for instance because of water consumption by lithium mining. In some regions, as in the mega-cities of Seoul and Shanghai for instance, lithium found in excess in water bodies and tap water can have severe health effects on human bodies, inhibit cell viability and accelerate their destruction. Mega-cities reliant on the widespread use of high-tech products appear to be among the most exposed to health issues due to their intensive use of lithium. Apart from our largely inconspicuous “lithiumized” landfills whose health effects are little discussed, the European Union is not really concerned about the ravages caused by its overconsumption of lithium… abroad (Abbott et al., 2020; Kumagai, 2021; Li et al., 2020; Reuters, 2019 [a]; The conversation, 2020 [a]).

II.4. Recent evolution of water quality: almost insignificant

In the EU as a whole, the overall impact of significant pressures on surface water bodies like diffuse agricultural pollution did not really change between 2010 and 2020. In general, water pollution levels remained almost the same. However, over the last 10 years or so, there has been some good news like the improvement of wastewater treatment and sewer connections. There has been a decrease of wastewater pollution in water bodies for the last thirty years. That said, this acknowledgement should be somewhat tempered. Indeed, in the late 1980s, pollution due to poor wastewater treatment was getting disastrous, notably in western Europe. Some gaps have been filled since then, in part by passing new laws (EEA, 2018, p.66-67 and 2020 [a]).

Moreover, emerging pollutants tarnish the good results of wastewater treatment. Drug residue from analgesics, antibiotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics or hormones and other micro-pollutants derived from personal care products like parabens are largely responsible for this emerging pollution. All these emerging pollutants (micro-pollutants) are discharged into surface waters following wastewater treatment. The elimination rates of these pollutants vary widely in wastewater treatment plants. They sometimes drop below 30 percent. According to studies conducted in France, some drug residue were found in more than 75 percent of the samples collected in surface waters, while paraben was found in 99 percent of samples. In addition to deteriorating the chemical quality of water, emerging pollutants may cause the feminization of living organisms and accumulate in the soil, in plants and animals, thus disrupting aquatic ecosystems (Académie nationale de pharmacie, 2019, p.26-28Feng et al., 2017, p.27; Toma, 2020).

The status of the vast majority of EU water bodies has not changed during the 2010s. But comparing data of 2012 with those of 2018 or later requires caution because certain control methods and classifications have changed. Nonetheless, certain key elements are comparable without any problem. This is the case with biological quality elements (BQEs) like populations of macroinvertebrates, fish or macrophytes (visible plants). These BQEs did not change in more than half of the EU’s surface water bodies between 2012 and 2018; BQEs improved in about one quarter of these water bodies and worsened in another quarter (EEA, 2020 [a]).

Progress in water quality, however modest, should also be noted in terms of nitrate concentration in rivers. In an effort spearheaded in part by EU legislators, member States have taken a set of measures to reduce nitrate concentration. These measures include manure surplus management, a more stringent protection of vulnerable areas, a better timing of the application of fertilizer such as nitrates, and run-off ponds to capture and retain agricultural nutrients (EEA, 2018, p.67-68).

As a result, average levels of nitrate concentration declined by 20 percent in European rivers between 1992 and 2015. However and once again, this finding should be tempered. Before 1992, nitrate concentration in rivers leant towards a major ecological disaster across Europe. Still today, thousands of surface water bodies and their biodiversity are deeply affected by nitrates. The latest study showed a nitrate concentration exceeding 10 mg/l in 35 percent of samples collected in European surface waters (2012-2015). From 7 mg/l, nitrates can reduce biodiversity. About 20 percent of European rivers that were sampled undergo eutrophication, usually because of nitrates. Eutrophication means the proliferation of certain plants combined with oxygen deficit and insufficient wildlife populations in distress (EEA, 2018, p.67-68; European commission, 2018 [a] and 2018 [b], p.7; Sutton et al., 2011, p.xxix).

There is another piece bad news for water bodies related to nitrates. From 2008 to 2018, the consumption of nitrogen fertilizer by agriculture in the EU slightly increased. It is about 10 million tons per year today (Eurostat, 2020 [a]).

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Sources

Abbott et al., 2020. The importance of design in lithium ion battery recycling – a critical review. Royal society of chemistry. DOI: 10.1039/D0GC02745F. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Académie nationale de pharmacie, 2019. Médicaments et environnementWebpage viewed on 11/26/2021

The conversation, 2020 [a]. Designing batteries for easier recycling could avert a looming e-waste crisis. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

European commission, 2007. REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) and the Floods Directive (2007/60/EC). Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

EEA, 2020 [a]. EEA 2018 water assessment. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

EEA, 2020 [c]. Surface water bodies: ecological status or potential, by category (2nd RBMP). Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

EEA, 2018. European waters – Assessment of status and pressures. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

European parliament and council of the EU, 2014. Commission Directive 2014/80/EU of 20 June 2014 amending Annex II to Directive 2006/118/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

EP and CEU, 2006. Directive 2006/118/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 December 2006 on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Feng et al., 2017. Ozonation in water treatment: the generation, basic properties of ozone and its practical application. Reviews in Chemical Engineering, n°33-1. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Li et al., 2020. The toxicity of lithium to human cardiomyocytes. Environmental sciences Europe, n°32-59. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Reuters, 2019 [a]. Lithium from electronic waste can contaminate water supply. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Reuters, 2018 [a]. In Chilean desert, global thirst for lithium is fueling a ‘water war’. Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Toma, 2020. Les résidus de médicaments dans l’eau… Webpage viewed on 11/26/2021

Nicolas Barbier 2021, all rights reserved