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New recommendations for better water management in the Baltic Sea

In the Baltic Sea Region, ecosystems and local communities are under stress from eutrophication – an excess of nutrients in waters caused mainly by run-off from land. A new project, WATERDRIVE aims to improve water quality, strengthen the ecosystem services and enhance practices for responsible water management in agricultural areas. In this Q&A, Kaja Peterson from SEI Tallinn sheds light on how policy can improve water management in the region.

The Baltic Sea and agricultural landscapes (Laboe, Germany) - Photo: Angela Schmidt/EyeEm/Getty

The Baltic Sea and agricultural landscapes (Laboe, Germany) – Photo: Angela Schmidt/EyeEm/Getty

Helen Saarniit / Published on 17 June 2020

Over the years, many projects have aimed to tackle water quality in the Baltic Sea. How are these new policy recommendations different from approaches that have been taken before?

Indeed, over the past decades, hundreds of research projects, meetings and working groups have proposed ways to deal with eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. There is also HELCOM – a regional cooperation organization involving nine countries and the EU that aims to protect the Baltic’s marine environment from all sources of pollution. Perhaps the recommendations developed in the WATERDRIVE project are different because they are based on input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders. First, we made a literature review of recommendations made in the past six years by the European Commission, HELCOM and the Joint Baltic Sea Research and Development Programme BONUS. Second, we made a point of consulting with project partners on what needs to be done differently, and third, we asked farmers and local governments around the Baltic Sea what the obstacles are to good water and soil management. So, these policy recommendations are based on a really broad foundation of past and current experience of many actors in the field.

The Baltic Sea is surrounded by countries with very different backgrounds and realities. With all the regional differences, how can the recommendations be adapted to local contexts?

Once we had agreed on a common view of the way forward to improve water and soil quality in agricultural landscapes, the project partners were asked to propose measures for action in their country’s context. The country context is very important indeed, since the environmental conditions, such as water availability or hydrogeological setting, and administrative structures to manage water and landscapes, are rather different across the region. Our work has gathered a long list of country-specific measures to put the WATERDRIVE recommendations into action.

What’s the role of farmers in improving the state of the Baltic Sea and how can they be involved in the process?

Agriculture is the main source of nutrient inputs into the Baltic Sea, so farmers have a crucial role in managing water sources and improving environmental conditions. Climate change will bring added complications for food production, whether because of water scarcity or excessive water. Both situations have an impact on soil quality and thus on farm yields and economic sustainability. WATERDRIVE has concluded that the best results will be achieved by authorities and advisors working with farmers to work out the best solutions for food production and the environment.

Water flows across borders and the actions and policies of one country will inevitably influence other countries as well. How important is intergovernmental cooperation for improving water quality?

Cooperation across borders is absolutely vital. For more than 40 years HELCOM has played a crucial role in the intergovernmental decision making to reach good environmental status of the Baltic Sea. Since 2007 there has been an action plan in place to work toward this goal. So, the question should be asked: why won’t the “good environmental status” of the Baltic Sea be reached by 2021, as agreed among the members of HELCOM? The Baltic Sea is an ecosystem where change takes time to have an impact. Also, changes in policy and action take time, even though the decision-making may seem the easy part of the process. Agreeing on common views and actions is also complicated. But it is vital to have such a platform for negotiation and decision-making to keep the pace of improving the ecosystems health of the Baltic Sea.

Who are the “agricultural advisers” and what is their role? Where have their services been adapted successfully so far?

Agricultural advisers have a unique role to play in improving water and soil management in the field. On the one hand, they have the practical knowledge and skills to advise the farmers, but on the other, also to work with them. Putting together the knowledge and skills of advisers and farmers results in the best solutions on issues like crop rotation, application of nutrients, establishing buffer strips between fields and waterbodies, and siting of constructed wetlands.

The recommendations propose expanding the role of catchment officers. What are catchment officers and why are they important?

A catchment officer is someone with the specific role of organizing water-related measures in a water body catchment. Currently, there are catchment officers working in Denmark and Sweden who are supported by the government. In Denmark, as part of a four-year pilot programme, 25 catchment officers are partly financed by the government and partly by farmers. The idea is to provide the best solutions for water and soil management. There has been an interest in establishing similar positions in the Baltic states. Our surveys among farmers and local governments have demonstrated that there is a need for better information exchange and dissemination of best practices at catchment level.


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