Clean water is a base for life.

Clean fresh water is essential for life. There is enough of it in Estonia due to climatic conditions and the small population. Fresh water is found both in groundwater and bodies of surface water.

The water need of the majority of Estonian settlements and enterprises is covered by groundwater. In Tallinn and Narva, and also in some industrial undertakings (incl. in Sillamäe, Kohtla-Järve, Kunda), surface water is mainly used, because groundwater resources would not be enough there.

The water extraction of Estonia diminished constantly in the 1990s, reaching the level below 100 million m³ per year. During the last ten years, water extraction indicators have been relatively stable. Groundwater is used in the range of 45-50 mln m³ per year and surface water, 50-57 mln m³ per year.

Of cities, largest water consumers are Tallinn and Narva. In 2011, the inhabitants of Tallinn used the approximate of 21.5 mln m³ of surface water from the Ülemiste Lake, while the extraction of groundwater was below 2.5 mln m³. This indicates that the extraction of groundwater has decreased in Tallinn during the last four years by about a half, while the consumption of surface water has remained the same. In 2011, the consumption of Narva city was 6.46 mln m³ of surface water and 6.5 mln m³ of groundwater.

The amount of industrial water has decreased in comparison to the beginning of the 1990s by five times, which is caused by using sustainable production technology and the reuse of water. The amount of agricultural water has decreased in the same time by about 7.5 times, which is mainly caused by the decrease of agricultural activities.

The smallest change in amounts has occurred in terms of water intended for human consumption, remaining in the last ten years mainly below 50 mln m³ a year.

Additional information

Each Member State, including Estonia, is obliged to implement the directive on the basis of river basin districts; this is complemented by the initial estimate on risks related to the danger of flood, danger lists and risk charts, as well as management plans.

The aim of the risk management of floods is to decrease the likelihood for the occurrence of floods and their impact on human health, environment, cultural heritage and economic activities.

Risk management shall comprise protection against floods, readiness for floods, flood forecasts, and an early warning system.

Activities for evaluating and managing flood-related risks commenced by adopting Floods Directive in the European Union in 2007.

The stages of the evaluation and management of risks related to the danger of flood are the following, together with exercise date:

Transposition of Floods Directive into the Estonian Judicial Area 26.11.2009
Initial estimate on flood-related risks 22.12.2011
Maps on the danger of flood and the respective risk areas 22.12.2013
Management plans on flood-related risks 22.12.2015

The initial estimate on flood-related risks, maps on the danger of flood and the respective risk areas, and the management plan on flood-related risks will be reviewed and, if necessary, updated every six years, while updating river basin management plans.

Groundwater is our main source of drinking water and thus monitoring its status is greatly significant. The status of groundwater shall be kept as close to the natural status as possible.

Groundwater is our main source of drinking water and thus monitoring its status is greatly significant. The status of groundwater shall be kept as close to the natural status as possible.

On the basis of main groundwater levels, 39 bodies of ground water have been distinguished; their status is evaluated by several qualitative indicators.

The status of the groundwater body of the Ordovician oil shale basin is bad due to the occurrence of  heightened amount of sulphates, their mineral and rough quality, as well as dangerous substances (above all, phenols).

In addition to Ida-Viru County, groundwater pollution of limited extent or the deterioration of its quality occurs mainly in Silurian-Ordovician groundwater bodies with unprotected groundwater all over Estonia.

The qualitative general status of all other groundwater bodies in Estonia may be considered good.

Establishing and updating the River Basin Management Plans

River Basin Management plans for each river basin are established for six years and are then updated. The current valid River Basin Management plans have been drawn up for the period of 2009-2015.

Implementing the River Basin Management plans

To reach the environmental goals of protecting the areas stated in the River Basin Management plans and areas in need of protection, a programme of measures will be developed where measures of water usage and protection shall be stated to be taken into account in establishing, reviewing and amending the general and detailed zoning plans and public water supply and sewerage system development plans of local authorities. The implementation of the programme is organised by the Commission for River Basin Management. To ensure the implementation of the programme of measures, the Environmental Board will establish an action plan for the implementation of the programme of measures for each river basin.

River basins and sub-basins in Estonia

River basins:
East-Estonia river basin
West-Estonia river basin
Koiva river basin

The GIS map layers with river basin and sub-basin boarders: 

The river basin of East-Estonia is a cross-border river basin that is comprised of the basin of Lake Peipus and the River of Narva, partly situated on the territory of the Russian Federation. Issues related to the Estonian-Russian transboundary water management are handled by the Joint Committee for Estonian-Russian Transboundary Water Bodies.

The Koiva is a cross-border river basin that is comprised of the Koiva (Gauja in Latvian) river basin situated on the territories of the Republic of Estonia and the Republic of Latvia. Estonia and Latvia cooperate on establishing, updating and implementing the River Basin Management plans for the cross-border Koiva river basin. The Estonian-Latvian joint project also supports the preparation of a joint River Basin Management plan and joining the River Basin Management plans of the two countries.

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Public involvement

Establishing and updating River Basin Management plans is open to all interested parties.

To communicate and consult the plans to and with the public, the Ministry of the Environment establishes and allows access to the following:

  1. A time schedule and work plan for establishing a water management plan containing measures for informing, advising and consulting with the public at least three years before the beginning of the time period the water management plan is established for.
  2. An overview of important water management issues containing the conclusions of the analyses on descriptors of river basins, human activity burden and the economic analysis on water usage at least two years before the beginning of the period for which the water management plan is established.
  3. The initial evaluation of risks associated with floods and the maps of areas with the risk of flooding and risk areas associated with the risk of flooding at least two years before the beginning of the period for which the water management plan is established.
  4. A draft River Basin Management plan at least one year before the beginning of the period for which the water management plan is established.

The Ministry of the Environment will carry out discussions to consult and introduce the abovementioned documents and propose suggestions for and objections to the 6-month public display of documents.

County governments, local authorities, citizens located on the territory of the river basins and other interested parties will be included in process of establishing the River Basin Management plan. The Environmental Board is responsible for the inclusion of parties.

Surface water is all inland water, either standing or running (except for groundwater, transitional waters and coastal waters). Bodies of surface water are divided into watercourses (rivers, brooks and ditches) and stagnant water (lakes, ponds).

The status of surface water depends on the efficiency of wastewater treatment, the intensity of agriculture and protection measures used in agriculture. Since 1992, the pollution load of surface water has decreased significantly in Estonia, due to building new water treatment plants, renovating old ones, and decrease in agricultural production.

The status of surface water is monitored by bodies of surface water; there are currently 750 bodies of surface water whose status has to be determined. Environmental register includes more water bodies than bodies of surface water. Usually, one larger water body in the environmental register (bodies of stagnant water with the water mirror area starting from 50 ha, flowing bodies of water with the catchment area starting from 10 km²) forms a body of surface water. Some big water bodies are divided into several bodies of surface water, while some smaller watercourses are drawn together into one larger watercourse. One body of surface water has a similar natural type, living environment, and human impact.

Estonian water bodies are influenced by social, food and light industry, as well as nutrients arriving from diffuse pollution, originating from agriculture. In North and North-Eastern Estonia, the impact of the effluent waters of large scale industry is added, exhibiting real danger for coastal waters. The status of water bodies depends directly on the efficiency of wastewater treatment and the protection measures used in agriculture. In the last decade, important changes have taken place in Estonia. Economic recession, changes in organising industry, and less pressure on water environment by the water for human consumption. This has had a facilitating effect both on rivers, lakes and seas. The water quality of Estonian rivers and lakes is satisfactory.

In the end of 2008, the report „Ecological Status of Estonian Bodies of Surface Water in 2004-2008” was compiled for the first time. On the basis of this report, the status of 750 bodies of surface water was determined.

Due to chemical status, the overall status is bad only in four watercourses. In other bodies of surface water of a poor, bad or very bad status, the ecological status is problematic. For these bodies of surface water, the status of which is poor, bad or very bad, a plan of measures for improving the status shall be compiled. The measures for improving the status of bodies of surface water exist in a written format in river basin management plans on river basin districts.

Estonian lakes

Lakes with artificial water bodies comprise approximately 5% of the territory of Estonia, that is, we have the average of 1 lake by each 40–50 km² of the territory. Lake Peipus and Võrtsjärv belong among the largest lakes in Europe.

Estonia has approximately 1200 tarns and reservoirs, the area of which is larger than 1 ha. The location of lakes is extremely uneven. There are more lakes in South-East and South Estonia with the approximate of 30 lakes by 100 km² (in Harju County, the vicinity of Jussi-Järvi-Koitjärve, and in Valga County, in Karula and Otepää). In contrast, in West and Central Estonia, there are extensive areas totally without lakes.

There are no very deep lakes in Estonia. The lake of the greatest depth is Rõuge Suurjärv – 38 m. The depth of Lake Peipus reaches 18 and the depth of Võrtsjärv to 6 metres.

Seven limnological fields may be distinguished in Estonia: oligotrophic and dystrophic lakes in South-East Estonia, oligotrophic and dystrophic lakes of North-East Estonia, eutrophic lakes of uplands, Pandivere alkalitrophic lakes, dystophic lakes of the transition zone of Estonia, dyseotrophic lakes of Estonian lowland, and halotrophic lakes of West Estonia.

With reference to fishery and recreation economy, most valuable lakes are located on the Otepää and Sakala upland and Vooremaa. Other regions are richer in plant and animal rarities.

Nationally observed lakes are Lake Peipus, Võrtsjärv and small lakelets, Nohipalu Black Lake (Nohipalu Mustjärv), Nohipalu White Lake (Nohipalu Valgjärv), Pühajärv, Rõuge Big Lake, Lake Uljaste, Viitna Long Lake, Lake Ähijärv, and Mullutu Suurlaht (Big Bay). On Lake Peipus and Võrtsjärv, observations on hydrochemistry are conducted by Tartu Environmental Research and in terms of biology by Võrtsjärve Limnological Station of the Zoology and Botany Institute of EULS. Both the hydrochemical and biological monitoring of lakelets is conducted by the Võrtsjärve Limnological Station.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Estonian lakes were heavily influenced by fertilizers and sewage, which caused quick eutrophication. With the crumbling of collective farms, agricultural production lie dormant; the status of lakes, especially lakelets, started to improve in the beginning of the 1990s. Eutrophication slowed, as the content of nitrogen decreased in lake water. With the improvement of the economic situation, the new rise in eutrophication may be expected in the near future.

Estonian rivers

Estonian rivers are short, with a small catchment area, and therefore also relatively scare in water. The river system, however, is dense. Runoff forms mostly on the state territory. Fragmentation of water sources into small water bodies and their uneven distribution limits possibilities for using them.

Drainage divides separate Estonian rivers into four natural river basin districts: Narva-Peipsi river basin district, the Gulf of Finland river basin district, the Gulf of Riga river basin district, and the river basin district of islands. The rivers of three river basin districts – Narva-Peipsi, the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga river basin district – start from the slopes of the extensive karst area of Pandivere upland.

There are 10 rivers longer than 100 km. Longest is the Võhandu River – 162 km, then the Pärnu River – 144 km. These are followed by the Põltsamaa, Pedja, Kasari, Keila and Jägala River.

There are 15 rivers with catchment areas larger than 1000 square kilometres, whereas the entire catchment area of the Narva River is larger than the territory of the Republic of Estonia. The catchment area of the River Emajõgi, located almost in its entirety in Estonia, forms 22% of the state territory.

The river with the largest fall is Piusa; the altitude distance of its source and mouth is 208 m. The largest fall, 3.5 m/km is on the River Mustoja, which flows into the Gulf of Finland, while the lowest on Emajõgi with 0.04 m/km, where the fall per 100 km is only 3.7 m.

The specificity of Estonian nature lies in the occurrence of the karstic feature (subsurface streams, swallow holes, etc) in North Estonia and islands. Due to karst, some rivers flow partly underground (Jõelähtme, Tuhala, Kuivajõgi and others). Pandivere region is characterised by the difference in the borders of ground and underground catchment areas.

Hydrology monitoring network on Estonian rivers and lakes was formed in the 1920s and therefore we can use long-term observation data. Currently, 40 observation stations are being used.

There are few rivers rich in water in Estonia. In terms of water abundance, the Narva River holds the first place. As for the runoff of Estonian rivers, 23% flow into the Gulf of Finland, 43.6% into the Gulf of Rigs, 33% into Lake Peipus and the Narva River, and 0.3% into Russia and Latvia.

The distribution of annual successive runoff of Estonian rivers varies. Spring floods usually form from the snowmelt water and occur on most of the rivers at the same time from March to April, except for the Narva River and the River Emajõgi, with a strongly regulated runoff. Summer minimum usually begins in the middle of June and ends in the middle of September or the beginning of October (apart from the Narva River and Emajõgi). The climax of autumn runoff occurs in November. The low-flow period in winter lasts from January to March. The extent of minimum runoff in winter and summer is almost equal.

Agriculture is besides others important source of water pollution with plant nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus.

This leads to eutrophication of the water bodies. The signs of eutrophic water bodies, what everyone can see, are rapid growth of water plants and algae blooms. As a result, this process influences the living conditions of water organisms.

To avoid or reduce the influence of agriculture it is important to reduce losses of nutrients to water from livestock and crop production. It means reduction losses of nitrates and phosphorus from farmland and agricultural point sources.

In Estonia the main legal act, regulating water protection is Water Act with its secondary decrees.

This legal act implements EU Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) and Water Framework directive (2000/60/EC) in Estonia.

Water Act sets down main water protection rules for agriculture, like manure and chemical fertilizers management and use, requirements for animal husbandry etc. Secondary decrees establish more detailed technical requirements for water protection. In addition, action programmes, like River Basin Management Plans and Nitrates Action Program (NAP) are launched according to Water Act.

NAP describes measures, both obligatory and voluntary, what farmers should follow to reduce the pollution load to water environment, as well as actions for public authorities and supervising bodies.

Nitrates Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) in Estonia was determined taking into account soil and ground conditions, ground and surface water vulnerability as well as intensity of agriculture. Total area of the NVZ is 3250 km2 which is 7,5 % of the total land area 43 200 km2.

Additional information

Last updated: 15.07.2021