Back in 2000, the EU adopted extensive legislation to better protect and preserve the sources of our water – the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). The law obliges all EU countries to achieve good status for EU water bodies by 2015, and 2027 at the very latest.
The WFD is one of the most important pieces of EU environmental legislation ever to pass. It recognises that modifying or degrading our waters comes at a price and, if we want to ensure we have enough clean water in the future, we must take good care of our rivers, lakes, wetlands, groundwater streams and coastal waters. That’s why it is so important to keep this law strong - but it is currently under threat!
The WFD is one of the most holistic and progressive EU environmental policies to date. It recognises that, if we are to have enough good quality water in the future, we must look after our freshwater ecosystems.
Exploiting our freshwater ecosystems ALWAYS comes at a price. For example, dams and other infrastructure (such as for the purposes of hydropower, flood defence and navigation) change a river’s natural flow and stop species from reproducing. Unsustainable agriculture pollutes freshwater ecosystems and dries them out by using too much water - this destroys the habitats of vulnerable species and important services (such as purifying our water and storing carbon, irrigating crops and protecting us from floods!).
The WFD identifies all of these so-called ‘pressures’ on our freshwater ecosystems and tackles them in one integrated plan. In doing so, the law aims to reverse the trend of deterioration of our waters, and the decline of the wildlife they house.
Over the past 18 years, the WFD has proved to be an effective, flexible and modern piece of legislation. Where properly implemented, there have been clear improvements in the health of our waters – particularly with regards to some pollutants. Moreover, thanks to this law, decision-makers have a much clearer idea of how important these ecosystems are, of their current state, and of things which make them unhealthy. The WFD has also been instrumental in ensuring public participation in water-related decision making.
To be effective, laws have to be strong both on paper and in practice – and the WFD has so far been poorly implemented by EU Member States. As a result, the WFD’s initial objective of achieving good status for all Europe’s waters by 2015 was missed by a very long shot.
Every piece of EU legislation undergoes a fitness check after it has been in force for a number of years. The aim is to evaluate whether it is still “fit for purpose” by looking into whether it is still relevant for meeting the objectives, adds value at European level, and is generally effective and consistent with other policies.
The fitness check of the WFD officially started in 2018 and is expected to conclude in 2019 with a “Fitness Check Report” of the European Commission. After the report is published, the Council of the EU (which is composed of EU Member States) and the European Parliament will have an opportunity to react on the Commission’s conclusions.
The fitness check of EU water legislation covers the WFD, as well as the WFD’s associated or ‘daughter’ Directives (the Groundwater Directive and Environmental Quality Standards Directive), and the Floods Directive. At the same time the European Commission is also evaluating the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, implementation of which is also part of the framework.
Member States all have different reasons for wanting to weaken the WFD and this depends on the pressures that their waters are under. However, they do have some shared characteristics:
Full implementation of the WFD requires commitment and appropriate funding. However, instead of investing in nature conservation and taking the required actions to protect and restore their rivers, Member States are favouring short-term political efforts in other areas (unrelated to water, of course). Moreover, Member States have not conducted analyses that would show how reaching the WFD’s targets could benefit society at large, for example, in terms of people’s health and wellbeing.
FEAR OF INFRINGEMENT PROCEDURES
Member States missed their initial objective of bringing all waters to good status by 2015 by a very long shot – so they’re now feeling the pressure and need to step up their game in order to achieve the WFD’s objectives by 2027 (the final deadline). If they don’t, the European Commission could take them to court by opening a so-called ‘infringement procedure’. Fearing these consequences, Member States prefer to opt for the easy way out: weakening the requirements and introducing greater flexibility for themselves.
VESTED ECONOMIC INTERESTS AND PRESSURE FROM POWERFUL LOBBIES
Agriculture and industry (e.g. hydropower/energy companies, flood defence construction, and navigation/shipping) are sectors which have a huge negative impact on our waters, and thus have a strong vested interest in having a weaker regulatory framework. For instance, certain destructive hydropower, grey flood management or navigation projects, which do not benefit society, economy or nature, are currently not permitted under the WFD.
Furthermore, agriculture uses a lot of water unsustainably for irrigation and excessively pollutes rivers with nitrates and pesticides. Under the WFD, however, these pressures must be managed, and users and polluters, including agriculture, must contribute their fair share to the financial and environmental costs of the water services they receive. Essentially, the WFD requires change in the unsustainable practices of these industries and sectors, which they are unwilling to carry out.