Greater efforts in reducing water pollution are needed to ensure that targets for water quality are met.

A new study shows that community-based approaches can be useful in gaining support for water management schemes and driving positive change. Farmers may also benefit from improved communication within their local networks. Current European water management policies emphasise the importance of public participation in implementing pollution control programmes.

The latest European Water Framework Directive (WFD), adopted in 2000, aims to involve community groups, such as farmers, private homeowners, academic researchers and local government, in decision making and exchanging information relating to water management.

Policy makers hope that by encouraging contributions from groups with different perspectives and priorities, they will be in a better position to meet the needs of all stakeholders and to enforce the measures required to meet their targets. Preliminary findings from five pilot projects carried out in the Netherlands show that creating stakeholder networks can be an effective way of driving progress in water pollution control, and regional networks have been established. Farmers in these networks are now voluntarily adopting new farm management practices in order to combat the pollution problems caused by agriculture.

Although agriculture may be one the most significant sources of water pollution, persuading farmers to reduce their impact on the local environment requires high levels of cooperation and clear incentives for the farmers.

The pilot projects show that knowledge, as well as financial incentives, can help motivate change. The researchers claim that a 'full picture' approach, which takes into account all pollution sources and stakeholder input, with opportunities to share information within a 'community of practice' has encouraged active participation by farmers in the Dutch pollution programmes.

Pilot projects are focused largely on reducing levels of nitrates and phosphates - chemicals found in fertilisers and sewage that can accumulate in water systems. At high concentrations, these chemicals can lead to rapid algae growth, followed by a drop in the water's oxygen levels and quality. Farmers participating in the voluntary schemes are learning to adjust their fertiliser and land use to minimise nutrient run-off, whilst municipalities are working on improving sewage systems to prevent overflows.

The waterboards are working on improving sewage treatment plants and restoring regulated brook systems. Each programme will be evaluated and documented, before results are shared with the relevant community members. The researchers say more innovative measures will be needed in order for WFD targets to be met, but they suggest that voluntary, consultative approaches are more acceptable to farmers than enforced measures.

The final results of the study may show how community- based programmes can be used to increase understanding of sustainable farming and environmental management.

Source: van den Berg, V.S. and Van Lamoen, F. (2008). An integrated approach on pollution abatement in rural areas; regional pilot projects in the Province of North-Brabant. Desalination. 226: 183-189. Contact: v.van.den.berg@brabantsedelta.nl