Water managers are set to fail our rivers, lakes and groundwater

Water authorities across the EU must take the last chance to fix Europe’s unsustainable water management, writes Sergiy Moroz.

2021 is an important year for our rivers, lakes and groundwater, as water authorities across the EU are currently updating the plans on how they will bring life back into our freshwater ecosystems during the next six years. 

This means taking measures to reduce water pollution by toxic chemicals and pesticides, ensure there is enough water left in our rivers so that they keep flowing, and remove barriers for fish to migrate and spawn, among others. Water administrations are also supposed to carry out one of the largest consultation exercises across the EU, and consider input from citizens and big water users such farmers or industry. The plans developed this year are particularly important because EU water laws set 2027 as a final deadline to bring our rivers, lakes and groundwater back to ecological health, and this is the third and last opportunity to meet that objective.  

However, according to a report published in June by the Living Rivers Europe Coalition, many EU countries are set to miss this legally binding target. Out of the 13 draft plans that need to be developed for each river basin in the EU, only two plans in Finland demonstrate, on average, a good level of ambition. However, even these plans contain gaps, especially when it comes to funding. Moreover, six draft plans rank poorly, including the two assessed Italian plans, the Dutch Rhine plan, the two assessed German plans and the International Odra River plan.

Not good enough 

The plans were entirely drafted during the Covid-19 pandemic, while global and regional initiatives such as the EU Green Deal pushed governments to “build back better”, to prevent the biodiversity collapse, to reduce our exposure to pollution and water scarcity, and to increase societal resilience. 

In addition, the 2019 Fitness Check evaluation of EU water policy indicated that slow implementation, insufficient funding and insufficient integration of environmental objectives in sectoral policies were the key constraints for preserving and restoring our water bodies, which are home to Europe’s most biodiverse and most threatened ecosystems. 

Yet most of the draft plans assessed by NGOs in this report do not address these insufficiencies, although there are a few exceptions. 

In general, governments have improved inventories, tools and criteria, but the level of ambition remains low with numerous exemptions. In some cases, the draft plans anticipate that objectives will not be achieved before 2050.

One of the main constraints is the lack of budget allocated to put the necessary measures in place. This is caused by the failure to make polluters pay and recover environmental and resource costs from strong economic sectors including energy, agriculture and navigation. This reflects resistance to change from vested interests, and a lack of political understanding of the importance of European waters for people and our planet. 

Twenty years after the adoption of the EU’s flagship water law, our governments keep channeling enormous amounts of public funds into environmentally harmful activities, which hinder the objective of making our freshwater ecosystems healthy again. 

The hidden subsidies granted by some national and regional authorities to the coal industry are a glaring example. Coal operations drain and pollute massive amounts of water, and are a driver of climate change, which is already showing its impacts on water as drought and flood events become more frequent. Yet a recent report by the EEB revealed how coal operators in the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland benefit from reduced or non-existing water fees, in contrast to the cost recovery principle of the Water Framework Directive. At the same time, the emission of hazardous substances from coal combustion is not addressed at source, and coal polluters are not held accountable as required by EU laws. 

Fix water management now 

This is just one example that shows how mainstreaming sustainable water management in all EU policies must remain a key priority. As long as EU policies will negatively impact European waters, the successes of the Water Framework Directive will remain limited. The plans should therefore be seen as a key tool to help bring other policies in line with the objective of achieving good water status.

Nonetheless, according to the sometimes ambiguous or incomplete information included in the draft plans (except for Finland), most of the water bodies will not reach good status by 2027. This would be a major failure, at odds with the ambition of the EU Green Deal, but not all is lost.

The draft plans must now undergo a six-month public consultation phase, and be finalised by the end of 2021. During this time, it is up to our governments to address the shortcomings identified in the draft plans, and make significant progress to achieve the Water Framework Directive’s objectives. They can and must act now to halt freshwater biodiversity loss and put an end to Europe’s unsustainable water management.