National Audit Office: land improvement subsidies should be allocated primarily where the expected production growth is the highest and environmental damage the smallest

Priit Simson | 5/20/2020 | 9:12 AM

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TALLINN, 20 May 2020 – An analysis by the National Audit office showed that the end of the service life of many of the Estonian land improvement systems is near, but it will take more than a hundred years to fix up all the systems at the current level of land improvement subsidies and the pace of fixing up the systems. Given that more than half of Estonian agricultural lands are equipped with land improvement systems, it means that a decision will have to be made in the near future on whether to increase funding or make a choice as to which land improvement systems should be maintained and renovated and which should not. The National Audit Office is of the opinion that the current uniform mechanism of allocating support needs to be amended: land improvement subsidies should be allocated primarily where the expected production growth is the highest and environmental damage the smallest.

In its audit “Sustainability of Measures for Rehabilitating Land Improvement Systems”, the National Audit Office concludes that the renovation or renewal of all the land improvement systems is probably not realistic as it would require an unrealistically large amount of money. Besides, low-value lands were also drained during the Soviet area, some of which would probably not be drained at present. 

The average lifespan of a land improvement system is 30–50 years. 83% of the existing land improvement systems are more than 30 years old. If we look at the most significant part of the land improvement systems – jointly used large recipients managed by the state –, the renewal work would be completed in 70 years at the current pace. Funding for maintenance work, and even more so for the renewal, of artificial recipients managed by the state has decreased in recent years. The state has undertaken the obligation to maintain and renovate jointly used large recipients, and the respective works are organised by the Agricultural Board. So far, keeping to the schedule of maintenance and renewal has not been achieved.

The National Audit Office is pointing out that a motivation scheme is required in order to establish land improvement associations. At the moment, associations have been established for the management of land improvement systems of an average of only 20% of agricultural lands and the number is declining – only half of the associations surveyed are planning to continue as an association. This carries a risk that land improvement systems will go without maintenance.

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, the Agricultural Board should carry out more scheduled supervision of land improvement management work. Failure to maintain land improvement systems should also be taken into account when granting support. The Land Improvement Act obligates the owner of the land to maintain the land improvement system. The survey conducted by the Estonian University of Life Sciences in 2014–2018 shows, however, that wells and drain mouths are clogged and culverts are in poor condition partly due to the failure to maintain them, and this worsens the quality of agricultural land.

In particular, the Agricultural Board should focus on those landowners and land improvement associations whose systems have gone long without maintenance. At present, we have not been demanding enough with respect to them as evidenced also by the small number of precepts issued in the course of supervision. “The state indirectly pays for the work that has not been done in land improvement, for example with support for crop failure,” Auditor General Janar Holm commented on the topic. “It seems irrational that the state’s support for crop failure is paid equally to those who maintain land improvement systems and to those who do not do so.”

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, support for land improvement systems needs to be better targeted – preference should be given to those soils where the renewal and renovation of the drainage system leads to higher cultivation value. Land improvement on peat soils should not be supported on equal grounds with others because the peat layer breaks down during drainage and generates greenhouse gas emissions.

The maintenance and renovation and use of land improvement systems in protected areas may endanger protected species and their habitats. It is therefore important to substantially assess the impact of land improvement work on conservation values and do everything possible to avoid or mitigate environmental damage – in particular, to plan work at a time and in a manner that damages natural values to a lesser degree. The audit of the National Audit Office showed that the cooperation of the Agricultural Board and the Environmental Board in mitigating such risks has not always been effective enough, which is why the movement of sediments caused by the maintenance and renovation of a land improvement system may lead to the destruction of a habitat of a protected species or spawning area in a protected river. “In certain cases, it may be necessary to abandon the restoration of a land improvement system due to environmental protection,” said Auditor General Janar Holm. “It is important to mitigate the harmful environmental impact of renewal work foremost in rivers that are registered as habitats of the salmonidae family and where the state is responsible for the maintaining and renewal of the jointly used large recipients.”

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, a lot more attention should be given to the planning and designing of environmental facilities that reduce the pollution load of water bodies in the course of renewal and renovation of land improvement systems. Nitrogen and phosphorus residues leached during field cultivation are an important cause of the eutrophication in Estonian inland and coastal waters. Nitrogen and phosphorus reach water bodies as well as groundwater through land improvement systems.

The National Audit Office is pointing out that because information on diffuse pollution is lacking in the current water management plans and management plans for land improvement systems, it is not clear where facilities should be planned for the protection of the environment. Both the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment need more detailed information on the pollution load from agriculture and the efficiency of the operation of environmental facilities.

The National Audit Office is concerned that land improvement water is discharged directly into groundwater in some areas. The National Audit Office pointed out already in the course of the audit of 2017 that there are 20 locations in Estonia where drainage water is discharged into the karst, through which agricultural pollution also directly reaches groundwater. However, only two sites have an environmental monitoring well that enables measuring the accompanying groundwater pollution. At the same time, surveys show that the nitrate-sensitive area contains excessive nitrogen pollution and residues of plant protection products in groundwater.

The audit revealed that supported projects have helped to establish sediment basins that are necessary for reducing sediment-related pollution, but these are not effective in reducing nitrogen pollution leaching from the field. However, there are few other environmental facilities. In land improvement systems, sediment basins, treatment areas and artificial wetlands can be used to prevent water pollution from agriculture. Controlled drainage also helps to retain nutrients in the field for a longer period of time together with water, reducing the nitrogen load in water bodies by up to 50 percent. According to the information received from the Agricultural Board, nine large wetland treatment systems are in use in Estonia, but only three of these meet the requirements provided for in legal acts. For comparison: hundreds of wetland treatment systems are known to have been established in Finland. In Estonia, too, particularly in areas where a large volume of nutrient residues is likely to leach from the field, the need to establish other environmental facilities aside from sediment basins in renewing and renovating land improvement systems should be analysed in order to minimise the agricultural pollution on the aquatic environment.


More than half of Estonia’s arable land has been drained at one point in time, and the continued operation of land improvement systems ensures that the cultivation value of land is preserved. There are land improvement systems on 1.3 million ha of land, of which 0.6 million ha is agricultural land and 0.7 million ha is forest land. The majority of land improvement systems were built in 1960–1980, and their estimated service life (30–50 years) is running out. Support for the renewal and renovation of land improvement system is given pursuant to the Estonian Rural Development Plan 2014–2020. The construction, renewal and renovation of systems is supported. In 2014–2020, the Agricultural Registers and Information Board is supporting the renewal and renovation of agricultural and forest land improvement systems with 42 million euros on the basis of Measure 4.3.2 of the Rural Development Plan. In 2007–2019, a total of 83,000 ha of land improvement systems were renewed and renovated. The Agricultural Board is requesting funds for the maintenance and renewal of jointly used large recipients from the state budget and the Agricultural Register and Information Board (Measure 4.3.1 of the Rural Development Plan). In 2014–2020, the renewal of jointly used large recipients is supported with approximately 7 million euros.

In the state forest, the renewal and reconstruction of forest drainage systems is organised by the State Forest Management Centre, which has maintained and renovated an average of 20,000 ha of forest drainage systems per year and invested approx. 19 million euros a year in the reconstruction of drainage systems and related forest roads (incl. forest roads adjacent to drainage ditches). The State Forest Management Centre does not receive support for draining the state forest. Forest land improvement projects of private forest owners are supported by the Estonian Private Forest Centre, whose 2020 budget for this is 250,000 euros.


Priit Simson
Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia
Phone +372 640 0777;
+372 5615 0280
[email protected];
[email protected]

  • Posted: 5/20/2020 9:12 AM
  • Last Update: 5/20/2020 9:56 PM
  • Last Review: 5/20/2020 9:56 PM

Area of renewed/reconstructed improvement systems of agricultural land in 2008–2019

National Audit Office according to the data of the Agricultural Board

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