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Environmental indicators

During the last quarter century, loads of total phosphorous and nitrogen have decreased by 5 and 12 times, respectively.


Point source pollution is related to a specific place (in the field of water e.g. “pipe endings” i.e. municipal and industrial effluents, storm water discharges, etc.) where pollutants are discharged into the environment. Cattle-sheds, manure piles or other similar clearly definable objects which discharge pollutants into the environment are also considered as point sources.

According to the Water Act, a permit for the special use of water is required for the discharge of wastewater into the environment. Holders of this permit submit an annual report of their water usage, where they include, among other things, their pollution loads. Based on the reports presented by the permit holders, the Environment Agency prepares a consolidated overview of water usage in Estonia.

This indicator provides annual quantities of pollutants discharged into the environment with wastewater, mainly into the surface water bodies, i.e. the summarised pollution load for the entire Estonia. Only wastewater loads reported to fulfil the annual obligations set with water or another environmental permits have been summarised, therefore, the actual pollution load may be slightly higher. Pollution loads have been provided in thousands of tons per year.

BOD7, TN and TP presented on the graph are key indicators of wastewater, which are used to assess the quality and status of water bodies:

  • BOD7, i.e. biochemical oxygen demand indicates the amount of oxygen needed for microbes to decompose organic matter in one litre of water within 7 days. Therefore, the discharge of wastewater with a substantial BOD7 value is likely to decrease the oxygen content of the water and affects aquatic life;
  • TN, i.e. total nitrogen is a plant nutrient which causes eutrophication of water bodies;
  • TP, i.e. total phosphorus is a plant nutrient which causes eutrophication of water bodies.

Pollution loads must be reduced to decrease and prevent the eutrophication especially of water bodies which serve as receiving bodies of water. Eutrophication means the excessive growth of plants and phytoplankton caused by the over-abundance of nutrients (mainly phosphorus and nitrogen). In a eutrophic water body, some species may start to flourish at the expense of others, causing decreased biodiversity of biotic communities. The excessive growth of plants is accompanied by decomposition processes which cause accumulation of organic matter, oxygen depletion in water layers near the bottom, and a general decrease in water quality, which in turn has a negative impact on the rest of the water organisms. Therefore, to maintain the good status of our water bodies, we need to limit the pollution load of nutrients caused by humans.

In the past few decades, the pollution loads have significantly decreased in Estonia. On the one hand, this was caused by termination of the large-scale industry of the Soviet Union and a decrease in population, on the other hand, large investments have been made into building and upgrading wastewater treatment plants. In 2000–2016, nearly 1.09 billion euros were invested into the drinking and wastewater infrastructure.

Over a long period of time (26 years in total), the pollution loads of TN, TP and BOD7 have decreased by 5, 12 and 18 times, respectively. It seems that the minimum level has been achieved and the loads have remained stable over the past 4 years. However, considering Estonia’s small surface area, the opening or closure of even one large factory may affect the national statistics.

A positive example of influencing official statistics is the application of wastewater treatment in Tartu since 1997.  As a result of wastewater treatment, the water quality of the Emajõgi River has improved. However, residues of hazardous substances and pesticides have been found in the Emajõgi River. More detailed information about the Emajõgi River can be found in the overview of the state of the environment in Tartu.


Estonia's largest water consumers are power plants located in Ida-Viru County, which consume approximately 68% of total water abstraction. Approximately 18% of the water abstraction is pumped out of mines and quarries.

Abstraction shows the pressure of human activity on the environment. Pursuant to the Water Act, a permit for the special use of water is required if groundwater is abstracted in a volume of more than 10 m3 per day or 150 m3 per month or water is abstracted from a surface water body, including ice,  in a volume of more than 30 m3 per day. This indicator shows the abstraction of groundwater or surface water reported in the annual reports of persons with a permit for the special use of water (including water companies) in millions of cubic metres per year. As a permit for the special use of water is not required from all persons abstracting water, actual abstraction is probably more extensive in Estonia. For example, individual residents with a personal well are not included in the abstraction calculations, as their abstraction is below the threshold mentioned.

Approximately 68% of the total abstraction in Estonia is made up by the cooling water of power plants in Ida-Viru County. Cooling water is mainly abstracted from the Narva river and discharged back into the river after the cooling processes (up to 1.3 billion cubic metres per year). The chemical composition of the water does not change during the cooling process (no purification needed), however, the discharged water’s temperature might be slightly higher than that of the river. As the power plants are located downstream from each other, the cooling water is also used twice – the Eesti power station located upstream discharges its cooling water back into the Narva river which is in turn used for abstraction by the Balti power station.

The amount of cooling water in power plants depends on electricity production, which increased in 2016-2017, but has been on a downward trend since 2018. Estonian electricity production in 2019 was approximately 50% lower than in 2018. The decrease in production volume was mainly due to the increase in production costs, which was affected by the increase in the market price of CO2 emission allowances by almost 50%. Therefore, electricity production in 2019 has decreased by 4.8 TWh (i.e. 4850 GWh) and with it cooling water intake. The proportion of cooling water from the annual average drainage of the Narva river is 7–20%, on average 13%.

Another larger abstraction type (proportion around 18%) is water pumped out of mines and quarries (see figure Abstraction in 2019). These quantities are largely dependent on rainfall, as the more rainfall there is in a year, the larger the quantities of drained mine and quarry water are, since the rainfall that has infiltrated into the ground has mixed with groundwater.

The year 2018 was very poor in precipitation, the average amount of precipitation in Estonia was only 506 mm according to the meteorological yearbooks of the Estonian Weather Service. The average for the last 10 years is 666 mm. Therefore, the amount of pumped mining and quarry water in 2018 has decreased by 18% compared to 2017. 2019 was a standard year considering the precipitation, unlike 2018, which stood out as extremely poor in precipitation. As a result, the amount of water pumped out in 2019 has increased by 9% compared to 2018.

The rest of the abstraction of ground- and surface water only makes up 13,5% of the total abstraction. Compared to cooling water and water from mines, the quantities of both abstracted ground- and surface water have been more stable.

In 2019, water abstraction has decreased because there was more rainfall and during the summer no drought was experienced.

A more detailed overview of the annual abstraction of ground- and surface water in Estonia can be obtained from the annual reports on water usage and reports on the groundwater balance.


In the period 1992–2019, the amount of domestic water consumed in Estonia decreased 2.2 times. The decrease in the domestic water consumption is primarily due to the reconstruction of public water supply systems and the increase in the price of water, which has encouraged consumers to use water more economically. On average, each Estonian inhabitant consumes approximately 87 liters of water per day, compared to the average consumer in the European Union, who consumes twice as much.

The water use indicator shows where and how much the abstracted water is used. This indicator shows the water use reported in the annual reports of permit holders for the special use of water (including water companies) in millions of cubic metres per year.

Groundwater and surface water are not distinguished in water use; water use is presented as a total by fields. The consumption types distinguished in overviews of water use include water intended for domestic purposes, industry (industrial water use) and cooling water of industry, agriculture, irrigation, energy (additionally, cooling water of individual power plants, see the indicator “abstraction of ground- and surface water”), and other abstraction. The graph provided indicates changes in the three most significant types of water use (water intended for domestic purposes, industry and agriculture) over time. Cooling water which makes up the largest part of abstraction is used as cooling water of power plants (approximately 1.3–1.5 billion cubic metres per year), which is why it has not been provided in the graph.

Over the past 16 years, industrial water use has decreased from approximately 44 million cubic metres to approximately 29 million cubic metres (decrease of 35%). The lowest industrial water use was in 2009 (24 million cubic metres) – this probably reflects the impact of the economic crisis.  The rapid growth in 2019 is due to the inclusion of quarry and mining water in production and industry.

Agricultural water use (including drinking water for animals) has remained stable at 4–4.9 million cubic metres per year. In addition to agricultural water use, water use records are also kept on the quantities of irrigation water which amount to approximately 10% of agricultural water use (0.5 million cubic metres per year). As the quantities of irrigation water are small, these have not been indicated in the graph mentioned.

According to the Water Act, water intended for domestic purposes means all water intended for drinking, cooking, food preparation or other domestic purposes, regardless of its origin and whether it is supplied from a distribution network, from a water tank, or in bottles or containers.

According to the Health Board's data for 2018, approximately 87.63% of the population uses water from the public water supply system, the rest receives water from individual boreholes and wells. Water use is not reported by individual consumers with low water abstraction (groundwater intake <150 cubic meters per month, surface water <30 cubic meters per day) and those who therefore do not require a special water use permit (approximately 11% of the population) and are excluded from water use statistics.

Comparing the data of 2019 and 1992, the number of inhabitants in Estonia has decreased by about 182,000 (decrease of 12%) and the quantities of domestic water consumed have decreased approximately 2.5 times - from 104 million cubic meters to about 42 million cubic meters per year. On the one hand, this is due to the reconstruction of public water supply systems, which has significantly reduced leaks, but on the other hand, rising water prices have forced consumers to use water more economically. Since 2007, the average price of water has increased almost 2 times - from 0.7 to 1.3 euros per cubic meter (data from the membership of the Estonian Association of Water Companies).

Consumption of domestic water per capita has decreased up to 2.2 times in a couple of decades - from 68.8 to 32 cubic meters per year. Over the last five years, per capita water consumption has been stable at 30-32 cubic meters per year, or 83-87 liters per day (approximately 8 buckets of water per person per day). This is almost 2 times less than the EU average: according to the data of European Environment Agency, the average EU citizen consumes 147 liters of water per day (15 buckets per day). The use of domestic water per capita differs by counties about three times - the use of domestic water on the islands is the lowest, but the largest consumers are Ida-Viru, Pärnu and Harju counties. Apparently, this is rather a statistical difference due to the construction of public water supply (individual wells in sparsely populated areas, public water supply systems in densely populated areas) and the number of water use reporting providers in different counties.


The main objective of the Water Framework Directive adopted in 2000 was that by 2015, all water bodies (rivers, lakes, coastal waters, groundwater) have reached at least good environmental status. Unfortunately, this objective was not reached in neither Estonia nor Europe and currently, objectives are being set for 2021 and 2027.

This indicator shows the proportion of bodies of surface water that have reached at least good ecological status in Estonia. In addition to the ecological status, the chemical status of water bodies is also assessed (concentration of hazardous pollutants in the water environment), however, the chemical status was not considered for this indicator due to the lack of data. This is a status indicator which forms the basis for planning water protection measures. Water management plans with a six-year term are prepared for achieving the good status of water bodies and in the course of implementation of these plans, measures are implemented for improving the status of water bodies.

A total of 750 bodies of surface water have been distinguished in Estonia: 644 for water courses, 90 for lakes, and 16 in coastal waters. All these should have achieved good status by 2015 (goal 100%).

Ecological status primarily means the status of aquatic biota (water plants, algae, benthic fauna, plankton, fish) and other factors affecting this (hydromorphology, water quality, concentration of pollutants in the water, etc.) and their disturbance due to human activity (regulation No. 44 of the Minister of the Environment describes the assessment of the ecological status of bodies of surface water). Ecological status is described by using the following quality classes:

  1. very good – changes caused by human activity do not exist or are insignificant;
  2. good – changes in biological indicators caused by human activity are small, the hydromorphological characteristics of a water body have not been changed in a way that would affect the biota, no obstructions to the current exist in rivers (e.g. dams);
  3. moderate changes in biological indicators caused by human activity are moderate compared to natural reference water bodies (greater than in a water body in good status), a water body may, for example, be affected by land improvement or obstructions to the current may occur;
  4. poor – biological indicators vary greatly from the reference conditions; a great proportion of the normal biotic communities is missing;
  5. bad – biological indicators greatly deviate from the reference conditions or biota does not exist.

Assessments of the ecological status of a water body are mainly based on biological indicators and a status assessment is given based on the biological quality element in the worst status.

The ecological status of bodies of water has been assessed since 2010. As this is done based on monitoring data, there was insufficient data by the first assessment period, due to which the status assessments were largely based on expert opinions. Later, when the monitoring activities expanded and the amount of data increased, it appeared that the expert opinions may have been overly optimistic and actual measurements did not confirm the initial expert assessments of the status of water bodies. This is why the trendline depicting changes in statuses is also in decline on the graphs. The second reason is changes in assessment scales. For example, the comparative tests of status assessments carried out on the European scale revealed that our local assessment system of coastal waters needed to be made stricter.

The status of water bodies is assessed based on monitoring data which is usually carried out with a six-year rotation cycle. This means that most of the bodies of water are observed every six years. Only a small proportion of the bodies of water (reference water bodies) are observed every year or with a three-year rotation cycle. Outcomes of the previous observation year are used in calculating the indicator. This means that if a body of water was previously observed, for example, in 2013 and a status assessment was given based on these data, then the 2017 consolidated assessment of water bodies includes the 2013 status assessment for that body of water. Approximately 60 water courses, 30 lakes and six coastal bodies of water are observed annually. Observation and assessment outcomes of the previous years are used for all other bodies of water.

Mainly due to the aforementioned reasons (new monitoring outcomes do not confirm the earlier expert assessments of the status, the assessment system and environmental norms have changed), the status assessments of bodies of surface water have become more negative. Water courses are the only bodies of water where the goal has been achieved for 58%. Pursuant to the 2017 data, only 46% of lakes are in very good or good status.

More information regarding the statuses of bodies of water can be seen on the web page of the Environment Agency: and


This indicator shows the assessment of the ecological status of Estonia’s bodies of coastal waters with relation to the goal (at least good status). Principles of assessing the ecological status have been provided by the indicator Status of water bodies.

This indicator has been calculated as follows: on the five-point scale of ecological status assessment, 1 point refers to very good, 2 points to good, 3 points to moderate, 4 points to poor and 5 points to bad status. For measuring the distance from the target, the target value (good status = 2 points) is divided by the value measured in the course of an actual monitoring (e.g. moderate = 3 points). The closer the outcome is to number one, the closer the achievement of the target is. If the value is above one, the target has been achieved and exceeded. The graph considers the ecological status of all 16 bodies of coastal water as an annual average (the points of the status assessments of the water bodies have been summarised by years and divided by 16 and then the target “2” has been divided by the calculated average).

The Baltic Sea is considered one of the seas most affected by human activity in the world. Considering the slow processes occurring in the sea and earlier pollution, which has accumulated in the sea, reaching the good status of coastal waters is most likely not possible in the next decade.

Status assessments of the previous years indicate a stable moderate ecological status (especially with regard to phytoplankton indicators and excessively high concentration of nutrients) and only a few individual water bodies have been classified to be in good status in some years. Pursuant to the data included in water management plans prepared as at 2017, only 19% of the surface area of coastal waters was in good status (three bodies: Narva-Kunda, Hara and Kihelkonna coastal waters). The following graph illustrates reaching the target of bodies of coastal waters (as at 2017 water management plans):





Last updated: 22 January 2021

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