EU water law gets clean bill of health

A European Commission evaluation has concluded that the European Union’s flagship water legislation is fit for purpose.

However, implementation and enforcement must be scaled up to protect Europe’s precious rivers and waterways, the EEB and other environmental organisations demand.

A European Commission fitness check of the European Union’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) concluded that the legislation is “sufficiently prescriptive with regard to the pressures to be addressed, and yet flexible enough to accommodate emerging challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and pollutants of emerging concern (e.g. micro-plastics and pharmaceuticals)”.

This led to a collective sigh of relief and jubilation on the part of environmental organisations and concerned citizens troubled by the efforts of some member states to dilute this key piece of environmental legislation.

“The two-year long evaluation of the EU water law concluded that our water law is fit for purpose and its objectives to bring life back to our rivers. lakes and wetlands are as relevant as ever,” remarked Sergiy Moroz, senior policy officer for water and biodiversity at the EEB. “Hundreds of thousands of European citizens, scientists and civil society groups agree.”

Laying down the law

In fact, days before the release of the results of the fitness check, over 5,500 scientists urged the Commission not only to preserve this world-beating clean water law as it stood but also to step up its implementation “as the key to ensuring that freshwater ecosystems and all the ecosystems they feed are healthy and resilient for nature and people”.

This echoed calls from ordinary Europeans. Earlier in the year, 375,000 citizens responded to the Commission’s consultation, demanding that the WFD be left untampered and calling for it to be implemented better.

Trickle down politics

The European Commission launched the “fitness check” of the WFD through a public consultation in October 2017. Numerous EU governments indicated that they were keen to water down the legislation, a position shared by certain industries.

In fact, the position of industry lobbyists and some governments in favour of weakening the WFD were almost identical on most aspects, uncovered a joint investigation by the EEB, WWF, Wetlands International, the European Anglers Alliance and the European Rivers Network.

The changes sought by both industry and certain member states included scrapping the ‘one-out, all-out principle’. This is the idea that a body of water only receives a clean bill of health if all factors that determine whether it is healthy are in good status.

The key difference between industry and government here was not in their positions but in their justifications for their stances. While industry groups admitted they were asking for changes because they felt the current rules were too ambitious, EU governments argued the modifications were necessary to maintain ambition in EU water management.

Watershed moments

Although the Water Framework Directive is a powerful piece of legislation and has led to the cleaning up of many of Europe’s rivers, lakes and other waterways, numerous member states have lagged significantly behind.

Shockingly, only two-fifths of the EU’s rivers, lakes and wetlands are healthy, according to a recent evaluation. The reasons why are myriad. They include the damming up of rivers to generate electricity, the disconnection of floodplains due to urbanisation or agriculture, altering the natural path of rivers for irrigation and other purposes, and pollution from industrial farming.

“EU agriculture puts a lot of pressure on our water resources: it’s the largest source of diffuse water pollution and the second largest user of water. For those reasons, we cannot achieve the objectives of the WFD unless we tackle pollution and unsustainable water extraction for agriculture,” observes Célia Nyssens, the EEB’s policy officer for agriculture.

Urgent action is needed to rectify this situation. “Now we need all hands on deck to properly implement and enforce the WFD and make sure other EU policies, such as agriculture policy, allow for those objectives to be reached by 2027,” says Moroz.

The year 2027 is a watershed year because it is the absolute final deadline for European governments who missed the original 2015 deadline to clean up their waters.

This will require harnessing all the possible resources at the disposal of national governments. It also requires reforming how Europe approaches farming. ” The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) doesn’t do enough to stop harmful practices – in fact it continues to fund unsustainable irrigation infrastructure in dry parts of Europe,” notes Nyssens. “The CAP must end these perverse subsidies and, instead, channel funds to agricultural practices and land management projects that will benefit our vital water resources.”