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Going Against the Flow: documentary investigations into EU water law

February 23, 2022
Frame from Nicolas Barbier’s Going With the Flow documentary series (2021–22)

European law stipulates that EU Member States should aim to achieve good ‘status’ for all their surface and groundwater bodies. This goal is addressed largely through the Water Framework Directive, which guides environmental managers to monitor both ecological and chemical status in their national water bodies.

However, EU water bodies are not in good shape: according to the most recent assessment only around 40% of rivers, lakes and estuarine waters achieve good ecological status, and only 38% reach good chemical status. This is the result of shortcomings in environmental law, according to French investigative journalist Nicolas Barbier.

“In Europe, water quality in our rivers and groundwater, as well as the evolution of water law, tell us almost everything about our economic and political systems, about our relationships with our environment and others,” says Barbier. “We can simply look at water and its law to understand where we are as human communities.”

Barbier has investigated the factors shaping EU water quality since 2017, and has recently produced two documentaries titled Going Against The Flow to discuss his findings. “Today, the quality of water and aquatic ecosystems tends to take a back seat compared with climate change issues, not only in the press, but also in terms of EU, State and regional investments and policies,” Barbier says. “Yet, about 60% of all EU surface water bodies do not reach good chemical and ecological statuses. So we are clearly facing a real problem of lack of care for both water quality and aquatic ecosystems.”

One key motivation behind Barbier’s work is to critically communicate the wealth of European freshwater data available to the public. “There is tons of information on the state of Europe’s freshwaters available on the web,” he says. “Generally speaking though, the EU, EU member States, universities and scientific journals could do a better job to make it more accessible to the public. For example, most of the European Environment Agency’s publications and scientific articles aren’t attractive to the general population because they are too broad or too specific, too boring or because they lack clear, coherent and honest syntheses.”

The Going Against the Flow films form part of an ongoing series. “Their main purpose is to demonstrate how critical current water law is in the sad state of most of our European water bodies,” says Barbier. In the films, Barbier highlights a series of legal ‘loopholes’ which restrict the effectiveness of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. For example, he notes how evaluations of chemical pollution are restricted to the concentrations of 53 substances, despite the potential presence and mixing of thousands of chemical pollutants.

“The film series addresses all these legal loopholes,” says Barbier, who has a PhD in geography. “It addresses them in depth so that people understand that the content of the law is the main problem that contributes to the poor state of most European water bodies.”

Barbier’s film series is not only educational, it is intended to inspire positive environmental action. “In the EU, there is very little incentive in universities for students in environmental sciences, environmental and legal studies to think about ways to improve EU laws and policies related to the quality of water and aquatic ecosystems,” he states. “How do you change a law that needs to be changed if the youth has very little opportunity to be creative about these critical issues? I would like this docuseries to participate in the recognition that we need students and other people to put forward ideas and solutions to change EU water laws.”

The Going Against the Flow films are both provocative and instructive: they prompt multiple questions about the effectiveness of EU laws in protecting European freshwaters. Moreover, their use of aerial footage of European freshwaters is useful in visualising the different categories of water bodies, such as ‘heavily modified’ or ‘artificial’, used by environmental managers.

You can keep up to date with forthcoming Going Against the Flow films here.

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