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Water Framework Directive declared 'fit for purpose'

December 17, 2019
The upper reaches of the Danube River. The transboundary management of the Danube catchment by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River is a WFD ‘success story’. Image: Heinz Bunse | Flickr Creative Commons

European water policy continues to be ‘fit for purpose’ in protecting and restoring the continent’s rivers and lakes, according to a new review by the European Commission. Adopted in 2000, the Water Framework Directive (or WFD) is the European Union’s flagship water policy. It requires member states to guide their rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwaters to ‘good ecological status’ through environmental policy and management, and prevent any future deterioration of status.

The European Commission recently concluded a two-year ‘fitness check’ evaluation of the effectiveness of WFD in meeting its objectives, alongside that of its linked water policies, the Groundwater Directive, Environmental Quality Standards Directive, and the Floods Directive. The WFD is now 20 years old, and its third cycle of River Basin Management Plans will run from 2022-2027.

The Water Framework Directive fitness check

The report’s verdict is mixed. On one hand, it highlights that the WFD has been successful in setting a governance framework for integrated water management of more than 110,000 EU water bodies. Since its adoption, the WFD has prompted EU nations to slow down the deterioration of their water bodies, and to reduce chemical pollution. Its continental monitoring network has also led to a significant increase in knowledge of European aquatic ecosystems, the report highlights.

However, no substantial progress in improving the overall status of European water bodies has been made. The report outlines that the implementation of the WFD has been significantly delayed, and less than half of all European water bodies are in ‘good ecological status’, despite the original deadline set for reaching this target being 2015. The report states that this is “largely due to insufficient funding, slow implementation and insufficient integration of environmental objectives in sectoral policies, and not due to a deficiency in the legislation.”

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said: “Our water legislation is strong and able to protect both water quality and quantity, also in view of the new challenges from climate change and emerging pollutants, such as microplastics and pharmaceuticals. But more than half of all European water bodies are not yet in good status, and the challenges for Member States are more than substantial. We now need to accelerate the implementation of what we have agreed. The momentum of the European Green Deal will allow us to make such a leap forward.”

Diffuse nutrient pollution from agriculture is a common stressor on freshwater ecosystems, potentially causing eutropic algal blooms. Image: Dana L. Brown | Flickr Creative Commons

Challenges for European water policy

Improving the good status of European water bodies doesn’t only depend on measures required by the WFD, but also those in other EU legislation such as the Nitrates Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Crucially, it also relies on the integration of water policy goals into other areas such as agriculture, energy and transport. Water is such a vital resource, with numerous (and sometimes competing) types of uses and users across Europe. Attempting to guide industry and agriculture towards ‘water-friendly’ approaches remains a key challenge for European water policy.

The report suggests that insufficient national funding can hamper WFD implementation, stating that Member States often propose management measures based on their existing budgets and policies, rather than tailoring them to the scale and extent of the pressures affecting their water bodies. This can lead to insufficient action to address the multiple pressures affecting water bodies, and an over-reliance on “easy technological fixes” such as reducing point source pollution, whilst leaving diffuse pollution sources unaddressed, the report states.

The design of the WFD is a balancing act between allowing Member States to implement measures tailored to their local conditions, whilst at the same time ensuring harmonised water management across national borders. The report suggests that the transboundary nature of many water issues can stand in the way of enforcing the WFD and holding Member States accountable for the ambition of their own water policies.

The resulting variation in policy ambition and effectiveness across Member States is one of the three key deficiencies in European water policy identified by the report. The others are: a need to update the list of priority pollutant substances (a significant challenge given the number of new synthetic chemicals entering water bodies); and to better integrate knowledge on multiple stressor interactions, particularly in the Groundwater Directive and Environmental Quality Standards Directive. The report finds that the Floods Directive (for which management plans started in 2016) has improved several aspects of flood risk management in Europe, but that ongoing efforts are required to tailor its implementation to future climate change projections.

Scientific and public support for European water policy

The report is published in the wake of the European Environmental Agency’s State of the Environment 2020 report, which identifies the WFD as a key policy tool for tackling biodiversity loss across Europe. There is also support for strong European water policy from both scientists and the public. Last week, an open letter from over 5,500 scientists emphasised the value of the WFD, and the need to ‘step up’ its implementation to conserve and restore European freshwater ecosystems.

In March, over 375,000 people supported the NGO-led #ProtectWater campaign, which demands that the European Commission and EU governments improve the implementation and enforcement of the WFD. The #ProtectWater campaign encouraged citizens’ participation in the public consultation process of the newly published ‘fitness check’.

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office and Chair of the Living Rivers Europe coalition, said:
“By signing off the Water Framework Directive as fit for purpose, the European Commission is standing shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of thousands of European citizens, scientists and civil society groups who have all championed the WFD over the past two years.

“As the results point out, slow implementation is to blame for not having yet reached the WFD’s objectives. The Commission now needs to put its money where its mouth is. It must ensure that Member States submit ambitious plans and concrete actions to achieve the law’s objectives by 2027, and that this is supported by dedicated funding.”

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Read the Fitness Check of the Water Framework Directive and the Floods Directive online here.

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