IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

Protect our summers:

why the EU should take a stand for clean water

January 6, 2021

With most of Europe currently grappling with a second wave of pandemic restrictions, many of us are left dreaming of simpler days when waves conjured the idea of clean lines of energy sweeping across the vast Big Blue. Fleeting moments of fun, with no mask nor health risk to fear.


Unfortunately, the reality might not be that beautiful. Water pollution is impacting our health in many ways and watersports enthusiasts are often the ones to experience its consequences first-hand. The pandemic has shown us the essential connection between human and environmental health, but the same connection exists between water quality and the health of ocean users.  The pandemic has derailed our winter plans, but we mustn’t let pollution and inaction crush our summer dreams, too.


EU Waters: an invaluable source of life and recreation


The European Union has the largest maritime territory in the world, with 70,000 km of coastline and 111 000 bodies of surface water, including coastal waters, rivers and lakes. These waters are treasured by the millions of European citizens who engage in water sports or aquatic activities such as swimming, surfing, diving, kayaking, snorkelling and paddling.


These outdoor activities are popular because they’re often accessible to both the novice and seasoned sportsperson alike, and many require little equipment or infrastructure beyond the water and the natural environment. They also provide a feeling of connection and immersion in nature, and aquatic environments offer incredible benefits: the opportunity for exercise in the fresh air, buoyancy and water resistance to aid activity or increase exertion, and the potential to improve mental health and well-being. It’s up to us to ensure that we return the favour by doing all we can to protect these environments and contribute to, rather than damage, the health of the creatures that live in them.



IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

Lakes, rivers and coastal waters are incredible ecosystems that are home to exceptional and invaluable biodiversity, but these ecosystems are fragile and vulnerable. European seas, from coastal to deep sea waters, are said to be inhabited by up to 50,000 species living in more than 1,000 different habitats. These range from the coral reefs of the dark, cold depths of the Atlantic Ocean to the seagrass meadows of the clear, warm Mediterranean Sea, which is home to the greatest biodiversity of any sea.


As an example, more than 42% of the world's known cetacean species can be observed in European waters, either making their permanent home there or just passing through on a migration route. But not all European waters are salty; another 20,000 species can be found in its freshwater rivers and lakes, including fish, invertebrates and aquatic plants.


The European economy is also heavily dependent on water recreation as a source of revenue. Maritime and coastal tourism is the most important marine economic activity, employing 3.2 million people and generating more than €183 billion in gross value added. It accounts for a third of all tourism activities in the EU (the world's leading tourist destination), and 51% of tourist accommodation in Europe. In some parts of Europe, most notably island regions or southern countries, it’s not just an additional source of income for coastal communities but often the principal driver of their economy. Residents therefore depend heavily on a healthy marine environment for their livelihoods.


IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

Water pollution: a risk to our health and the environment


Our quality of life is dependent on clean, healthy water, yet European waterways are threatened by pollution on land and at sea. Urban and agricultural run-off, industrial waste, wastewater discharges and overflows, maritime transport and offshore exploitation of resources all contribute to the deterioration of aquatic environments. On land, this pollution is carried by water or wind to the ocean, helped by growing urbanisation and the artificialisation of our coasts. At the same time, we continue using water in excess. Mixed with our commercial product residues, waste and toxic substances, wastewaters, when collected inadequately, remain only partially treated by treatment plants before being discharged into the environment. Current constraints or insufficient efforts make it impossible to treat and purify all the substances they contain, which combine to form the harmful cocktail that sadly already exists in our waters.


Water pollution is diverse and includes pathogenic microorganisms and chemical contaminants such as heavy metals, hydrocarbons, drug residues, pesticides or fertilisers. Only 38% of surface waters are classified as having a healthy chemical status in Europe. Another large-scale problem in almost all European seas is nutrient pollution: primarily nitrates and phosphates resulting from agricultural pesticide use, harmful detergents used in households, and discharges from ships and aquaculture. As a direct effect of climate change and warming, algal blooms are also becoming increasingly common. Finally, waste is present in dramatic quantities on the surface of our waters, and also in the water column and on the sea floor, either in macro or micro formats.



IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

For several years now, Surfrider Foundation Europe has been investigating how badly water pollution is impacting the health of the blue community (and watersport enthusiasts in particular). The poor quality of our waters in Europe is compromising our right to enjoy a healthy environment. Studies from international organisations and reports from the European Environment Agency are crystal clear: our European seas and waters are not doing well. Unsurprisingly, the message from watersports communities is the same: the quality of Europe’s waters are deteriorating, and our health is being impacted.


This reality is in stark contrast to the results happily shared by European authorities at the beginning of each summer season, stating that close to 100% of our bathing waters will be of excellent quality. It’s also light-years away from the top concerns of EU citizens. When asked which four environment-related issues they consider to be most important out of a list of ten, only two out of five Europeans identify ocean pollution and pollution of lakes and rivers as the most important issues. 78% of Europeans consider that environmental problems have an impact on their daily life and health (rising to over 90% in several countries). Around three-quarters (73%) of EU citizens surveyed think the EU should propose additional measures to tackle water-related problems, with more than eight out of ten Europeans (84%) believing chemical pollution is a threat to the aquatic environment. Chemical pollution is the most frequently mentioned threat to the aquatic environment in every country.


When Surfrider Europe surveyed its blue community in 2019 and 2020, 93% of respondents said they would like to see chemical parameters included in the monitoring of bathing and recreational waters. Four out of five also supported the inclusion of waste pollution and algae blooms as criteria for assessing and classifying the sites. Two out of five declared they have already suffered health impacts after going to the water.


So, why is the Commission claiming excellent quality of our bathing waters?




IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

What’s wrong with EU legislation?


If it's certain that the quality of Europe's bathing water has improved significantly over the last 60 years, with the adoption of the first-ever Bathing Water Directive in 1976 and its revised version in 2006, then the Bathing Water Directive remains inadequate—and more needs to be done to ensure better water quality and management. The Directive has certainly introduced a series of much-needed obligations to implement monitoring of designed bathing areas, follow harmonised methods for calculating classification, monitor faecal parameters (enterococci and Escherichia coli) in the environment according to indicator thresholds, and to inform the public.


The Directive, however, leaves public health at risk in many instances by:


  • Failing to monitor recreational areas
  • Only assessing one category of pollution
  • Providing insufficient or inadequate information to the public when pollution is detected
  • Simply closing sites when conditions are not met, with no further incentives to address pollution at source.


This means very little to no information is made available to watersport enthusiasts in Europe and that no efforts are being made to address pollution in most EU waters. Indeed, with the current Directive, only ‘bathing waters’—and only parts of those areas designated as such by national authorities—are subject to water quality monitoring. This monitoring is not only restricted to the summer season but is limited to the assessment of only two bacteriological indicators, leaving many other types of pollution that can impact our environment, and possibly our health, undetected.


IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

When faced with bathing water of ‘insufficient’ quality, the authorities most often prohibit bathing or close the site, providing no impetus for the pollution to be tackled.


If the Directive requires Member States to make information available to the public, some simply do not comply with these requirements or do so very minimally. According to a survey conducted by Surfrider Foundation Europe in 2019, three-quarters of respondents said they were ‘moderately’ or ‘not at all’ informed about the water quality in which they usually spend their time. And finally, when it comes to public participation, the Directive says that Member States must also encourage public participation in the implementation of the Directive, ensuring that the public is informed on how to participate and given the opportunity to make suggestions, remarks or complaints. In reality, citizens are not informed of this possibility and their participation is limited and unsupported.


As a grassroots organisation fighting for the protection of our ocean, Surfrider Foundation Europe is fighting to ensure that all waters in Europe are clean, free from pollution and, most importantly, healthy enough for every living organism to thrive in and enjoy. We don’t believe a single European should become sick after spending time in the water, and think that their right to enjoy healthy blue spaces should be ensured.




IMAGE: Surfrider Foundation Europe

2021: our chance to revise the Bathing Directive and do more for healthy waters


When publishing its annual report on the quality of bathing water in 2019, the European Commission announced it would launch a European consultation to consider the need for a revision of the EU Bathing Water Directive.


This consideration for a revision in 2020 is mentioned in the text of the Directive, with particular attention being paid to parameters related to bathing water quality. But with less than one month to go until the end of the year, Surfrider is therefore calling for the following improvements to be considered as soon as possible:


  • The extension of water quality control to recreational areas
  • The monitoring of water quality throughout the year
  • The addition of new parameters to be monitored, including marine litter, harmful algal blooms and cyanobacteria and chemical pollution
  • Obligations in terms of identification, assessment and prevention of pollution
  • Harmonised, more accessible public information
  • Strengthened and encouraged public participation
  • Harmonisation of all policies impacting water quality and the protection of the marine environment.


The opportunity to revise the Bathing Water Directive and adopt the 8th Environment Action Plan and the Zero Pollution Action Plan in the coming months provides an exciting opportunity to truly evaluate our actions and achievements in terms of public health and water protection. This is our chance to adopt new measures to ensure these two issues are fully addressed. The failure to meet a ‘Good’ environmental status of EU waters, as promised by the EU in its Marine Strategy Framework Directive, is a worrying reminder that there’s still much work to do to achieve clean and healthy waters for all.





Find out more about how Surfrider Foundation Europe is helping to protect the ocean and its users by visiting:


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