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How can we combine farming with protection of Europe’s drinking water?

Researchers from Aarhus University are partners in an EU-funded study that is exploring agricultural practices and EU policies related to drinking water quality and the use of pesticides and nitrogen.

[Translate to English:] Danske forskere deltager i et europæiske projekt om beskyttelse af drikkevand mod forurening af stoffer fra landbruget. Foto: Colourbox


Safe drinking water is vital for human health. Pesticide and nutrient loads from agriculture pose a crucial challenge to meeting EU drinking water quality targets and UN sustainability goals, including clean water and sanitation. With more than 99 percent of the drinking water from groundwater, and agriculture as the dominating land use on top of the groundwater magazines, Denmark is a particularly interesting case from which lessons can be learned.

Researchers from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University are, together with several other institutions from the dNmark research alliance, partners in the EU-funded project FAIRWAY, which is reviewing current approaches to protecting drinking water resources from pesticide and nitrate pollution. The aim is to develop consistent policies and innovative practices for all Member States to enhance sustainable agriculture and respond to the environmental and health challenges related to clean drinking water.

The partners comprise a mix of researchers, farm advisers and consultancies who are applying their expertise to 13 case studies in the 11 EU countries that are participating in the project.

With the aid of the case studies, the partners will gain an overview of how drinking water resources are being protected against pollution with pesticides and nitrate, and they will identify and further develop innovative measures and governance approaches for a more effective drinking water protection.

Depending on the case, surface and/or groundwater will be studied for levels of such pollutants as nitrate, pesticides and salt. The cases can be used as examples of “best practice”, or to show which problems and challenges need to be addressed.

Danish case studies differ from each other

In Denmark, the partners will be following two case studies – one on the island of Tunø and one near the city of Aalborg.

On the island of Tunø, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. The main crops are vegetables, which have a high level of nitrate leaching. During the summer months, there is also a considerable influx of tourists to the island’s numerous summer cottages and its marina. Tunø’s aquifer is vulnerable to nitrate leaching from above and salt-water intrusion from below.

Tunø is an example of successful groundwater protection on a small island with one small waterworks where the aquifer is vulnerable to nitrate pollution and salt-water intrusion. The case will be used as a “lesson learned”.

The land around Aalborg area is used mainly for intensive dairy farming, pig farming and crop production. The area is one of the most vulnerable in Denmark with regard to nitrate leaching and pollution of groundwater. Data show that the water contains variable amounts of nitrate and traces of some pesticides. The challenge in this case study is to improve collaboration between farmers and the waterworks so that a common understanding and acceptance of protection of groundwater can be found.

Answering questions for the common EU good

The four-year project FAIRWAY seeks to answer questions such as: 

  • What are the main issues concerning EU drinking water regulations?
  • What changes are needed to better protect water resources against nitrates and pesticides from EU agriculture?
  • How can the EU-wide system be improved, and what sort of integrated scientific support for EU policy is needed to tackle these concerns?

Successful practices resulting from the project case studies and workshops can increase awareness and involvement among farmers and those responsible for monitoring and managing water supplies.

More data will lead to a better understanding of the social, technical and economic barriers to implementing proposed measures. This is key to ensuring wider uptake of the findings, according to the project team.

Facts about FAIRWAY

Partners: 22 partners from 11 EU countries

Project coordinator: Wageningen Environmental Research, the Netherlands

Total budget: € 4,999,865

Funding: € 4,999,865 from EU’s Horizon 2020 programme

Duration: Four years (June 2017 to May 2021)

Website: fairway-project.eu

For more information about the Danish part of the project:

Professor Tommy Dalgaard, Department of Agroecology, email: tommy.dalgaard@agro.au.dk, telephone: +45 8715 7746, mobile: +45 2070 6132