Poland’s Water Policy – The Gordian knot of drought

The report “Water in Agriculture” shows that without fundamental reform, the problems of Polish agriculture, and thus of the entire economy, will only deepen. Michał Olszewski has the details.

Poland’s water policy is something of a Gordian knot: multiple conflicting interests (although no-one has any interest in the water running out), lots of interest groups, and long-standing problems overlain with new ones. Nevertheless, we must admit that, in the last few years, a fundamental change has taken place that is comparable to the growth in the public understanding of air pollution. As with smog, water has become a key subject of public debate. It could hardly be the other way around, since the arrival of the dry season puts the Polish society on the verge of water rationing or the shutting down of coal-fired power plants.

There have indeed been a number of political statements demonstrating an understanding of the problem. Actions have indeed been taken locally, mainly targeting cities frightened by the threat of swinging back and forth between water shortages and floods. 44 Polish cities are participating together with the Ministry of the Environment in a climate change adaptation project, supported financially by European Union. One leader in good practices is the municipality of Bydgoszcz, which is introducing solutions that collect water not only from properties, but also from car parks, roads, and parks. The city is investing in domestic rainwater tanks, revitalising urban watercourses and using permeable surfaces instead of asphalt and paving stones.

However, the “Water in Agriculture” report, produced by the Living Earth coalition [Żywa Ziemia] and the Heinrich Böll Foundation Warszawa, reveals a systemic problem. Beyond the borders of the cities, there stretch rural areas languishing in decades of errors and neglect in water management. This drama was graphically characterised by Prof. Wiktor Kotowski, a wetland protection specialist from Warsaw University, when he compared Poland to an apartment whose owner had gone out, leaving all the taps turned on. Water is leaking copiously from Poland and there is yet no force in sight that could stop it. This sad observation is confirmed by this expert report, which focuses on systemic errors that have been made in rural areas.

The most serious mistake is indicated by Przemysław Nawrocki and Piotr Nieznański of (the) WWF (Poland), who have been involved in water protection for many years. They calculate that between 2010 and 2017, approximately 38,000 kilometres of watercourses were regulated and dredged in Poland. Most of this engineering was done in agricultural and even forest areas, far away from built-up areas. This is the result, on the one hand, of pressure from farmers demanding farmland must/to be protected against flooding and, on the other hand, of drainage professionals acting to absorb a stream of funds from the EU. Moreover, some of the works were carried out in areas at risk of drought. The effects of this work are clearly visible: surface waters now drain from areas more quickly, aggravating drought even further. Wetlands are still being drained, though they constitute the cheapest and most effective way to improve retention in rural areas. In addition, there has been a mass destruction of the natural resources of rivers, including fish. One of the sad paradoxes of Polish water policy is the fact that, within sixteen years of Poland’s accession to the European Union, water is better in quality (thanks to the discharge of municipal and industrial wastewater into water being far less than in previous decades), while it is host to ever less life – in straightened, dredged rivers whose spawning grounds have been wrecked, where biodiversity is disappearing. According to Nawrocki and Nieznanski, the ecosystem of rivers/rivers as an ecosystem in Poland is/are degrading about a hundred times faster than (overall) water quality is improving.

This is only part of the alarming report, which describes the Polish agricultural landscape at the beginning of the 21st century. It is clear that adopting the model of large-scale (industrial) farms and farming monocultures has led to a repetition of the mistakes that Germany or France are currently trying to deal with. Not only is the traditional agricultural landscape which favours biodiversity and water retention (field copses, ponds, wetlands) is disappearing, but also farms with an imbalance between meat production and crops have been established along straightened rivers. As Maria Staniszewska writes: “The worst thing, however, is that most farms have no animals at all, while many others are industrial livestock farms that are decidedly over-stocked relative to the size of the agricultural area they own.” It is the livestock farms, whose increasing scale of production and negative environmental impact is creating water pollution “hot-spots”, which are responsible for most of the nutrient discharge into surface and ground waters, because they are not able to get rid of the nutrients by fertilising their farmland, and the long-distance transport of natural fertilisers is unprofitable.

And finally, the report presents what is clearly the broadest and perhaps most disturbing factor: the rapid progress of climate change, whose scale the agricultural lobby is probably not fully aware of. The fact of having too little water is becoming clear to even the most entrenched of climate sceptics. But are farmers aware that, as the risk of droughts rises, so too does the risk of torrential rains, hailstorms, and flash floods? As Prof. Zbigniew Karaczun of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) points out, the growing season is getting longer, which presents fruit growers with new dangers (e. g. the risk of May frosts coincides with the growth phase most susceptible to cold stress). As the temperature rises, so too does the risk of new diseases, new pests, and reduced productivity of farm animals such as cows. It may also turn out that the selection of agricultural crops will need to be fundamentally revised: according to Prof. Karaczun, potatoes will be slowly replaced by sorghum/millet, while maize will also grow in popularity.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? The government, forced by the increasingly apparent water crisis, has begun drafting a bill to introduce solutions which will encourage or necessitate increased retention, both in cities and in rural areas. In addition to good solutions, such as increasing the taxation for sealing surfaces, it is also opening the door to large-scale flood protection projects and limits environmentalists’ control over the planned construction of reservoirs and the regulation of rivers. However, it does not resolve the systemic problems.

The Gordian knot of water policy cannot be unpicked using antiquated tools – as the report “Water in Agriculture” shows. To cope with drought and climate change, policymakers and farmers must  change their thinking fundamentally.

Without deep changes, we will continue to see the country’s landscape rapidly turning into steppe, such as in central-western Poland, where lake water levels are falling dramatically, rivers are drying up and water tourism is dying out, while there is an ever-increasing need for expensive irrigation infrastructure.

Finally, let us not forget that we are talking here about a country that for centuries was considered to be one of the inexhaustible granaries of Europe.


Michał Olszewski (born 1977) – journalist, reporter, writer. For more than twelve years he worked for Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny, where he concentrated mostly on environmental issues. He is engaged in a Krakow-based campaign against air pollution.

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