A common bond for a common future:
Water and agriculture connect to protect the Danube River Basin
Although conditions have always been favourable for agriculture in the region, sustainability and environmental issues have suffered. However, now that the priorities of competitive agriculture and clean water are fully aligned, the Danube River Basin is well on its way to meeting goals for both sectors.
Programmes in the Danube River Basin are proving that environmentallyfriendly agricultural methods can reverse the decline of water quality without compromising farmers’ ability to compete in the marketplace.
While agriculture has a long tradition in the Danube River Basin, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a steep decline in water quality in the region, partly as a result of agricultural practices. Discharges from urban areas and, emissions from agricultural activities caused an increase in nutrient pollution, a situation that, despite considerable improvement, remains one of the most significant water management issues in the region today, according to the Danube River Basin Management Plan, Update 2015. Cooperation between the agricultural sector and the water sector is crucial to achieve both sets of priorities, and several efforts already under way are building that connection.
Austria shows us the way forward
In Austria, environmentally friendly farming is both accepted and effective. Without compromising farmers’ ability to compete in the marketplace, new agricultural methods are slowing and reversing the decline in water quality observed just a few decades ago. The Nitrate Action Programme provides the legal foundation for basic measures which have to be applied throughout the country. However, the agri-environmental programme 'ÖPUL' allows farmers to participate in voluntary measures tailored to specific regional needs, and compensates them when agricultural practices go beyond the legal requirements of the Nitrate Action Programme. ÖPUL has been widely adopted throughout roughly 80% of the farming community and has made a major contribution to water resource protection.
In addition, education and advisory services have been fundamental in raising awareness. In all provinces of Austria, regional advisory services are in place to support farmers in all aspects of nutrient and pesticide management at local farm level.
Impactful support from the EU
The legal 'requirements for the protection of waters against agricultural pollution is defined by the EU Nitrates Directive. The European Commission provides an implementation report every four years, which spurs Member States to revise their action programmes regularly and drives ongoing analysis and improvement.
Unfortunately, consistency in the implementation of the Nitrates Directive and the Water Framework Directive is a continuing challenge. Currently there are ongoing infringement procedures against eight Member States due to inappropriate implementation of the Nitrates Directive. At the same time, countries with intensive agriculture apply for derogations to the 170 kgN/ha limit almost regularly.
The European Commission is eager to persuade the Member States to improve their action programmes regularly. This is supported by initiatives to connect financial support for farmers with improved environmental performance using the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the rural development programmes. “Austria strongly focuses on the compatibility of economic viability and ecological issues of agriculture production,” said Thomas Neudorfer, Deputy Head of the ÖPUL unit at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management. “Agri-environmental measures within the Common Agricultural Policy support farmers to produce in a sustainable way, without income losses from additional costs of more sustainable practices. Austrian farmers are very willing to deliver environmental services to society, but these efforts have to be honoured by society. Besides these area-related payments, knowledge transfers and training are essential for combining economic and environmental demands.”
Mutual goals, cooperative solutions
The ICPDR Nutrient Task Group deals with nutrient management issues and was considerably involved in the 2015 update of the Danube River Basin Management Plan. Using modelling activities, they analysed nutrient emissions, evaluated different solutions in different regions of the basin, and distributed a questionnaire on agriculture to Danube countries. This spring, they are compiling data from that effort to create a guidance document on sustainable agriculture, including potential policy tools that can help decouple agricultural production from emissions to waters.
The Danube Declaration 2016 has called for closer cooperation between the water sector and the agricultural sector. Since a similar process was recently initiated successfully at the European level, the EU’s presidency of the ICPDR in 2017 is an excellent opportunity to engage a productive dialogue at the Danube river basin level.
“Water and agriculture are intrinsically linked by their shared interest to produce quality food in a competitive way without polluting our waters, which agriculture needs in times of prolonged droughts,” said Karl Schwaiger, Head of the Austrian Delegation to the ICPDR. “So both sectors are simply destined to cooperate; a reliable partnership with mutual trust is for me a prerequisite for success.”