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Interactive map reveals the extent of the EU groundwater crisis

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Autor: Hilde Lyko

Screenshot of the interactive groundwatermap
Source: Under the Surface project
23 Mai 2024| The cross-border, collaborative data project about the qualitative and quantitative conditions of the groundwater in the EU, called Under the Surface, leaves no room for doubt: Our water is disappearing.

The Under the Surface project was coordinated by Arena of Journalism in Europe and initiated by Datadista. Every EU member state must report to the EU about the conditions of their groundwater. 14 journalists from seven countries analyses the most up-to-date figures of these data and created an integrative map of Europe’s aquifers. Despite a serious decrease in groundwater quantity, the remaining part is facing near-irreversible pollution. Over 15% of the aquifers mapped are in poor condition — dangerously overexploited, contaminated or both. This figure represents 26% of the aquifers by surface area. And the worst affected are important crop-producing countries, like Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

11 EU countries are still missing

The EU requires all member states and Iceland and Norway to give data on the state of their aquifers. Out of these 29 countries, 16 submitted full, publicly accessible data, with Germany’s and Portugal’s only partially accessible. Eleven countries are not included in the map at all: ten provided no information whatsoever to the EU, and one, Austria, opted to keep hidden key parts of their data that prevent it from being mapped. Scientific experts, shown the findings of the Under the Surface project, warned that without the full data, we cannot know the true extent of the damage to the continent’s groundwater.

What the map shows

By clicking on a point within the map, the user is shown a particular aquifer, characterized by name, position and condition. The latter is displayed in one of the four categories “Good status”, “Poor status”, “Unknown status” and “Mandatory data not yet reported and/or disclosed”. The water quality was derived from the data given for nitrate, a limited range of pesticides and metals. 15 % of the water bodies included in the map, representing 26 % of the aquifers by area coverage, are in “poor condition.

However, the status categories given in the map are those, which the reporting countries assign to their groundwater resources, due to the fact that each country is free to design its methodology, although the EU provides guidelines on data collection. According to Elisabeth Lictevout, a hydrogeologist and director of the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC) the map is “the best case scenario”.

Polluter and sufferer in one: the agricultural sector

Belgian fruit growers, Spanish villagers, Italian rice farmers, and Greek islanders – they all share a common hardship: each year brings drought and an over-reliance on polluted water that impacts their daily lives and businesses.

For instance, Spain, a country producing millions of tons of fruit vegetables, and livestock each year, is one of the countries most impactes by degraded aquifers.

“​​We put everything at risk, starting with food, energy, health and nature – if we do not restore the global water cycle,” said Henk Ovink, director of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water. “There is no alternative to water. When that disappears, everything ends.”

to the project

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