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The Water Framework Directive at 18: Future Directions and Emerging Challenges

May 4, 2018

Image: Jim Liestman | Flickr Creative Commons

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the foundation of European Union water policy. Adopted in 2000, the WFD provides a policy framework for European member states to monitor, assess and manage their aquatic ecosystems. However, despite widespread improvements in the monitoring, conservation and restoration of rivers and lakes across Europe, the WFD has not yet achieved its primary objective: the good ecological status of all European freshwaters.

Part of the rationale for the MARS project’s work over the last four years has been to assess the success of the WFD in addressing contemporary issues for European water management. When the WFD was designed and developed in the 1990s, the issues facing Europe’s rivers and lakes were somewhat different to today. Strong single stressors such as nutrient pollution and water abstraction were common across the continent. In the time since, the challenge of multiple stressors – where stressors act in tandem, causing complex interactions and ecological impacts – has emerged.

Similarly, new challenges such as the pollution of microplastics and synthetic chemicals into water bodies means that water managers need to stay alert to the possible impacts of emerging stressors. However, new water body monitoring techniques for both ecological health and stress – such as those used for dissolved chemical ‘cocktails’ in the SOLUTIONS project – are being developed, providing new opportunities for effective water management.


Microplastics. Image: Florida Sea Grant | Flickr Creative Commons

A formal EU ‘fitness check’ evaluation of the WFD in the context of these developments is due in Autumn 2019. Ahead of this assessment, MARS researchers have published a policy brief providing recommendations for the future implementation and evaluation of European water policy. They identify four key areas to be addressed:

Monitoring and assessment systems

The researchers argue that whilst the WFD has significantly advanced the environmental monitoring and assessment of European water bodies, there are a number of problems with the current approach. They suggest that the strategic design of monitoring networks can be improved across the continent, and that monitoring the ecological effects of restoration management can be enhanced, for example, by using ‘early responding indicator’ species and metrics.

They highlight the concern that the WFD assessment uses overly strict criteria to define success, in which the overall ecological status of a water body is determined by the lowest of its biological, physical and chemical quality elements – potentially obscuring a more nuanced picture of the ecosystem. Finally, they outline the value of incorporating new monitoring tools such as earth observation, genomics, automated monitoring platforms and citizen science into WFD assessment, where appropriate.

Management measures

River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) are a key WFD management tool. They are based on ecosystem monitoring data and outline management plans for entire river basins, addressing not only water bodies but also the drivers of environmental stress such as agriculture, hydropower and flood protection. In their policy brief, MARS researchers suggest that RBMPs can be improved through more targeted planning and implementation of measures to manage the emerging impacts from multiple stressors across Europe.

They highlight the availability of data and diagnostic tools to identify stressors and their interactions (such as those developed by MARS), which can help design effective and cost-effective management measures. They outline the value of trait-based diagnostic tools which can help diagnose the mechanisms behind environmental degradation; and of ecosystem service indicators which can provide powerful messages to the public and policy makers about the benefits of freshwater conservation and restoration.


Agricultural terraces in the Douro River Basin, Portugal. Image: Malcolm Payne | Flickr Creative Commons

Policy integration

The MARS researchers argue that there is a need to harmonise and integrate the objectives and management of the WFD with other key European policy frameworks. One key policy relationship is with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Diffuse pollution and habitat degradation as a result of agricultural activity are common pressures across the continent, and there is a need to make farming increasingly ‘water friendly’. A key aspect of this is in regulating pollution events, in terms of who should bear the cost of measures to restore ecological status and flood protection, when the source and impact of pollution events can be geographical dispersed.

The authors highlight the need to better account for climate change in the WFD, stating that drought and water scarcity are poorly addressed in the WFD. They suggest that the Floods Directive could be brought into the WFD, and synergies over natural flood protection measures could be emphasised. Finally, the MARS researchers suggest that bringing an ecosystem services approach into the WFD could help integrate land and water policy goals, and make explicit the costs and benefits of conserving and restoring natural capital.

Beyond 2027

A key message of the new policy brief is that whilst the WFD is the ‘most important step even taken towards sustainable water management in Europe’, there is the pressing need to make sure it is ‘future proof’ and can address new and emerging water management issues.

The third and final WFD River Basin Management Cycle ends in 2027. The authors suggest that it is unlikely that Europe’s water bodies will have reached good ecological status – a key aim of the WFD – by this date. This is largely because the ecological effects of ecosystem restoration can take many years to occur.

The authors argue that there is thus a pressing need to decide on the future of the River Basin Management mechanism beyond 2027. In short, there needs to be a framework in place to encourage European member states to continue to monitor, conserve and restore their rivers and lakes after 2027. They conclude that, ‘An extension of the River Basin Management mechanism, keeping the ambitious targets, and restricting the option to apply further time exemptions, is now required to make the WFD future proof.’


Read the new MARS policy brief, “Future of the Water Framework Directive: What have we learned and how do we adapt to new challenges?”

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