What’s the issue?

Agriculture is by far the most significant pressure on the Irish water environment and the sector is responsible for a large proportion of water bodies failing to achieve good status as required by law under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). 

Agriculture in Ireland is specifically linked with marked increases in water pollution from nutrients (nitrates and phosphates), elevated pesticide levels, declining aquatic biodiversity, physical damage to water bodies, and widespread unregulated wetland drainage.

EU water law requires that all our waters needed to be in a healthy state by 2021 (with some permitted exemptions to 2027), and it prohibits deterioration from 2009 water quality standards. It also requires, under the Nitrates Directive, that the state reduces water pollution caused by nitrates and phosphates from agricultural sources. The state is clearly failing in this duty and if the situation isn’t remedied swiftly, water pollution will continue to escalate and we may be subject to infringement proceedings due to breach of EU law.


What needs to change?

An urgent shift in agricultural policy, to an approach that protects and restores our rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal waters is needed in order to protect the environment and public health.

This should include the following:

  • A radical overhaul of Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme so that nitrate derogations (needed to farm at very intensive livestock levels) are no longer granted, unless it can be demonstrated a given catchment area can absorb the totality of nitrate fertiliser, and slurry being applied without negative impacts on water status.
  • A reversal of the current expansion of intensive dairy farming and significant reduction in national usage of nitrate fertiliser, with particular focus on the most impacted catchments.
  • Water quality assessments on all intensive farms in areas identified by the EPA as critical sources for nutrient pollution. If necessary, certain sub-catchment areas may need to be zoned ineligible for certain stocking rates.
  • The introduction of a comprehensive nationwide programme of on-farm measures to provide nature-based barriers to intercept phosphate pollution pathways to nearby waterbodies such as attenuation areas, riparian planting and protected buffer strips along watercourses.
  • Prohibition on drainage of all wetlands. Ensure these regulations are enforced, and accompanied by targeted awareness raising campaigns. This will have enormous additional benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation, and for biodiversity.


Read More

Towards a New Agricultural and Food Policy for Ireland. Recommendations for Government’ Joint paper published by the Environmental Pillar Stop Climate Chaos Coalition and SWAN (2021) 

PRESS RELEASE: Sustainable Water Network (SWAN): Water pollution crisis fuelled by reckless intensification of agriculture

SWAN Submission to Fourth Review of Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme 2021 

SWAN Submission to the Public Consultation on the 2019 Nitrates Derogation Review

SWAN Response to 3rd River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) Consultation

SWAN Response to Public Consultation on the Draft River Basin Management Plan – SWAN Submission, August 2017 (See Section 5.1 on agriculture)



1Environmental Protection Agency (2021) ‘Water Quality in 2020. An Indicators Report.’  https://www.epa.ie/publications/monitoring–assessment/freshwater–marine/EPA_Water_Quality_2020_indicators-report.pdf
Environmental Protection Agency (2021)Assessment of the catchments that need reductions in nitrogen concentrations to achieve water quality objectives’ https://www.catchments.ie/assessment-of-the-catchments-that-need-reductions-in-nitrogen-concentrations-to-achieve-water-quality-objectives/

2The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) – integrated river basin management for Europe: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/index_en.html 
The Nitrates Directive: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-nitrates/index_en.html