In 2018, the European Commission launched an evaluation (known as a "fitness check") of EU water legislation. This included a public consulation. It was seeking as many views as possible from the public on how important freshwater ecosystems are, whether the EU legislation had caused a shift towards sustainable water management, and had led to improvements in the health of water bodies. The online consultation on the EU Water Framework Directive was launched on 17 September 2018 and all citizens and the wider community of stakeholders were asked to express their views. It closed on 13 March 2019.
As Living Rivers Europe, we suggested the following answers to the questions referring to the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and its two daughter directives, the Groundwater Directive and the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (also known as the Priority Substances Directive), as they represent the basic framework for the sustainable management of water in Europe. Moreover, many EU governments and sectors with vested economic interests wanted to weaken the WFD.
By participating in the online #ProtectWater campaign, citizens were able to send these responses on their behalf staight to the European Commission. A total of 375,386 people did so, making the EU’s public consultation on the Water Framework Directive one of the largest ever in the history of the European Union.
Part I – General public questionnaire
1. How do you assess the situation of Europe’s waters today?
Despite some improvements thanks to the Water Framework Directive, especially with regards to certain pollutants, the state of European waters is still poor. In fact, 60% of EU rivers, lakes and wetlands are currently unhealthy and fail to meet the Water Framework Directive’s “good status” objective. Whilst groundwater bodies are doing better in general, there are still significant problems in some parts of Europe.
2. When you think of water and its different uses and functions, which of the following do you consider as a priority?
If the WFD is implemented properly, there should be enough water to satisfy all legitimate water uses. Nevertheless, drinking water and sustaining ecosystems as the source of water for other users should be the priority when it comes to water allocation.
3. Do you feel that water is presently managed and used sustainably?
Member States currently show little ambition to tackle the main drivers of the unsustainable management of Europe’s water resources. The current implementation of the EU water law - which exists precisely to ensure the sustainable management and use of water - is characterised by the excessive use, and often misuse, of flexibilities which allow governments to postpone much-needed measures, lower objectives, or allow for destructive projects to go ahead. Moreover, the current management plans for river catchments are ineffective due to inappropriate planning by authorities and stakeholder participation, relying heavily on voluntary measures and not backed by sufficient funding to implement control measures and, as a consequence, fail to deliver the environmental objectives. Finally, big water users and polluters (e.g. farmers with unsustainable farming practices) are not paying their fair share to rectify the damage they have caused to the surrounding water environment, leaving the costs to be borne mainly by taxpayers and consumers through water bills.
6. Do you think the management of water resources in your country has improved since the introduction of the Water Framework Directive (2003) and the Floods Directive (2009)? Note that these are the dates these Directives were transposed into national legislation.
Yes, to some extent
Although EU water policy objectives have not yet been reached and the level of ambition in terms of sustainable water management remains low amongst Member States, the WFD has had a positive impact on management practices across Europe. Robust management structures have been put in place and our knowledge on the state of and pressures on rivers, lakes, wetlands, deltas, groundwater and coastal waters in the EU has substantially improved, as has the knowledge as to what the most cost-effective measures are to deal with these pressures. There has also been a substantial improvement in transparency in water management and in public participation, both of which are direct results of the WFD. Finally, we have witnessed progress in the level of cooperation between countries that share river basins, providing vital cross-border protection of freshwater ecosystems.
7. Do you think the quality of surface and groundwater in your country or region has improved since the introduction of the Water Framework Directive?
Yes, to some extent
Improvements are utterly dependent on the willingness of Member State to take the necessary actions to ensure their rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater are healthy and, where the WFD has been properly implemented, improvements have taken place. In general, we have seen that across Europe the combination of measures adopted under the WFD has led to reductions in pollution from urban, industrial and agricultural sources, as well as helped to prevent negative changes of natural conditions of ecosystems by stopping or adjusting some destructive infrastructure projects. There have been waves of freshwater ecosystem restorations across Europe and some restoration measures (e.g. certain dam removal projects) have had an immediate effect on the recovery of biodiversity.
8. Which of the following do you consider to be challenges to achieving good qualitative and/or quantitative status of surface/groundwater? (please give each issue a score between 5 and 1, where 5 =very significant obstacle, 4 = major obstacle, 3 = moderate obstacle, 2 = slight obstacle, 1 = not an obstacle. All issues should be scored if possible, but "Do not know/no opinion" may also be chosen).
Pollution of water
(a) urban and industrial waste water treatment plant effluents: 2 (Slight obstacle)
(b) agricultural use of fertilisers and manure: 5 (Very significant obstacle)
(a) microplastics: Do not know / No opinion
(b) pharmaceuticals: 3 (Moderate obstacle)
(c) other emerging pollutants: Do not know / No opinion
Freshwater ecosystems face numerous pressures. However those that represent a very significant obstacle to bringing and keeping surface and groundwater in good status are: pollution from agriculture, over-abstraction of aquifers and rivers (in large part due to unsustainable agricultural practices), and changes to the natural and physical conditions of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems due to hydropower, navigation, agriculture and flood management. In addition, the fact that major polluters and users are not being made to pay fairly for the damage they have caused (a strong requirement of the WFD which is not currently being complied with) is also a significant obstacles to keeping rivers, lakes, wetlands, coastal waters and groundwater healthy. The impact of emerging pollutants, including microplastics, on the achievement of the WFD’s goals has not yet been assessed.
9. What are the key challenges to water management in your country or region? Tick the most relevant challenges.
at most 5 choice(s)
There is a clear lack of political will from governments to effectively deal with the main pressures on their freshwater ecosystems, and this is by far the main challenge to sustainable water management in Europe. This low ambition is also a results of water not being high on the political agenda and healthy freshwater ecosystems being undervalued across the board. This is especially true in the case of holding the agricultural, energy and transport sectors to account. For instance, the EU agriculture policy promotes farming intensification, leading to pollution and over-abstraction. Energy policies promote and subsidise options like hydropower, despite the negative impact these have on biodiversity. Transport policies have been pushing poorly-located infrastructure development with little regard for freshwater species and their habitats. Not consulting, or at least not consulting a wide enough array of stakeholders (including environmental groups and the general public) on decisions relevant to the protection and restoration our waters also presents an obstacle to the necessary action, as does the lack of will to allocate funding for the needed measures.
11. What actions do you think have had the most impact on improving water quality and efficiency of water use since the Water Framework Directive was transposed into national legislation in 2003? (Please give each issue a score between 5 and 1, where 5 =very significant improvement, 4 = major improvement, 3 = moderate improvement, 2 = slight improvement, 1 = no improvement. All issues should be scored if possible, but "Do not know/no opinion" may also be chosen).
Measures that have proved to be the most effective in terms of the WFD’s objectives have been regulatory measures, such as restrictions in the use of certain polluting substances, the use of economic instruments, such as water tariffs, as well as the implementation of measures introduced by related EU legislation, such as the treatment of wastewater. The voluntary measures selected, especially with regards to agricultural pollution or over-abstraction, have been much less effective.
13. Are you concerned about the potential effects of climate change on water quality and water availability?
Yes, for both
14. Do you consider that enough is being done to counteract the effects of climate change on water quality and availability?
Our rationale (for answers to questions 13 and 14)
In many parts of Europe, and especially in the Mediterranean, climate change is likely to increase water demand but also diminish water supplies. In other parts of Europe, increases in runoff, flooding, or rising sea levels will be more of a problem, also affecting water quality and the infrastructure to supply drinking water. We are already witnessing these phenomena, and can expect them to intensify over the coming years. It should be noted that it is not only climate change but primarily the mismanagement of our water resources that leads to situations of water scarcity or the negative impacts of flooding. Governments will need to do much more to simultaneously meet the water needs not only of sustainable farming, energy producers and industry, but also increasing populations and freshwater ecosystems. The WFD is the perfect tool to meet this challenge.
22. How familiar are you with the following pieces of EU law and the requirements they entail?
Water Framework Directive: Moderately familiar
Groundwater Directive: Moderately familiar
Environmental Quality Standards Directive: Moderately familiar
Floods Directive: Moderately familiar
23. Have the above pieces of EU law contributed to the rivers and lakes being less polluted and safer than they were a decade ago?
Yes, to a large extent
We have seen a remarkable reduction in pollutants associated with urban and industrial wastewater (e.g. ammonium and phosphate) in most of Europe's rivers and lakes. A great majority of rivers and lakes that are suitable for bathing have also been assessed to be of good quality. However, challenges still remain, especially with regards to diffuse pollution from agriculture.
24. Have the above pieces of EU law contributed to the groundwater in your country being less polluted and safer than it was a decade ago?
Yes, to some extent
Because groundwater reacts less quickly to measures for tackling pollution than rivers and lakes, the decreasing trend in pollution is less visible in groundwater. Pressure from agriculture remains the persistent main cause of the poor state of Europe’s groundwater.
25. How do you assess the overall contribution of the above pieces of EU law to better management of water resources, including water quantity and availability?
The WFD has been the main driver in developing more stringent and ambitious national legislation for the sustainable use of water and protection of freshwater ecosystems from pollution, over-abstraction and negative changes to their natural conditions. Examples across Europe clearly demonstrate that, where it has been implemented correctly, the WFD has been the driving force behind improvements in water management and, subsequently, in the status of freshwater ecosystems, biodiversity, and the services these ecosystems provide for people, nature and economies. Whilst much more needs to be done to implement and enforce this law, the WFD is fit for the purpose for which it was designed.
26. How do you assess the overall contribution of the above pieces of EU law to the prevention of pollution of transitional and coastal waters (including fjords, estuaries, lagoons, deltas)?
The scope of the WFD allots the same level of protection from pollution to transitional and coastal waters as it does to rivers and lakes, and we have seen improvements in these waters with regards to chemical pollution. However, a relatively higher proportion of transitional and coastal waters than rivers and lakes are affected by pollution, indicating that Member States are not effectively addressing this pressure in fjords, estuaries, lagoons and deltas.
I care about the current and future state of our freshwater ecosystems and I agree with the environmental groups that the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) is fit for purpose, and it has delivered on protection and restoration of our waters, as well as yielded benefits for economy and society. Please consult my more detailed response on why the WFD is effective, efficient, relevant, coherent and of added value in the comment box of Part II of the survey.
As a citizen who cares about the environment, I am opposed to changing the WFD, and want to see its high standards upheld and met across Europe. Currently, Member States show little ambition in implementing the WFD. This is evident in ineffective river basin management plans, programmes of measures that are poorly delivered, insufficient funding allocated to implement control measures, and excessive use (and misuse) of various types of exemptions provided within the WFD. WFD needs full implementation by Member States, and enhanced enforcement from the European Commission.
Part II – Expert stakeholder questionnaire
1. To what extent has the implementation of the above Directives been effective in achieving the following objectives?
The effectiveness of the legislation goes hand in hand with how it has been implemented. Where an adequate combination of measures has been put in place (such as banning dangerous chemicals to reduce chemical pollution), the legislation has been moderately or very effective. More effective measures are needed to achieve other objectives, such as reducing nutrient pollution from agriculture.
3. To the best of your knowledge, are all the requirements of the Directives effectively implemented and enforced in your country?
If no, please give examples of the most significant implementation gaps for the relevant Directives:
Water Framework Directive:
Many governments have not implemented all the requirements yet. The selected voluntary measures are not effective, for example, to address agricultural pollution, or have no allocated funding to put them in place. Many governments have misused the flexibility mechanism in the WFD as a rule and allowed the objectives to be lowered, and also allowed for longer periods of time to bring our rivers, lakes and aquifers to good health. In addition, polluters have not been made to pay to rectify the damage they have caused to our water environment.
4. According to the Water Framework Directive, a water body is considered to be in good status only when all the relevant quality elements are in good status and the relevant quality standards for good status are met (the “one-out-all-out” principle). To which extent do you agree with the following statements:
The one-out-all-out is an important scientific principle of the WFD which means that if, for example, the status of fish is below the standard, a river or a lake cannot be considered healthy, even though its water quality has improved. However, authorities can communicate the progress they are making on tackling chemical pollution in that same river or lake, and this scientific principle does not stop them from justifying action but, rather, ensures that all water problems are addressed. It recognises that freshwater ecosystems are made up of complex, interconnected and interdependent relationships between species and physical processes, and embodies the precautionary principle in the face of uncertainty about how these complex webs of interactions and interdependencies operate.
17. In your view, is the cost recovery principle (Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive) applied in your country?
If no, or only to some extent, please give an explanation:
Although a great majority of Member States introduced or adjusted water pricing mechanisms to meet the WFD’s requirements, adequate water pricing remains a big challenge across the EU:
The legislation obliges countries to make polluters pay for the measures to address the problems they have caused. However, this has not happened yet and some governments have chosen to increase water bills rather than introduce adequate economic instruments where, for example, industrial-scale farmers that cause water pollution are made to pay.
24. Taking account of the objectives and benefits of the Water Framework Directive, is there evidence that the Directive has imposed a disproportionate administrative burden on authorities (national, regional or local), economic operators (e.g. industries, water companies), individual citizens or other parties?
The measures to bring our water environment back to health have a cost. However, the benefits healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands provide to us far outweigh these costs. The economic sectors responsible for the pressures on our waters have to implement measures to address those problems. There is no evidence that the WFD imposed disproportionate obligations. Moreover, the WFD has several legal mechanisms to ensure measures are not taken if they are deemed too costly or place too much of a burden on industry, e.g. hydropower producers.
34. Do you think the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, Environmental Quality Standards Directive, Groundwater Directive and Floods Directive has improved people’s appreciation of the importance of good water quality, for the sake of the environment and human health, and how it can be achieved?
To some extent
If no, or only to some extent, please give an explanation:
The WFD has established a number of relevant obligations that, if implemented properly, can improve people’s understanding and appreciation of the importance of water and ensure support for reaching the WFD’s objectives. However, despite some positive examples, the public participation requirements of the WFD have so far not been fully implemented. As such, the opportunities to properly communicate the benefits of healthy freshwater ecosystems, to make people part of the implementation of the ambitious WFD, and to foster societal/community support, have been often missed.
Due to obligations in the EU laws, we know much more about the status of our water environment, the problems that need to be solved, as well as where successes were possible in restoring floodplains to reduce flood damage or removing dams to allow fish to migrate again. The WFD also obliges governments to consult and involve citizens in making decisions about the future of their local rivers, lakes and coasts. However, governments have failed to adequately recognise the value of water and healthy ecosystems, which are still perceived primarily as sources of water and power. Critical benefits, such as freshwater fisheries, natural flood protection for cities, and sediment flows that keep the world’s deltas above the rising sea levels, are often overlooked.
37. Are any aspects of the Water Framework Directive, Environmental Quality Standards Directive, Groundwater Directive and Floods Directive now obsolete for achieving good status or flood risk reduction?
- Water Framework Directive: No
- Groundwater Directive: No
- Environmental Quality Standards Directive: No
- Floods Directive: No
The obligations set in the legislation remain relevant in the face of ever-increasing pressures on our water environment, growing demand for water, as well as the increasing frequency and intensity of floods and droughts. The EU water legislation is flexible enough to deal with ever-changing circumstances, including climate change or new technological and economic developments.
38. Do the Water Framework Directive's provisions on assessing ecological status sufficiently allow for the effects of climate change to be distinguished from other effects?
The WFD obliges Member States to assess the pressures on our water environment. The impacts of climate change need to be treated as an additional pressure and need to be properly integrated into countries’ river basin management planning. This relationship between climate change and other pressures can well be addressed by carefully defining “ecological status”. Moreover, the WFD’s flexible planning process is well-suited to manage the impacts of climate change.
42. Are the provisions of the Water Framework Directive and the Groundwater Directive sufficient to protect groundwater bodies from technological developments such as fracking?
The WFD and its daughter Groundwater Directive can accommodate for pressures emerging from new technological developments, due to WFD’s precautionary principle and obligation to address all pressures on water environment – both in terms of assessment as well as adopting cost-effective combination of measures to address that pressure. This would include fracking that has two potential implications for groundwater: sourcing of water which is needed to make the injection fluid and the flowback of water (disposal of wastewater), once the water has been used. Direct discharges of pollutants to groundwater (such as injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing) are prohibited under the WFD. Together with other pieces of EU legislation (e.g. EIA Directive, Birds and Habitats Directives, Mining Waste Directive, REACH Regulation, Biocides Regulation, Environmental Liability Directive) fracking can be regulated, from planning and the involvement of the public in decision making, to tackling environmental impacts between Member States and cessation of activities.
46. In your opinion how coherent are the Water Framework Directive, Environmental Quality Standards Directive, Groundwater Directive and Floods Directive internally?
Fully coherent internally
Achieving greater policy coherence within EU water policy was a key reason for introducing the WFD. Major water pressures are now tackled in one common regulatory framework and pieces of EU water legislation are coherent and deadlines and specific tasks such as public participation need to be coordinated.
49. Do you consider the legal framework provided by the collective actions of the Water Framework Directive, Environmental Quality Standards Directive, Groundwater Directive and Floods Directive to be coherent with the following environmental /sectoral policy areas?
Please provide any comments:
Many pieces of EU environmental legislation and EU environmental policies support and are supported by the WFD and its daughter directives. However, a lack of integration and policy coherence with other sectoral policies (most notably agriculture, transport, energy) undermines the objectives of the EU water acquis. It must be emphasised that the EU legal framework for sustainable water management is not the cause of this incoherence – analyses show that a lack of integration of water concerns into other policy areas constitutes the root cause of poor implementation of the EU water law, and it expresses itself at different levels. For example, lack of coordination and policy coherence is reflected in countries not seizing investment opportunities for implementation of the WFD;s measures provided by EU financial mechanisms (especially Cohesion Policy funds and Common Agricultural Policy funding), and are instead choosing to finance measures that undermine WFD implementation (e.g. technical solutions to flood management, navigation, irrigation and land drainage). There is also ineffective coordination between different governmental authorities and departments, and therefore no coordinated implementation between water policies and other sectoral policies, such as agriculture, energy, transport. This is also being reflected in investment planning processes not being aligned (e.g. RDPs are prepared in isolation from RBMPs) or significant differences on what different departments consider as sustainable water management (e.g. difference between environmental and agricultural departments on what constitutes ‘water savings’).
The WFD is coherent with environmental legislation and supports the achievement of policy objectives such as halting biodiversity loss. The achievement of the WFD’s objectives has been significantly undermined by unsustainable practices promoted under the EU’s sectoral policies especially on agriculture, energy, and transport, and water protection objectives need to be integrated into those same sectoral policies.
51. What is the additional value of adopting legislation at EU level compared with what could be achieved by legislation at national/regional level?
Water Framework Directive: High added value
Groundwater Directive: High added value
Environmental Quality Standards Directive: High added value
Floods Directive: High added value
The WFD has been the main driver in developing a more stringent and ambitious national legislation for the protection of freshwater ecosystems. It also brought about increased cooperation and cross-border protection of rivers shared between several EU countries, such as the Danube and the Rhine. The WFD also helped to establish a level playing field for companies operating within the EU single market.
If you wish to expand on any of your answers or if you wish to add comments or information on anything else relevant to the Fitness Check, please do so in the box below.
Healthy freshwater ecosystems are important to me. I am somewhat familiar with WFD and agree with environmental groups that it is fit for purpose and its ambitious objectives are justified:
I appeal to the Commission and Member States to not change the WFD, but instead better implement and enforce it, and integrate water protection objectives into other sectoral policies (esp. agriculture, energy, transport, flood management).