Federal Environment Ministry and German Environment Agency present new water report

Sandoz chemical spill, 30 years onward: Salmon have returned to the Rhine

Hendricks: Sandoz disaster triggered a rethink in politics and industry

Ein breiter, ruhiger Fluss. Rechts und links viel grüne Natur mit Bäumen.Click to enlarge
The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) is a major milestone in water policy
Source: Barabanschikov / Fotolia.com

The condition of Germany's rivers continues to improve. The Rhine and many other rivers have many more fish species than 30 years ago. Salmon – once virtually wiped out – are once again at home in German waters. Some stretches of the Danube have “good” to “very good” ecological status, rating best among all Germany’s rivers. There is still a need for action along the Weser and Ems rivers and other river basins which are exposed to consistently high, excessive nitrate inputs to the groundwater. Mercury pollution is impacting water quality in many locations. The water report required under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) which the Federal Environment Ministry and the German Environment Agency published today contains all the details on the condition of Germany’s river basins. According to the WFD, all rivers, lakes, coastal waters and groundwater must achieve “good" status by 2027 at the latest. Federal Environment Minister Hendricks said: “Groundwater, lakes, and rivers are our lifelines. It is our highest priority to protect them. There are some signs of success, for example the many more wastewater treatment facilities in operation nowadays. Hundreds of kilometres along riverbanks have been renatured, and there are fewer barriers for migratory fish species. But we are far from reaching our goal. Centuries of pollution cannot be cleaned up in a short amount of time. This is why further measures must be implemented in the coming years, for example the stricter regulation of fertilizer use.”

The results of chemical testing of rivers show two disparate pictures: 86% of surface water bodies (rivers and lakes) have overall good chemical condition, which means that they currently have no new pollution loads. However, the results are much poorer if chemicals polluting the environment for a long time and virtually everywhere are factored in – for example mercury from centuries of coal combustion or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the plasticisers in plastics. Because of this consistent pollution none of Germany's surface waters, which means lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters, have good chemical status. Many of the other EU Member States are facing the same problem.

96 per cent of the groundwater has good quantitative status and 64 per cent has good chemical status. The cases of bad chemical status are largely due to excessively high nitrate concentrations. President Maria Krautzberger of the German Environment Agency (UBA) said: “Agriculture is the main source of the high nitrate inputs contaminating our groundwater. This sector must assume its responsibility for ensuring that water remains clean. We therefore urgently need improved regulation of fertilizer use in order to protect our groundwater effectively.” One important measure could be to introduce obligatory nutrient accounting by all farmers and better enforcement of an updated Fertiliser Ordinance.

The chemical status of water bodies in Germany is assessed according to standardized criteria which are applied throughout Europe. They include environmental quality standards for 33 priority substances such as atrazine or benzene and other harmful substances (e.g. DDT), and a safety threshold for nitrate pursuant to the Nitrates Directive. The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) which entered into force in October 2000 provides the basis for the criteria. The WFD is considered an important milestone in water policy. Its implementation is responsible among others for the fact that the condition of the Rhine river is much better today than in the era of the Sandoz accident when 30 tonnes of chemicals were dumped into the river. After fires broke out at the Sandoz Swiss chemical manufacturing company on the night of 31 October 1986, some 10 tonnes of highly toxic pesticides were washed into the Upper Rhine with the fire extinguishing water. Fish and microorganisms died off in a red-stained river along a stretch of some 400 kilometres. Even drinking water supply along the Rhine was affected, and some regions had to be supplied temporarily from other sources. Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said: “The Sandoz disaster triggered a rethink in political and industrial circles. The measures for immediate action to improve the water quality in the Rhine and for the prevention of major accidents which were adopted as early as December 1986 as well as the Rhine action programme adopted a year later achieved significant improvement of the river’s water quality. The Rhine has now recovered very well.”

Further information:

Nowadays many comprehensive monitoring programmes provide the basis for evaluation of the condition of water bodies in Germany. The aim of monitoring surface waters and groundwater is to gain conclusive results for these evaluations and to gain an insight into pollution levels. It also serves as a basis for action planning and is a means to gauge whether implemented measures are achieving their intended aims. The Germany states have installed nearly 600 measuring stations in surface waters for the purpose of surveillance monitoring, in addition to 14,000 stations for the operational monitoring of surface water bodies.

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