Additional measures needed to ensure good water quality

The quality of groundwater and surface water in the Netherlands is poor. Moreover, national and international regulations are not being followed. For example, the European Water Framework Directive sets standards to be achieved by 2027. But this objective is almost certainly no longer feasible, which is harmful to people and nature. Also, legal proceedings can hamper economic activities in the event of non-compliance with standards. The government must therefore act urgently and take additional measures. This is the recommendation made by the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (Rli) in its advisory report "Good Water, Good Policy" presented to Mark Harbers, Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management today.

Dutch waters of poor quality

An adequate supply of good-quality water is vital for health, nature, drinking water production, industry and agriculture. In force since 2000, the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires all waters in Europe to meet its standards by 2027. Much has been done since then, but its objectives are still far from being achieved. Only a small percentage of Dutch waters are considered "good" status. In 2019, for example, 75% of surface waters exceeded standards for one or more pollutants. And in 2020, the biological quality of 90% of surface waters was still not good enough, mainly due to excessive loads of nitrogen and phosphate from fertilisers. So there is every reason to speed up.

Adverse consequences for economic activities

Failure to achieve WFD objectives in a timely manner could bring economic activities in the Netherlands – both in agriculture and in other sectors – to a halt. For example, due to a ban on activities involving discharges to the sewage system or surface water or the prohibition of groundwater abstraction. Also, if the Netherlands fails to meet its obligations, it could face fines from the European Union.

Reasons for lack of progress

Several ministers (for water, agriculture, nitrogen, spatial planning and the environment) are responsible for achieving good water quality. But action must be taken not only by central government, but by provinces, municipalities and water boards as well. There are three reasons why meeting the WFD's objectives has not been successful in recent decades: an insufficient sense of urgency either among these authorities or in society, too much discretion allowed in the agreements made between authorities, and poor definition and implementation of policy.

Recommendations for actually achieving the objectives

The Rli is making a number of recommendations that should still allow the WFD's objectives to be achieved. For example, general rules on fertilisers, plant protection products and the discharge of hazardous substances should be tightened up. Water boards should also be required to upgrade sewage treatment plants. In addition, the Rli recommends that all groundwater and surface water abstractions in areas at risk of water shortage should be made subject to licensing. All these measures must be introduced quickly. Moreover, the Rli advocates assessing the impact on water quality of all the policies already planned and the measures proposed in its advisory report. Additional measures should be taken where necessary.

Note for editors

To request interviews, please contact the Council’s Communication Officer Anneke Verschoor at or on +31 (0)6 1535 9540.

For information on the subject-matter of the advisory report itself, please contact Nicole van Buren at or +31 (0)6 1017 2005.

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