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Developing European freshwater science and policy: insights from the GLOBAQUA project

May 8, 2017

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GLOBAQUA is an EU-funded project which investigates the effects of water scarcity on aquatic ecosystems in Europe. It aims to identify multiple stressors interactions caused by water scarcity, in order to improve knowledge of relationships between multiple stressors and to improve water management practices and policies.

In this week’s blog, two GLOBAQUA scientists – Nick Voulvoulis and Daniel Von Schiller – give updates on the project’s progress on informing the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, and in measuring ecosystem functioning in rivers.

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GLOBAQUA and the implementation of the Water Framework Directive
Nick Voulvoulis

The ultimate goal of GLOBAQUA is to explore how current EU freshwater policy will need to be adapted to minimise the ecological, economical and societal consequences of water scarcity and ongoing global change.

EU freshwater policy contains other elements, but the Water Framework Directive (WFD), is of over-arching importance. The Directive was adopted to replace traditional management practices, predicated upon the “command and control” paradigm that looked at pressures in isolation and reduced environmental systems to their constituent elements when setting specific water objectives.

Its introduction aimed to facilitate a shift from these policies to a holistic approach integrating all parts of the wider environmental system. Acknowledging that catchments differ from each other in terms of both socio-political and natural conditions, it signified a shift towards river basin management and systems thinking.

The WFD was recognised as the first European Directive that focused on environmental sustainability, and its introduction and innovations created a revolutionary prestige for the Directive, which was considered as a potential template and pilot for future environmental regulations.

However, fifteen years after the WFD was introduced, achieving its objectives remains a challenge. Despite some good progress, nearly half of EU surface waters (47%) did not reach the good ecological status in 2015 – a central objective of EU water legislation. In essence, the WFD has been criticised due to the limited progress in delivering water quality improvements across Europe.

In order to understand the problems with the WFD implementation, policy analysis and research undertaken within GLOBAQUA has been summarised in a first set of policy briefs. The briefs shed light on why the great expectations that came with the Directive have not yet been fully realised.

Key policy messages from GLOBAQUA:

  • The effectiveness of the WFD and its approach has been widely questioned due to the limited progress in delivering water quality improvements across Europe.
  • The absence of harmonised delivery of the WFD across Europe – seen as key to delivering good ecological status – was identified as a fundamental problem in its implementation.
  • The process of acquiring in-depth understanding of the catchment rather than the more traditional focus on policy compliance requires a fundamental shift to systems thinking.
  • Improving water status by managing pressures, improving participation and interdisciplinarity to address the complex issues associated with water management, all call for a transition towards systemic thinking that can only be achieved with real transformational change.
  • Implementing the WFD like any other directive is not going to work. Unless current implementation efforts are reviewed or revised, the fading aspirations of the initial great expectations could disappear for good.

GLOBAQUA system

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A toolbox for measuring ecosystem functioning in rivers
Daniel Von Schiller

River ecosystems are subject to multiple stressors that affect their structure and functioning. River ecosystem structure refers to characteristics such as channel form, water quality or the composition of biological communities, whereas ecosystem functioning refers to processes such as nutrient cycling, organic matter decomposition or secondary production.

Nowadays there is much more information on structural than functional characteristics, and despite the many methods available to measure river functional properties, only structural ones are routinely used by river managers. Although structure and functioning influence each other, their relationship is not straightforward and often one cannot be automatically inferred from the other. Furthermore, environmental stressors can affect structure and functioning in contrasting ways. Thus, lack of development and implementation of tools to measure ecosystem functioning prevents the complete assessment and understanding of river ecosystems and the services they provide.

GLOBAQUA toolbox

The GLOBAQUA toolbox

The GLOBAQUA toolbox is a critical and synthetic compilation of methods to measure ecosystem functioning in rivers, which can be adapted to different objectives, situations, budgets and levels of expertise. The toolbox includes a description of the main characteristics of each method, the aspects of the ecosystem they address, the environmental stressors they are sensitive to, possible difficulties in their implementation, as well as their general advantages and disadvantages.

Current limitations, potential improvements and future steps in the development of the toolbox are also discussed. The toolbox is tailored for scientists as well as for routine monitoring by water managers. Our ultimate purpose is to contribute to a more functional perspective in river research and management. The toolbox is openly available and will be updated continuously through the inputs of GLOBAQUA researchers and other contributors.

GLOBAQUA toolbox 2

Schematic view of the GLOBAQUA toolbox

GLOBAQUA website

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