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Bathing water quality in Europe remains high

The annual Bathing Water report, put together by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in cooperation with the European Commission, shows that almost 83 per cent of Europe’s bathing water sites met the European Union’s most stringent excellent water quality standards.

“The quality of European bathing waters remains high after four decades of action aimed at preventing and reducing pollution,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director. “EU law has not only helped raised the overall quality but also helped identify areas where specific action is needed.”

Swimming is consistently ranked among the top public outdoor recreational activities in Europe and has numerous positive effects on human health and psychology. Bathing sites are often very attractive tourist destinations. The need to protect and improve bathing water quality in both marine and freshwater environments is thus a key issue for policymakers and environmental managers.

“Bathing water quality in Europe remains high and it’s a good news for Europeans, who will be heading to beaches and bathing sites this summer,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans. “This is the result of more than 40 years of Bathing Water Directive, hard work by dedicated professionals and cooperation. The Zero Pollution Action Plan adopted in May will help to keep the waters healthy and safe and our seas and rivers clean.”

The minimum sufficient water quality standards were met at 93 per cent of the sites monitored in 2020 and in five countries — Cyprus, Austria, Greece, Malta and Croatia — 95 per cent or more bathing waters were of excellent quality.

Albania, Croatia and Slovenia: CEE’s bathing gems

Durrës, Albania.

Among a very good example of improvement presented in the EEA’s February report Bathing water management in Europe: Successes and challenges, there is Albania, where in 2015, almost 40  per cent of bathing waters were classified as poor. The majority of these bathing waters were situated on the coastline of Durrës, one of the main tourist destinations and the country’s second-largest city. The national authorities have paid significant attention to the water sector in the Durrës area in recent years. The World Bank has also supported investment in Durrës’ water supply network and in the construction of pipelines to link villages to the city’s water supply system and reduce losses in the water distribution network. In addition, the local sewerage network and its capacity to transfer wastewater from the tourist beach area to the wastewater treatment plant were also enhanced. Over the past years, five wastewater treatment plants providing treatment for almost half a million residents have been constructed in Albania. These measures have gradually contributed to the better bathing quality and overall water quality in Albania. In 2019, only 5.9 per cent of the bathing sites were classified as poor.

Kolpa river. Source:

Another very good example from Central and Eastern Europe is represented by the cross-border cooperation on the River Kolpa which runs along the border between Slovenia and Croatia for 100 kilometres of its course. There are nine official bathing waters on the Slovenian side of the Kolpa — six are of excellent water quality and three of good quality. The Slovenian and Croatian water authorities successfully cooperate in managing the river and its catchment area in accordance with the principles of the Water Framework and Floods Directives. The work is coordinated through a bilateral commission. For example, in 2000, a Kolpa water management plan was prepared. Six years ago, a Slovenian-Croatian cross-border project started to reduce the risk of flooding by implementing non-structural measures. Both countries are also cooperating in managing pollution sources and heavy rain run-off to support good ecological status and prevent any future deterioration in bathing water quality.

Challenges to overcome and emerging risks

While the share of poor quality sites has dropped slightly since 2013 (today it is only 1.3 per cent) problems persist. A common cause of poor bathing water quality is the presence of faecal bacteria, which can pose significant public health risks. Major sources of bacteria include sewage, inefficient wastewater treatment plants, animal waste and water draining from farms and farmland.

For example, at Poland’s Arturówek ponds, an important place for the inhabitants of Łódź to relax in, there were several uncontrolled sewage discharges. A systemic approach was taken in the Ecohydrological rehabilitation EU LIFE project. The technical measures implemented (including desludging the bottom of the ponds to remove nutrients and implementing a novel wastewater treatment technology involving sequential biofiltration to reduce the load of organic pollution from sewage) improved the water quality and overall attractiveness of the Arturówek site. This demonstrates the application of ecohydrological methods in sustainable water management in urban areas, involving both the public and decision-makers.

Also, nutrient and chemical pollution due to agricultural run-off and insufficient wastewater treatment can have a number of environmental impacts on bathing waters, potentially making them unsafe for public use.

Plastic pollution is still one of the major issues. A clean coastline is vital for beach tourism. Plastic litter in particular damages fisheries and tourism, kills and injures a wide range of marine life, has the capacity to transport potentially harmful chemicals and invasive species and can represent a threat to human health.

Projected climate changes in Europe over the coming decades will bring challenges for bathing water management and the recreation activities and tourism industries that rely on clean bathing waters. The impacts will vary geographically across Europe: for example, many coastal bathing water resorts and infrastructure will be threatened by rising sea levels and more varied and volatile storms, while in some regions, drought and freshwater scarcity may cause bathing sites to disappear or to be affected by issues such as eutrophication. Therefore, the EU must continue to work for a resilient, sustainable and healthy bathing practice to overcome emerging risks.

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