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Water-driven rural development in the Baltic Sea Region

The Baltic Sea is surrounded by nine countries, each with widely differing ideas about how to manage the sea’s resources and how to work towards its well-being, which has been harmed by high nutrient pollution. The new project WATERDRIVE (Water-driven rural development in the Baltic Sea Region) gives each participating country opportunities to choose and focus on the best methods that work locally to enhance sustainability and resource efficiency.

Helen Saarniit / Published on 20 June 2019

A shallow water basin with a small water volume, the Baltic Sea is among the world’s most troubled marine ecosystems. Its catchment area is three times its size, with 90 million inhabitants and intensive agriculture as well as industry. By far, the biggest threat to the Baltic Sea is eutrophication, caused by an excess of nutrients leaching into the water through, for example, farm run-off and septic effluent.

Over the past decades various projects have sought to bring together different actors to address the issues plaguing the Baltic Sea. Nevertheless, these efforts have met with limited success in improving water quality.

“Different nutrient mitigation measures have been installed in agricultural landscapes around the Baltic Sea, but these measures have not always been implemented based on local conditions”, Ainis Lagzdins from the Latvian University of Life Sciences and one of the WATERDRIVE project partners, said. “The Waterdrive project aims to change this by providing the knowledge and tools needed to change this attitude”.

The new project, supported by the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme, takes a bottom-up approach that allows each Baltic Sea country to concentrate on actions seen as most suitable and most important in their respective contexts.

For example, Estonia, one of the countries involved in WATERDRIVE has decided to focus on studying the nitrate-vulnerable zone of Pandivere, and the Põltsamaa-Adavere area – an upland region in Central Estonia where nutrients from agriculture and forestry reach the groundwater and, in turn, the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea issues in Estonia stem in part from the karst phenomenon, in which the high permeability karst rocks render water in the region’s aquifers extremely vulnerable to pollution sources.

SEI Tallinn’s work on the subject will concentrate on the problem in a holistic way, taking into account the actions of local farmers and forest owners, as well the effects on the water quality for local inhabitants. The Estonia study is one of six pilot cases designed to address a number of policy-relevant issues, including constructed wetlands and efficient management of agricultural drainage systems, a result-based payment system, and viable advisory systems. The results of the pilot cases will contribute to policy recommendations for the EU Common Agricultural Policy for the next period.

For Denmark, the WATERDRIVE project creates a unique opportunity for the actors in one catchment area to come together to discuss important wetland-related issues and measures to reduce nutrient loss. The Danish government financially supports measures to create catchment areas to filter out nutrients that are harming the Baltic Sea. In 2017, Denmark embarked on a new concept that established a national programme involving “catchment officers”. This year, Sweden followed with a similar programme.

WATERDRIVE’s contribution in this context is to bring together three pivotal parties – the farmers, the catchment officers and the local government representatives – to discuss existing problems in a given area, to work in the field to find solutions, and to come together to create a local plan. The hope is that better cooperation will lead to better solutions. In turn, the pilot example of one catchment area have the potential to offer insights into solutions that could be applied to other areas.

As for Sweden, the Västervik region participating in the project has decided to concentrate its work related to improving the quality of the water in the Baltic Sea through result-based measures such as the construction of wetlands, structure liming, or the creation of ditches. In Västervik, WATERDRIVE pairs up with the municipality’s current, existing plan to find effective methods to implement the best-suited measures. WATERDRIVE allows for farmers and the municipality to find new ways to work together through sharing ideas and communicating openly.

The WATERDRIVE project comes at a critical time. The Baltic Sea Action Plan’s goal of restoring the good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment is unikely to be reached by its original 2021 deadline – a reflection of the challenges the issue presents. Thus, WATERDRIVE is pursuing a different strategy. The bottom-up approach emphasizes giving participating countries the liberty to work on measures that they believe will work best in their areas, and the ability to open up greater communication between different parties. Through such processes, the project aims to contribute towards a cleaner Baltic Sea.

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