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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - Europe and Central Asia


Water resources in Europe and Central Asia have been profoundly influenced over the past century by human activities, including the construction of dams and canals, large irrigation and drainage systems, changes of land cover in most watersheds, high inputs of chemicals from industry and agriculture into surface and groundwater, and depletion of aquifers. As a result, problems of overuse, depletion and pollution have become evident - and more and more conflicts are developing between various uses and users.

 Renewable freshwater resources

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Source: compiled by UNEP GRID Geneva from WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998

Eastern Europe has the largest per capita renewable freshwater resources, Central Europe the smallest. The regional average is a little more than the world average

Although most people in Europe and some in Central Asia enjoy adequate supplies of freshwater, the distribution of resources is uneven (see bar chart right). Within the overall sub-regional pattern, there are many local variations: the most abundant supplies are in northern Europe and the remote Asian parts of the Russian Federation, and there is relative scarcity, on a per capita basis, in Mediterranean regions, where agriculture competes for freshwater with growing tourism and industrial use, and in the drylands of Central Asia (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998) where poorly-designed irrigation systems have caused problems in areas which would naturally have adequate supplies.

Europe (but not Central Asia) and North America are the only global regions where more water is used for industry (55 per cent on average in Europe) than for agriculture (31 per cent) or domestic purposes (14 per cent). Agriculture, however, is the dominant water use in most Mediterranean countries (almost 60 per cent on average) and in Central Asia (more than 90 per cent) (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998). In Western Europe, total demand for water increased from about 100 km3/year in 1950 to about 560 km3/year in 1990 (EEA 1995) but has since declined slightly as a result of improved water management, more recycling and a shift from water-consuming industries.

In Central and Eastern Europe, water consumption has declined during the past decade, mainly as a result of economic restructuring. The overall drop in water consumption is mainly a result of reduction of water abstraction for industrial purposes; urban demand is steadily growing, driven by the rising urban population and increased per capita consumption as standards of living improve (EEA 1998a). There are few data on corresponding trends in Central Asia. The dominant source of freshwater within the region is surface water.

The most important freshwater pollutants are nitrate, pesticides, heavy metals and hydrocarbons, and the most important consequences of this pollution are eutrophication of surface waters and possible effects on human health. Over-use, resulting in lowering of the water table, is causing salt water to intrude into groundwater in coastal regions (UNEP/ISRIC 1991, Szabolcs 1991).

In many Western and Central European countries, groundwater samples have been found to contain nitrate at above the maximum admissible concentration in water intended for human consumption set in the European Union Drinking Water Directive (EEA 1998b).

Proper access to safe drinking water in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is often limited by the poor quality of surface and groundwater, shortages of chemicals for treatment, and the poor state of distribution mains and networks. The situation is worst in the Central Asian regions near the Aral Sea (UNDP 1996). Infectious intestinal diseases, often caused by poor drinking water, are among the main causes of infant mortality in the southern regions of the Russian Federation and the Central Asian states (UNICEF 1998).

 Phosphorus, nitrate and organic matter in three European rivers

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Source: EEA-ETC/IW 1996

Graphs show declining levels of phosphorus (PTOT) and organic matter (BOD) in European rivers, with no clear trend for nitrate (NO3N). Values are relative to 1975 (1975=0)

Despite the introduction of water quality targets in the European Union and the attention to water quality in the Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe, the state of many rivers remains poor. One of the most serious forms of river pollution in Europe is high concentrations of nutrients, causing eutrophication in the lower reaches of rivers and the lakes and seas into which they discharge. There have, however, been some improvements in the most seriously polluted rivers since the 1970s, reflecting decreases in discharges resulting from improvements in wastewater treatment and emission controls, helped by the reduced use of phosphorus in detergents (EEA 1998a). In general, an improvement in European rivers can be observed for phosphorus and organic matter, with no clear trend for nitrate (see graphs). In the Rhine river basin, for example, co-ordinated actions have resulted in a significant decrease in organic matter and phosphorus pollution since the mid-1980s.

 The decline of industrial water use: Moldova

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Source: Capcelea 1996

Decline in industrial water use in Central and Eastern Europe is well illustrated by these figures on total abstraction and industrial water use from the Republic of Moldova

The pollution of the Danube with phosphorus compounds has decreased since 1990 (Ministry of Environment Protection of Romania 1996) as a result of the decline in industrial production and fertilizer use in some of the countries through which it flows.

Water quality in Europe's natural and man-made lakes appears to be improving but water quality in many lakes is still poor and well below that in natural lakes in a good ecological state. In Scandinavia, for example, hundreds of lakes, particularly small ones, still suffer from acidification and, although sulphur deposition is falling, it will take a long time for water quality to return to normal (EEA 1997). In the former Soviet Union, many artificial reservoirs were constructed during the 1930s and in particular after World War II. All the major rivers in the European part of the former Soviet Union and in Siberia were diverted into chains of artificial lakes. In most cases, lake bed sediments are highly polluted, and high inputs of phosphorus and other nutrients have often led to eutrophication (Federal Service of the Russian Federation for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring 1997).

Europe's groundwater is endangered in many ways. Significant pollution by nitrate, pesticides, heavy metals and hydrocarbons has been reported from many countries. Trends in nitrate pollution are unclear. Although smaller quantities of pesticides are being used, environmental impacts are not necessarily diminishing because the range of pesticides in use is also changing (EEA 1998b).

In the Russian Federation, 1 400 areas with polluted groundwater have been identified, most of which (82 per cent) are west of the Urals. In 36 per cent of the cases, pollution is due to industry, in 20 per cent to agriculture (fertilizers and wastes from farm animals), in 10 per cent to municipal landfills and in 12 per cent to mixed sources (Ministry of Nature Protection of the Russian Federation 1996). In Ukraine, especially in the eastern industrial areas, the pollution of aquifers by heavy metals, mainly from the mining and chemical industries, is so serious that many wells can no longer be used as a source of drinking water (Ministry of Nature Protection of Ukraine 1994). Few wells around the Aral Sea still provide safe drinking water (Ministry of Ecology and Bioresources of Kazakhstan 1996).

The demand for clean water is expected to grow throughout Europe and Central Asia. This may aggravate the already tense water supply situation in areas which already face problems, such as the Mediterranean countries, particularly during dry summers. A major challenge will be to reduce the vast losses from distribution networks, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where losses can exceed 50 per cent (Statistical Committee of the CIS 1996).

Water quality in the European Union will probably gradually improve as increasingly stringent legislation and regulations are implemented. In particular, the European Commission's Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC), Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) and the proposed Water Framework Directive should result in substantial improvements.

In Central Europe, the resumption of economic growth may result in increasing water pollution, reversing the improvements that have resulted from the sharp decline in industrial activity and reductions in the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

The situation in Eastern Europe will depend on economic growth and the development of industry, the main consumer (and polluter) of water resources. Water pollution problems may persist and worsen as economies recover, with industrial enterprises placing low emphasis on prevention measures and governments taking insufficient measures to enforce pollution reduction strategies.

A main issue for the future in Central Asia is the resolution of the allocation of water rights and water prices between upstream and downstream users (Dukhovny and Sokolov 1996).

The Aral Sea is probably now irrecoverable but it may be possible to increase run-off in the rivers that feed it, and thus at least stabilize its water level, by improving water-use techniques in the Aral Sea basin.

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