NI Water Quality Targets Will Not Be Met – Report

European targets for improving water quality in Northern Ireland’s rivers and lakes by 2027 will not be met, a new report has warned.

The study, published today (Monday, March 25) by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), stated that in 2021 less than one third of Northern Ireland’s rivers had good ecological status, representing no improvement since 2015.

The report found that only 14% of lakes in Northern Ireland were classified as having good ecological status in 2021, down from around 24% in 2015.

It noted that on average more than twice as many rivers and lakes in the Republic of Ireland achieved good (or better) ecological status than in Northern Ireland.

Water Quality

The auditors examined the work of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in addressing issues with the quality of water in rivers and lakes.

They concluded that the target set down under the EU Water Framework Directive for 100% of surface water bodies in Northern Ireland to attain ‘good’ or ‘high’ ecological status by 2027 will not be met.

The report said that current approaches to improve the management of agricultural practices are not effectively addressing long-standing issues around water quality.

One in four pollution incidents in Northern Ireland during 2022 were linked to the agriculture sector.

373 agriculture-related pollution incidents were assessed as being ‘high’ or ‘medium’ in severity between 2017 and 2021.

Over half of all water pollution incidents linked to agriculture occurred in the Neagh Bann River Basin District, with 27% of those classified as ‘high’ or ‘medium’ in severity.

Within this district, most incidents were in the River Blackwater area, with farm effluent mixture, silage and cattle waste the three pollutants most frequently detected.

Around 1% of farms in Northern Ireland are inspected each year by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).

The report also considers water pollution incidents arising as a result of the activities of Northern Ireland Water.

Northern Ireland Water’s operations account for one in eight of all pollution incidents, but the total number of incidents declined by 43% between 2017 and 2023.

Almost half of the 572 recorded pollution incidents in that period occurred in the Northern Eastern River Basin District, with most of those occurring within the River Lagan area.

Northern Ireland remains the only region of the UK where sampling to assess compliance of wastewater treatment continues to be pre-announced.

The report notes that £2.1 billion in capital investment is required in order to maintain and enhance the existing water and wastewater treatment infrastructure.


The auditors list four recommendations in their report including that DAERA “address the long-term prevalence of pollution linked to agricultural practices”.

They said the department should incorporate incident causes and associated locations into its data in order to focus its inspection efforts.

The report said that DAERA should develop and publish “an overarching water quality improvement strategy” which would provide a roadmap for tackling key priority areas over the next five year.

It adds that the department should produce a structured plan with time-bound targets which should include the development of wider stakeholder partnerships and participation by the agriculture sector in water quality improvement initiatives.

The report also recommends that NIEA considers ways in which the effectiveness of its regulatory, inspection and preventative work can be enhanced.

It called for the development and implementation of a joint, long-term strategy around the operation of combined sewer overflows in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland

Commenting on the report’s findings, Northern Ireland’s auditor general, Dorinnia Carville, said that there has been long-standing concerns over water quality in Northern Ireland.

“Further work is required across a number of areas to ensure that these water sources are protected from damage, and that steps are taken to achieve the required regulatory standards.

“Better and sustained engagement with stakeholders including the agriculture sector is needed, and consideration should be given to enhancing the effectiveness of regulatory and inspection work.

“Better use of data will also help, both in helping target testing at areas most at-risk, and to help benchmark Northern Ireland with regions experiencing better outcomes in regards to water quality,” she added.

(Source – Agriland – Aisling O Brien – 26/03/2024)

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