Interview: Water is our source of life

Jun 03, 2024

Copyright: EEA

Following implemented activities dealing with Water Depollution, the Umweltbundesamt main expert on the topic and thematic coordinator on the EU4Green project, Harald Loishandl-Weisz explains in this interview just how important water depollution is, how it impacts more than just water and how different pollutants, such as nitrates, are a high risk to the environment, biodiversity and general health of the nature and of people.

  1. Water depollution is one of EU4Green and GAWB priority areas. Why is it important for EU (Green Deal) and what’s its importance for the WB region?

As drinking water supply in the Western Balkans mostly comes from springs, groundwater wells and reservoirs of surface waters, the impact on people is significant. The pollution of groundwater and air and soil is interconnected, as pollutants from air or soil potentially end up in water. From surface it will infiltrate soil and end up in groundwater, while agriculture plays a big role here, as agricultural areas produce pollution mainly by nitrates and pesticides.

Nitrogen in water can cause significant damages to the ecosystem in waters. This affects not only life in rivers, lakes and coastal waters, but also human consumption, recreation and tourism too. Ensuring a healthy ecosystem is a priority, protecting people and animals, as part of the eco-system.

Groundwater and especially spring water is the main source of drinking water, both in Austria and the Western Balkans region. It is very important to secure the surface is clean and not polluting soil and underground water. No storages, industry and such should be in the proximity of any water source, because it can endanger health. For example, blue baby syndrome comes from lack of oxygen in blood, also caused by too much nitrates in drinking water. It is especially dangerous for babies, but also adults who can develop severe illness from polluted water – studies claim that nitrate in drinking water contributes to development of cancer. Creating protection zones for drinking water resources and thus preventing handling of potential pollutants in the proximity of those resources is a crucial step. Nitrogen oxides contribute to the increase of fine particles in the air, creating an impact on the health also through the air. The effect on climate is most notable through release of nitrous oxide in the air, going in the atmosphere and increasing global warming.

  1. Nitrates are big part of water pollution, their flows being your specific expertise. Can you please explain the issue of nitrate flows and how this issue plays a role in the GAWB?

Nitrates is indeed one of the main water polluters. As nitrogen is transported through air and water, it goes over borders and affects other countries and also marine life. Therefore, it is a transboundary problem. The EU regulates that if you’re polluting another country, the European Commission needs to be informed about mitigation measures. The nitrate pollution is therefore a very regional issue and requires regional coordination and legislation, for which the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans offers tools and mechanisms.

  1. Environment Agency Austria (EAA) has significant knowledge and know-how in the field and your organisation plays an important role in the project. How do your experience and institutional knowledge contribute to the realisation of EU4Green project, and specifically for your field – nitrates – how WB economies will be able to profit from your knowledge in the project?

EU member states have mostly been implementing the nitrates directive since the 1990’s, and EAA is involved in the water depollution since the beginning. Over the course of the past decades, we have established structures, models and procedures, and we can offer our lessons learned and best practices from cooperation with farmer associations, institutions, government and others. It’s a long and complicated process, and some member states are still adapting laws and regulations. It is challenging to tackle the problem efficiently, taking into account all different interests.

Many different aspects and influences need to be taken into account – water protection, food industry, treatment plants etc. EU and national fundings are made available to help with leading management on farms to more sustainable and clean farming, but keeping in mind economic needs of farmers.

Speaking of the region, one of the most important aspects is to bring experience and establish connections between different stakeholders, and help to move the process faster as Western Balkans economies can take shortcuts based on our lessons learned.

With regard to water pollution, EAA as an institution is responsible for water monitoring, preparing data assessment on water quality according to the Water Framework Directive and the Nitrates Directive, providing the relevant ministries with data and reports. This long-time experience in monitoring, reporting, processing data and evaluation of water protection measures is a strength of our organisation and it gives us the possibility to transfer knowledge and assist other countries and institutions in their efforts to implement processes and make progress.

  1. What do you see as the biggest potential in the six WB economies, if looking at the implementation of EU4Green and the GAWB?

With so much agricultural land in the region and therefore significant economic prospects, focusing on depollution of water and achievement of sustainable agriculture can lead to many positive changes and progress.

Although the region is rich in water sources, yet there are many issues with drinking water. Protection of drinking water sources is therefore of highest priority. But water concern does not stop there, ecosystem of rivers and marine waters, sustainable fishery are all at risk, while the potential is huge.

We need to respect farmer’s needs, but in parallel making transformation and so creating better nutrients efficiency and reducing losses. For example, adequate manure storage and application on fields lowers need of additional fertilizer, which is an economic plus for farmers.

It’s important to start immediately also on small farms with actions which don’t require much investment, but using our knowledge in making small changes in farming management that can have a positive effect and lay foundation for further improvements, and with access to EU funding take further steps.

  1. From a personal perspective, what are your concerns regarding environment and what do you see as the impactful solutions and steps-to-take, if we want to take the WB and Europe to a brighter and healthier future?

In general aspect, groundwater is not visible to people as an issue. Due to economic challenges, water and nature protection were not prioritized. Now it’s time to think more sustainable. Global risks that we have now are many. We have far exceeded the planetary boundary for nitrogen – with the risk of generating significant environmental changes.

Nitrogen losses need to be more addressed, made more understandable to citizens as well, as it affects climate change, wetlands and so many aspects of our daily lives, livelihoods, health and living expenses.

Mineral fertilizer production doubles reactive nitrogen in the ecosystem every year. There is a big disbalance of nitrogen in the nature and we don’t know where it’s leading us and we need to urgently take steps. We need nitrogen, as it is a basic element of every life, but dangerous if not controlled. Its impact is not visible immediately, but in the long run it will be. We need to think about our grandchildren, and if we are not careful now, we endanger their natural resources.

We have to find a balance and reduce the surplus. There is enough food for 9 billion people, we just need to balance. We’re damaging the local water resources, coast, fish, food, forest, while contributing to a global problem.