Nearly half of all rivers on island of Ireland below ‘good ecological health standards’

Rivers Trust, which included Republic and North in a survey for first time, says findings underscore urgent need to safeguard freshwater environment

Nearly half of all rivers on the island of Ireland are “below good ecological health standards”, while almost one fifth are in poor or bad ecological health, according to the Rivers Trust.

Agriculture emerges as the leading contributor to poor water status on both sides of the Border, impacting 63 per cent of the 1,023 stretches of river surveyed, a survey by the environmental charity found.

Activities such as altering river flow, forestry and urban runoff further exacerbate the situation, according to the trust’s 2024 State of Our Rivers report.

The study provides analysis of rivers across Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Britain, highlighting widespread challenges facing freshwater ecosystems. It is the first time that data from Ireland and Northern Ireland has been included in the report.


The survey considers the health of aquatic plants, fish, insects and other invertebrates which are indicators of the overall condition of freshwater. Of the 193 locations surveyed for chemical pollutants, 60 per cent failed tests.

Compared to lakes, coastal and transitional waters, a far lower percentage of the Irish rivers sampled achieved high ecological status. Only 39 per cent reached good or high biological standards.

Dr Constanze O’Toole, Rivers Trust Ireland development manager, said the findings underscore the urgent need to safeguard Ireland’s freshwater environment.

She said collective effort was needed to address widespread problems effectively “whether it is maintaining septic tanks, protecting against invasive species, or not putting items that cause blockage in sewers – protecting freshwater sources is everyone’s responsibility”.

Dr O’Toole said the Government had to provide adequate investment in water infrastructure, conservation and alleviation projects, and to empower communities, backed by coherent and robust legislation.

Ireland is bound by EU directives and regulations to protect and enhance the quality of its water bodies, she added.

“This includes the EU Water Framework Directive, which sets objectives for achieving good ecological and chemical status in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters by specific deadlines.”

Combined with directives on nitrates, urban wastewater treatment and environmental liability, “most of the governance apparatus is there to improve water quality but we must take affirmative action to ensure it all works together for the desired outcome”.

Mark Horton, director of the Rivers Trust, said: “This report is an alarm bell to every local community, citizen, politician, landowner and our business community that we need to take collective action if we want to improve and protect this vital freshwater resource that we all depend on and avert a deepening environmental and ecological crisis.”

He said he remained optimistic the problems identified could be addressed “as almost all pressures negatively impacting our rivers, loughs and groundwater are caused by human activities, and it is, therefore, within our gift to reverse some of these impacts”.

Meanwhile, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has received Government approval for a €110 million programme led by Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) to reduce negative impacts caused by river barriers on biodiversity and the migration of fish.

A range of different structures in rivers, including bridge floors, culverts, sluices and weirs, constitute “hydromorphological pressures” which can interfere with natural river processes including fish movements and migration.

Of 73,000 barriers identified by IFI, up to 10 per cent will likely require removal or mitigation. Ireland’s latest river basin management plan aims to remove about 5 per cent (257) of problem barriers between this year and 2027.

  • See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain
  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here
Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times