THE EU WATER LAW: WHAT'S AT STAKE?

The EU water law - the Water Framework Directive (WFD) - is one of the European Union’s strongest, most ambitious pieces of environmental legislation. But it is under attack from industry lobby groups and Member States, who are all pushing for devastating changes to be made to the law. The following images and stories capture what is at stake, and how a weaker WFD could impact on Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the people, nature and economies they sustain.

Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), Velka Fatra National park, Slovakia

 

Photo: Tomas Hulik

 

These beautiful and elusive wild cats are protected by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, but poaching and habitat destruction - which includes the degradation and noise pollution brought about by the construction of hydropower - remain a cause of concern in many areas.

 

Akrotiri Salt Lake, Cyprus

 

Photo: Albert Stoecker / BirdLife Cyprus

 

A hotspot for biodiversity and resting spot for flamingos, the site attracts thousands of migratory birds, who spend the winter months at the lake. An ecosystem-based conservation project, in combination with public engagement actions, took place from 2015 to 2017 to restore the area, contributing to the achievement of the Water Framework Directive’s objectives.

Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis), Finland

 

Photo: Mervi Kunnasranta / WWF

 

Saimaa ringed seals are extremely rare and can only be found in Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest freshwater lake. Fewer than 400 of these seals remain. The Water Framework Directive ensures that critical habitats like Lake Saimaa are kept healthy.

Talvivaara nickel mine disaster, Finland

 

Photo: Antti Lankinen, under license from Creative Commons

 

A cocktail of poisonous chemicals leaks from Finland’s Talvivaara nickel mine to the surrounding rivers and lakes - one of the country’s most notorious corporate environmental crimes cases.

 

Mining activities have a disastrous impact on freshwater ecosystems, and lobby groups are pushing to weaken the high environmental standards of the Water Framework Directive to allow even more projects to go ahead.

Pollution from the old, now obsolete, Băiuț mine into the Lăpuş River, Romania, 2018

 

Photo: axanews.ro

 

The spill was caused by a breach in the dam at the entrance of the mine’s old gallery. In a matter of minutes, the red water flooded wide areas nearby. Loaded with heavy metals, the pollution had a severe impact on freshwater wildlife. The state of Romania should invest in the ecological rehabilitation of obsolete mines, which cause pollution spills after heavy rain, in line with the Water Framework Directive.

Low water of the Rhine River near Düsseldorf, Germany, 2018

 

Photo: AL-Travelpicture / iStockphoto.com

 

Last summer’s severe drought rendered the river impassable to ships and, as a result, dented German economic growth. The frequency and intensity of droughts is set to increase in the face of climate change. The Water Framework Directive was designed with ecosystem balance at its heart, and the understanding that governments must sustainably manage their rivers, lakes and groundwater to ensure a sustainable supply of good quality water for the health and prosperity of their citizens and nature.

Doñana National Park, Spain

 

Photo: Diego López / WWF Spain

 

The site harbours one of the world’s most iconic wetlands and pit-stops for migratory birds. Despite this, aggressive and, often, illegal irrigation and pollution are taking place in the park for the intensive production of strawberries and blueberries. Earlier this year, the European Commission decided to take Spain to the European Court of Justice over the serious deterioration of the wetland, and for failing to implement the Water Framework Directive and Birds and Habitats Directives.

Douro River Basin, Douro Valley, Portugal

 

Photo: p35 / Diogo Branco

 

The Douro contributes greatly to Portugal's wine trade and tourism, which this secluded part of the country is dependent on. People travel by boat to see the vineyard-laden mountains, hopping off at local farms for a sampling (or two). But the river basin has been severed by more than 70 large dams between Spain and Portugal, which are threatening the survival of species and people's livelihoods alike. Businesses like rafting companies have had to start over on new stretches of the river numerous times, and have become discouraged from investing further in the area.

Dead fish are pulled out of the River Tisza, Hungary, 2000

 

Photo: Nigel Dickinson / WWF

 

Poisoned dead fish are collected from the River Tisza following a case of cyanide pollution

 

This photo was taken around the same time that the Water Framework Directive came into effect, and shows the drastic need for EU countries to clean up their rivers, lakes and wetlands.

Acheloos River, Greece

 

Photo: dinosmichail / iStockphoto.com

 

The river has been the site of a battle against a water transfer project dating back to the 1980s, which would involve the construction of four dams. The destructive scheme has been blocked through six court rulings, most recently thanks to the Water Framework Directive.

Rhine River, Germany

 

Photo: picture-alliance/ Keystone / M.Duchene

 

Fish swim at the water's edge in search of shade and cooler temperatures. The 2018 heatwave caused the water to rise to 27 degrees, killing thousands of fish. As global warming worsens, it is vital for governments to ensure healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands - these are far more resilient, and can buffer and mitigate the impacts of climate change by absorbing carbon and acting as natural flood defence.

European otter (Lutra lutra), National Park of Abruzzo, Italy

 

Photo: R.Isotti, A.Cambone / Homo Ambiens / WWF

 

The species is currently classified as near threatened by IUCN, due to pressures such as pollution and the construction of destructive infrastructure, like dams. When fully implemented, the Water Framework Directive ensures that habitats such as these are kept healthy or are cleaned up so that they are able to house a rich array of biodiversity once more.

Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), Danube River

 

Photo: WWF / Lubomir Hlasek

 

This ancient species live in the sea and migrate to spawn in rivers. Their spawning runs in the Danube and the Volga used to be legendary- up to 2,500 km. But today, their migration is a fraction of its former glory due to impassible dams like the Iron Gates complex in Serbia and Romania. Under the Water Framework Directive, governments are required to put a stop to harmful projects like these, and remove dams or barriers which are considered obsolete or environmentally destructive.

Marsh frog (Rana ridibunda), Drava River, Croatia

 

Photo: Goran Šafarek

 

The Drava is one of Europe’s last free-flowing river. Following a year-long campaign led by environmental groups, the planned construction of several hydropower dams was successfully halted. The dams would have destroyed the area’s exceptional biodiversity, increased the risk of flooding, impacted on communities living near the river, and caused a deterioration in water quality, which is not permitted under the Water Framework Directive.

Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), Croatia

 

Photo: Goran Šafarek

 

Terns can be found in almost all parts of the world, on seashores as well as on river banks. Most are migratory birds that spend their winters in warmer southern regions. The Water Framework Directive ensures the same minimum water quality standards across Europe, which enable migratory birds like these to safely use fresh and coastal waters as their habitat.

Removal of the Sindi Dam, Pärnu River, Estonia

 

Photo: Ministry of Environment, Estonia

 

The Pärnu River is historically the biggest salmon river in Estonia. But the Sindi Dam - at 151m wide and 4.5m high - was a major (and now obsolete) obstacle. Its removal is part of an ongoing historical river restoration project in Estonia that will remove 8-10 dams and open up 3,300 km of river basin. The majority of these dam removals are funded by the European Union, thanks to the Water Framework Directive's strict obligation to not just protect but also restore freshwater ecosystems across Europe.

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), Austria

 

Photo: Leopold Kanzler

 

Beavers requires year-round access to water, such as slow-flowing rivers, streams, or lakes, surrounded by woodlands. The Water Framework Directive protects these critical habitats, obliging Member States to clean them up by 2027 at the very latest.

Brown bear (Ursus arctos), Finland

 

Photo: Ola Jennersten / WWF Sweden

 

Despite brown bear populations having been in decline over the past 500 years - mainly as a result of habitat loss - they are now slowly recovering. However, this hopeful trend could be at risk should the Water Framework Directive be weakened, given how dependent the species is on healthy rivers and lakes for a large part of its diet.

Mura River, Slovenia

 

Photo: Matevž Lenarčič

 

The river was recently saved from plans to construct many hydropower dams across the river, which would have transformed a healthy, free-flowing river into a series of lifeless reservoirs. The planned dams violated Slovenian law, as well as the Water Framework Directive and Birds and Habitats Directives.

Belgrade, Serbia, 2019

 

Photo: Radomir Duvnjak, via the Blue Heart of Europe campaign

 

Thousands take to the streets to protest against the planned construction of hundreds of hydropower plants. More than 850 are planned in Serbia alone, about 200 of which in nature reserves. The image captures the growing awareness of the true value of freshwater ecosystems in EU and accession countries, which is also reflected in the 375,000+ citizens from across the region who called on the European Commission to keep the Water Framework Directive in its current form.

Weser River, Germany

 

Photo: Georg Witschorke / BUND

 

Since the 1880s, the flow of the river has been drastically changed due to river dredging to enable ships to navigate upstream, which has had a drastic ecological impact. Parts of the river, though, are still relatively untouched, and are under protection. In 2006, additional river dredging was planned, which would have threatened the few remaining natural areas of the river. Thanks to the Water Framework Directive, NGOs in Germany were able to stop this development because, under this law, EU Member States cannot allow the health of any water body to deteriorate further.

Removal of the Vezins Dam from the Selune River, France

 

Photo: Roberto Epple / ERN

In a historic moment for Europe’s rivers, the first breach was made in the 36 metre high Vezins Dam this summer – kick-starting the biggest dam removal in Europe so far. Under the Water Framework Directive, Member States are obliged to take measures to restore their rivers so they can be returned to good health by 2027. Removing old or obsolete dams is a highly effective way for them to meet their commitments under the legislation, as it helps to restore a river’s connectivity, facilitates the achievement of good or high status, and restores biodiversity and fish stocks.