21 December 2021 | 6 minutes.

The Water Framework Directive: Europe’s environmental success story?

View of Elbe River, Switzerland.

Photo: Sangga Rima Roman Selia

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Claire Baffert
Senior Water Policy Advisor at WWF (European Policy Office)

Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Advisor at WWF (European Policy Office)

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is widely considered one of the most important and successful examples of environmental legislation from the EU. We sat down with Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Advisor at WWF to learn more.

Other regions in the world look to the WFD as a suitable model for managing the complexities of equitable water management in a multinational and multicultural region. What do you see as the WFD’s principal successes?

The WFD has set very high and comprehensive standards for water management in Europe. It has translated into legislation the central idea that we must protect and restore our freshwater ecosystems in order to secure a sufficient supply of good quality water for humans and nature. To me the first recital of the directive is very telling: “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.”

Water legislation was previously fragmented into several sectoral policies. The WFD gathers all parts of water management into one directive. It requires the protection and restoration, not only of our rivers, streams and lakes, but also of our wetlands, coastal waters, and groundwaters, to ensure no deterioration, and to ultimately bring those waters into “good status” (as defined in ecological, chemical and quantitative terms).

By setting those objectives and putting together a framework to measure progress against them, it gives water managers across Europe a common language and reference. With the introduction of river basin districts which extend beyond administrative or political boundaries, it also creates a governance system that puts water first and encourages cooperation with multiple stakeholders, sometimes across international borders.

What are the main areas where the WFD has not achieved or is not achieving its ambitions?

The WFD was adopted back in 2000 setting the objective to bring all waters back to “good status” initially by 2015. This deadline was later postponed to 2027. Twenty years after the WFD’s adoption, we are still far from reaching this objective. Only 40% of surface waters (rivers, lakes, etc.) are in good status. We are progressing far too slowly. In particular, the European Environment Agency (EEA) notes there has been limited change in the ecological status of rivers and lakes since river basin authorities started to report on their status.

In October 2021, WWF, together with NGO partners, released an analysis of draft River Basin Management Plans – six-year plans prepared by river basin authorities and outlining their ‘Programme of Measures’ at basin level – for the period 2022 to 2027. We learned that 90% of the 21 river basins studied in various EU countries will still be unhealthy by 2027, unless the final plans are significantly improved compared to their draft versions.

The main pressures are hydromorphological – affecting the flow and shape of water courses – mainly due to manmade infrastructure such as river barriers (dams, weirs, dikes, etc.), pressures from hydropower and pressures from inland navigation. Also of primary concern are pollution pressures, including point source pollution, diffuse source pollution, mainly from agriculture, and pollution pressures from mining; as well as abstractions and water scarcity.

Are the failings mainly due to weaknesses in the legislation or in Member States failing to sufficiently comply with the requirements and spirit of the legislation?

A major issue is indeed the fact that Member States are not properly implementing the Water Framework Directive. In particular, not enough is being done to prevent harmful infrastructure from being built, to address illegal water abstraction, and to significantly tackle pollution from agriculture. As an example, according to the draft Polish Odra River Basin Management Plan for 2022-2027, 29% of the basin’s water bodies have deteriorated since 2015, and one third of the previous Programme of Measures has not been implemented because of inadequate funding.

A sign of this insufficient implementation is the overuse of exemptions, which allow, in certain conditions (overriding public interest, disproportionate costs, etc.), to derogate from the achievement of the WFD objectives. While those exemptions were foreseen in the law to account for exceptional circumstances, they cover around half of Europe’s water bodies. This shows a lack of political will to take water protection and the WFD’s environmental objectives for Europe’s waters seriously.

Another sign is the insufficient financial budgets dedicated to water management. This is caused by the failure to recover environmental and resource costs from strong economic sectors including energy, mining, agriculture, and navigation. Financial support for the implementation of measures needs to be mobilized from all available funding sources.

“not enough is being done to prevent harmful infrastructure from being built, to address illegal water abstraction, and to significantly tackle pollution from agriculture”

Going forward, what remain the priority water-related issues for Europe? 

It is essential to make river restoration a central priority. In order to preserve our biodiversity, to safeguard our food and drinking water supply, to deal with the impacts of a changing climates, we need well-functioning river systems able to sustain nature and people. So far, we have let our rivers deteriorate and the scarce restoration efforts implemented by Member States have been implemented on a far too small scale to reverse the trend.

It is particularly important to create and protect longer interconnected rivers that are free-flowing. For years, rivers have been straightened, channelised and disconnected from their floodplains by human activities: dams, weirs and dikes have been built, flows of water and sediments have been disrupted and groundwater levels have been altered. These activities have affected precious habitats, with severe impacts on the status of the aquatic environment. For instance, populations of migratory freshwater fish species such as eels, salmon or sturgeons, have collapsed by 93% in Europe since 1970 – with river barriers a major cause.1 With those fish species at the brink of extinction, it is entire ecosystems that are at risk. It is therefore essential to reverse this trend – including by reducing the pressure of infrastructure that affect river connectivity, such as hydropower plants and navigation infrastructure.

Addressing the drivers of water scarcity should be another priority. Unlike droughts, water scarcity is a human-made recurrent imbalance in water availability that arises from an overuse of water resources. In other words, water scarcity results from using too much water. Therefore it is essential to better control and regulate water abstractions. A recent report from WWF Spain showed that in only four areas assessed, 88.000 hectares of surface were irrigated outside the official permits – approximately 1.5 the size of the city area of Madrid.

 Given that GHG emission reductions cannot have a rapid impact on water-related problems, what other concrete actions should be a priority for more immediate and positive impact on water? 

Actively promoting the uptake of nature-based solutions should be a priority at all levels as it brings ecological improvements and helps cope with climate change impacts. In freshwater ecosystems, this means for instance implementing natural water retention measures, such as restoring or re-creating wetlands that can function as natural sponges and retain water, helping to better cope with droughts. It can also mean restoring natural floodplains along rivers, so that they can function as natural responses and delay water runoff in case of floods. A recent report commissioned by WWF found that – when impacts on water quality, nutrient retention and flood risk reduction are taken into account – restoring rivers and their floodplains is the most cost-efficient compared to traditional flood prevention engineering solutions.

The EU is currently preparing2 a Nature Restoration Law. This is a wonderful opportunity to give a legal push to nature-based solutions. The law must include legally binding, ambitious restoration targets, in particular for floodplains, wetlands, and all types of ecosystems that contribute to retain and store water. In this respect WWF is calling for a legally-binding target of at least 15% of land and freshwater (650,000 km2) to be restored by 2030 both at EU and Member State level.