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Agriculture has long been a major source of income for many people living in the Danube River Basin. Today however, it is also a major source of pollutants – including fertilizers and pesticides and facing emerging issues like water scarcity and droughts.

a man standing next to a cow

Agriculture is an important component of the economy in many Danube countries since the geographical and climatic conditions in large parts of the Danube River Basin (DRB) are favourable for agriculture. More than 50% of the basin territory are under agricultural cultivation. Agronomic conditions are especially favourable for maize (corn), soybeans, sunflowers and other thermophilic crops besides the ordinary cereals. In the Western regions agriculture plays a key role as local supplier of commodities that are further transformed into food (mainly milk and meat products, fruits and vegetables). In the Eastern regions agriculture is one of the most important employers in rural regions. On the other hand, agricultural production highly depends on circumstances that that cannot or can only be partly controlled such as weather conditions, plant diseases and market instabilities, which may make agriculture economically vulnerable.

Water-related environmental concerns are also related to agriculture. Agriculture needs large amounts of clean water to satisfy the increasing demand for high quality food. However, intensive agriculture may cause quality and quantity problems of surface- and groundwater by pollution, over-abstraction and inappropriate land management endangering the status of the water bodies but also the sustainability of its own water resources.

Nutrients have been released from agricultural areas of the DRB in significant amounts during the past decades. The ultimate recipient water body of the Danube is the Black Sea, which is, being the world's most isolated sea, sensitive to eutrophication. Nevertheless, river loads entering the Black Sea have been significantly dropped in the last decades. Thanks to measures implemented inter alia in agriculture, but also as consequence of low agricultural intensity in several Danube countries, the nutrient surpluses (gross balance) of the agricultural fields are rather low or even negative in many countries indicating lack of nutrient inputs which is compensated by the soil stocks accumulated over the previous years. However, the severe eutrophic conditions of the late 1980’s might arise again if agriculture (and wastewater treatment) are not managed sustainably in the catchment area. Moreover, nutrient emissions frequently represent unutilized losses of soil nutrient resources, which have to be supplied by external inputs in order to sustain the required production rates.

With regard to water quantity, water scarcity and drought situations are emerging issues in the DRB and will likely become more intense, longer and more frequent in the future. Serious drought periods hit the Danube region in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2015 and in the period of 2017-2020, affecting different water-dependent economic sectors, vegetation and the water resources. The estimated economic losses caused by the drought in 2017 in the Danube countries are more than 1 billion EUR.

Implementing and updating the Nitrates Action Programmes under the EU Nitrates Directive, which limit the amount of nitrates applied with manure and fertilizer and regulate the way and conditions of their spreading, help to reduce nutrient pollution from the agricultural sector. Moreover, substantial EU financial resources are spent each year in the farming sector to support and introduce environmentally-friendly agricultural and best management practices. These measures are either obligatory and required for financial support or they are voluntary with financial compensation; both types are linked to the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The release of agricultural chemicals is controlled by the EU Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides, enforcing the use of less toxic substitutes, ensuring proper management and safe application and storage of pesticides and biocides, and setting emission limits.

What the ICPDR does

Danube countries agreed to start, in close cooperation with the agricultural sector, a broad discussion process aiming at developing a sound guidance document on sustainable agriculture. The initiative is fully in line with the current political momentum of aligning water and agricultural policies at the EU level and the stronger ambitions of the proposed CAP post 2020 regarding environmental protection and climate change adaptation and the Green Deal with its Zero pollution ambition, Farm to Fork Strategy and Biodiversity Strategy.

To achieve its ambitious goal the guidance paper recommends sound policy instruments, financial programs and cost-effective agricultural measures to protect water bodies for decision makers in the agro-environmental policy field. It offers Danube countries support for the preparation and implementation of their tailor-made national agro-environmental policies, CAP Strategic Plans and relevant strategies of the river basin management plans in good synergy. The recommendations provide the Danube countries with a framework to adjust their national agro-environmental policies. They on one hand give specific advice on how to implement more efficiently existing legislation and on the other hand help countries to better identify, target and finance additional measures going beyond legal obligations. Thus, the guidance should act as a strategic policy framework providing consistent approaches into which the Danube states are encouraged to integrate their individual national methods. It lays down the basis for designing cost-effective, targeted national measures according to national needs and conditions taking into account that no “one size fits all” standardisation could work in the DRB.

The primary focus of the guidance is sustainable nutrient management related to agriculture and rural land management. Nevertheless, Danube countries have recently declared that climate change effects, including water scarcity and drought is to be considered as a significant water management issue in the DRB. Bearing in mind the strong linkage of the drought issue to agricultural water management, the scope of the guidance document was extended to the drought issue besides the nutrients. Moreover, pesticide pollution related to agriculture is also an emerging issue to be tackled. Further editions will broaden the scope towards pesticides and other harmful substances.

The guidance is to be considered as a living document subject to further update and fine tuning, particularly in line with the on-going discussions on the CAP post 2020 and taking into account additional inputs of the agricultural sector. The potential amendments and implementation aspects are planned to be discussed on joint follow-up workshops of the water and agricultural sector and relevant stakeholders.