Water profile of Estonia

Source: FAO

Geography and Population

caption Map of Estonia. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Estonia, with a total area of 45,100 square kilometers (km2), is one of the three Baltic states. It is bordered in the north by the Gulf of Finland, in the east by the Russian Federation, in the south by Latvia and in the west by the Baltic Sea. Restoration of its independence from the Soviet Union took place in August 1991. The main administrative units are 15 counties, 209 municipalities, and 45 towns.

Estonia is situated on the southern slope of the Fennoscadian shield. The territory of Estonia rose from the sea bed and its surface is relatively flat with an average altitude of 50 meters (m) above sea level. The higher areas are the Haanja uplands in the southeast, with a peak of 318 m, and the Pandivere uplands in the northeast, with a peak of 166 m.

More than 1,500 islands in the Baltic Sea are part of Estonia, constituting 9% of the territory. There are over 1,400 lakes, covering over 6% of the total area of the country, and about 21% of the total area is swamp. The soils of Estonia are generally heavy and stony. The quaternary deposits are unevenly distributed, almost absent at the northern coast while being up to 200 m thick in the south.

The cultivable area is estimated at almost 1.4 million hectares (ha), which is 30% of the total area of the country. In 1995, the total cultivated area was 863,324 ha, of which 98.5% was covered by annual crops.

Since independence, the agricultural sector has been going through a process of privatization. Before the Second World War, Estonia had approximately 140,000 private farms, which were collectivized into 360 sovkhoz (state farms) during the Soviet era. After independence at the end of 1991, there were still 120 sovkhoz occupying about 30% of the agricultural land, 265 kolkhoz (collective farms) occupying 57% of the agricultural land, and 7,227 registered private farms occupying the remaining 13% of the agricultural land. Today, the agricultural sector is almost fully privatized.

The total population is about 1.5 million (1996), of which 27% is rural. About 41% of the urban population lives in the capital Tallinn. The rural population lives in rural villages and `scattered' villages, in which houses are far apart. The average population density is 33 inhabitants/km2, varying from 12 inhabitants/km2 on Hiiumaa Island to 127 inhabitants/km2 in Harjumaa county, where the capital is located. During the last two years, Estonia has had a negative population growth rate, about -1% per year. In 1996, 13% of the economically active population was engaged in agriculture. In 1993, agriculture accounted for an estimated 10% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Climate and Water Resources


The sea has an impact on the climate throughout the country. Winters are mild, springs are short, summers are warm and sunny, and autumns are long and windy. The average precipitation is 632 millimeters per year (mm/year), but is somewhat lower on the islands and in the coastal areas while being somewhat higher in the uplands.

The climatological conditions allow the cultivation of one crop per year during summer with irrigation possibly needed in May and June. In dry years, it is necessary to irrigate in July and August as well. However, more important than irrigation is drainage. It is estimated, that without drainage about two-thirds of the land for agricultural production would suffer from waterlogging.

River Basins and Surface Water Resources

caption Figure 1: Internal renewable surface water resources. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Estonia can be divided into five hydrological basins: the Lake Peipus-Narva basin in the east; the Gulf of Finland basin in the north; the Gulf of Riga basin, including the Salaca River, in the southwest; the Muhu Sound basin, including the Gauja River, in the southeast; and the Islands.

Renewable surface water resources (RSWR) by river basin group
River Basin IRSWR Inflow Total RSWR Outflow
group million m3/yr million m3/yr from: million m3/yr to:
Lake Peipus-Narva 3,853 63+25 Russian F. + Latvia 3,941 Russian F. (7) + Sea
Gulf of Finland 2,730 2,730 Sea
Gulf of Riga 3,677 8 Latvia 3,685 Latvia (89) + Sea
Muhu Sound 310 310 Latvia
Islands 1,142 1,142 Sea
Total 11,712 96 11,808

The IRSWR are estimated at 11,712 million cubic meters per year (m3/year) (Figure 1). A total quantity of about 96 million m3/year is estimated to flow from Latvia and the Russian Federation into Estonia, while an estimated 406 million m3/year flow from Estonia into Latvia and the Russian Federation.

The artificial Lake Narva in the northeast was created in 1956, when the Narva hydropower plant started operating. Its total area is 191 km2, of which 38 km2 are located within Estonia. Its average depth is 1.8 m, its deepest point 15 m.

Groundwater Resources

Estonia is rich in groundwater resources. The internal renewable groundwater resources are estimated at 4 km3/year. The main recharge area is in the Pandivere uplands, where limestone areas and sand/gravel ridges are locally important. Generally, in southern Estonia the groundwater of the Devonian aquifer is used, while in western and sporadically in central Estonia the water of the Silurian-Ordovician horizon is used. Groundwater covers about two-thirds of the drinking water supply. Part of the groundwater flows out to the sea and part returns to the surface water system. This latter part, which is already accounted for in the runoff (overlap), has been estimated at 3 km3/year.

Water Use and Wastewater

caption Figure 2: Water withdrawal. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

In 1995, the water withdrawal for agricultural, domestic and industrial purposes was estimated at 158 million m3, of which only 5% for agricultural purposes (Figure 2). In addition, more than 1,200 million m3 were used for cooling in the thermal power production in the Narva region and about 172 million m3 for fisheries.

For the majority of towns and settlements, groundwater is the only source of drinking and industrial water, except in the towns of Tallinn and Narva near the coast where groundwater resources are very limited. In 1995, about 88% of the population had access to drinking water supply.

The total quantity of wastewater produced in 1995 was 396 million m3, of which 378 million m3 was treated.

Irrigation and Drainage Development

Drainage Development

caption Figure 3: Evolution of the drained area. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Drainage of agricultural land in Estonia dates back to the seventeenth century, when the first areas of pasture land were drained artificially. The first drainage bureau was established in 1897 and the first Baltic Marsh Improvement Society in 1906. By 1939, there were 779 land reclamation societies for the operation and maintenance of the drainage canals. In 1957, Land Improvement Bureaux were established to expand, operate and maintain the drainage systems. During the 1970s, around 40,000 ha/year were equipped with subsurface drains. In 1975, about 390,000 ha of agricultural land were drained. At present about 732,000 ha, or almost 85% of the cultivated land, are drained, of which 650,000 ha, or 89%, are equipped with subsurface drainage systems (Figure 3). In addition, an estimated 560,600 ha of forests, or 13% of the total forest area, are said to be drained.

The cost of drainage development (1995) varies between $US 1,620 and 2,000/ha for open drainage systems and between $US 2,150 and 2,800/ha for subsurface drainage systems.

Irrigation Development

caption Figure 4: Evolution of irrigation. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Summer runoff constitutes around 10% of the annual runoff. In order to preserve the aquatic environment, it is estimated that not more than 0.5 liters per second per km2 should be taken from the dry season discharge. Considering these water resources, the irrigation potential is estimated at 150,000 ha. In the coastal areas it is not possible to irrigate without the construction of reservoirs.

caption Figure 5: Origin of irrigation water. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

All irrigation is sprinkler irrigation. Different types of sprinkler irrigation systems have been constructed during the last 20 years, depending on the scheme size and technological improvements. The large irrigation systems were generally of poor quality and were soon abandoned. During the 1980s, only drag hose irrigation systems were used. The area equipped for irrigation reached almost 14,000 ha by the end of the 1970s, but was reduced to 3,680 ha in 1995 due to the liquidation of the kolkhoz and sovkhoz (Figure 4). More than 50% of the area equipped is reported to need rehabilitation. The irrigation areas are mainly located in the north and east of the country. All the area is irrigated by surface water, of which 80% by pumping in rivers and 20% from reservoirs (Figure 5). The main irrigated crops are pasture and vegetables.

caption Figure 6: Irrigation scheme size. (Source: FAO-Forestry)

Almost 70% of the irrigated areas are found in large-scale schemes, with areas between 100 and 300 ha each, while under 1% of the irrigated areas are in schemes of less than 10 ha each (Figure 6). The cost of the development of sprinkler irrigation schemes varies from $US 500/ha for large-scale schemes to $US 810/ha for small-scale schemes, while the average costs of operation and management (O&M) are estimated at $US 160/ha for large-scale schemes and $US 200/ha for small-scale schemes.

Institutional Environment

The main institutions involved in water resources management are:

  • The Ministry of Environment, with the Water Department, is responsible for the development of water legislation, the setting of water quality standards, the development of groundwater and surface water resources, and the management of water resources and water use.
  • The Regional Environmental Departments are responsible for the implementation of the water management policy in close cooperation with the municipalities.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture, with the Land Improvement Bureau, is responsible for land improvement and related problems.
  • The land and water associations are responsible for the operation, maintenance, and management of the drainage systems.

Trends in Water Resources Management

The restoration of Estonia's independence has brought with it significant changes in ownership and in the institutional framework of the economy. The transition process in the economy has caused changes in landownership. The large drainage systems have to be shared among new landowners, and land and water associations need to be established to oversee the operation, maintenance and management of the drainage systems.

A clearly defined government agricultural policy does not yet exist. As part of the agrarian reform, the former kolkhoz and sovkhoz were liquidated after 1 April 1993. They were replaced by around 1,200 joint stock companies, 700 cooperatives and private farms. In 1995, there were about 11,000 new private farms. It was expected that in 1995 the downward trend in agricultural production of the last few years would come to an end.

Only small-scale irrigation schemes (5-10 ha) with drag hose equipment are expected to be profitable. At present, farmers lack the large investment resources needed for new irrigation systems.

Intensive agriculture has led to an increase in nitrogen concentration in groundwater through the intensive use of fertilizers. A decline in the use of fertilizers in recent years seems to have already resulted in a decrease in the nitrogen concentration in groundwater wells. While deeper groundwater layers meet the existing drinking water standards, upper groundwater layers in many regions are still polluted with nitrogen components. Close to former military bases, groundwater is often polluted with oil products. The drastic reduction in economic activity since 1989 and the construction of new wastewater treatment plants have already reduced pollution considerably.

Further Reading

  • Water profile of Estonia, Food and Agriculture Organization.
  • World Factbook: Estonia, Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Economic Commission for Europe, Committee on Environmental Policy, United Nations. 1996. Environmental performance reviews: Estonia 1996. Geneva, New York. 102 p.
  • Ministry of Environment. 1996. Estonian environment 1995. Estonian Information Centre, Tallinn.
  • Punning, J.M., editor. 1996. Estonia in the system of global climate change. Institute of Ecology, Tallinn. 206 p.
  • Statistical Office of Estonia. 1996. Statistical yearbook of Estonia 1996. Tallinn.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Food and Agriculture Organization. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Food and Agriculture Organization should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2007). Water profile of Estonia. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156940


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