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Water

Across Europe, we are polluting our rivers and stretching water resources thin
According to the latest data from the European Environment Agency, 60% of EU rivers, lakes and wetlands are not healthy today. This is part of an alarming global trend, with WWF’s Living Planet Report showing that freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on the planet, and that freshwater species populations have declined by 83% since the 1970s.

In Europe, ambitious, holistic legislation defends these vulnerable ecosystems – the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Brought into effect in 2000, the law aims to bring the vast majority of EU rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, groundwater, transitional and coastal waters back to good health by 2027 at the very latest. In doing so, it strives to secure the crucial benefits of healthy freshwater ecosystems – such as absorbing and storing carbon, filtering water, and acting as natural flood defence – for the sake of the health, economic prosperity and enjoyment of current and future generations.

But this law has so far been poorly implemented and enforced by Member States and the European Commission. They have even allowed the state of water to deteriorate even more through excessive use and misuse of the exemptions provided for by the WFD. 

"With intense droughts, heat and floods quickly becoming Europe’s ‘new normal’, smart water management - coupled with reducing emissions - can help us tackle the issue at the source."

Claire Baffert
Senior EU Policy Officer, Water
@CBaffert

© Leopold Kanzler

What WWF is doing

WWF has worked on EU water policy since the establishment of the European Policy Office in 1989, including the negotiation of the WFD. 

WWF advocates for the effective implementation and better enforcement of the WFD in order to reduce diffuse pollution and over-abstraction by agriculture, and to minimise changes to the natural conditions of freshwater ecosystems through the unsustainable development of hydropower, navigation, and flood management infrastructure.  

In 2018, the European Commission launched its “fitness-check” of the WFD, a process each piece of EU legislation undergoes to evaluate whether it is still relevant and “fit for purpose”. Faced with an alarming push from a number of industry groups and some Member States to weaken the WFD’s strong elements, urgent action was needed. Together with other NGOs, WWF launched the #ProtectWater campaign to defend the WFD during the ongoing fitness-check, and ensure it does not result in a weakening of the law. WWF believes that the focus should be on fully implementing the WFD in its current form, which would ensure that the vast majority of rivers, lakes and wetlands are able to return to their natural state and be protected for generations to come.

Over the course of 2018 and 2019, the #ProtectWater campaign inspired more than 375,000 citizens to call on the European Commission to keep the WFD in its current form, making the public consultation on the legislation one of the largest ever in the history of the EU. This call from citizens was echoed in December 2019 in an open letter from 5,500+ scientists. The letter was sent to Executive Vice-President Timmermans and Commissioner Sinkevičius, calling on them to “save and implement the Water Framework Directive” in order to halt and reverse the catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity.

Just a week after this letter from the scientific community, the European Commission released its final conclusions on the WFD fitness-check, which delcared the law to be “fit for purpose", acknowledging that the WFD's objectives “are as relevant now as they were at the time of the adoption”. The decision concluded the two-year evaluation of the law and set the EU back on course to bring life back to its rivers through full implementation and enforcement of the WFD.

Looking ahead, it is now important for the Commission and Member States to pull out all the stops to reach the objectives of the WFD by 2027. There is a long way to go: The European Environment Agency's State of the Environment Report 2020 (released in the days prior to the fitness-check conclusions) showed that, out of the four freshwater indicators analysed by the EEA, only one has shown progress over the last 10-15 years.

Member States are now finalising their plans to achieve the WFD’s objectives during the 2022-2027 cycle (known as River Basin Management Plans): This is an unparalleled opportunity for them to triple and speed-up their efforts on water protection. The European Commission needs to embark all actors together in an ambitious vision for healthy and clean waters in Europe, one which requires political will, enforcement of the legislation, and investments. 

For our detailed recommendations to Member States and the European Commission on improving the implementation and enforcement of the WFD, please refer to page 7 of our report, Bringing life back to Europe's waters: The EU water law in action

Contacts

Claire Baffert
Senior EU Policy Officer, Water
+32 492 73 10 92
@CBaffert

Sophie Bauer
Communications Officer, Water
+32 471 05 25 11
@SoFreeBauer

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© WWF, RiverWatch, EuroNatur, GEOTA

Hydropower pressure on European rivers: The story in numbers
 

The first ever Europe-wide inventory of hydropower plants shows rivers to be saturated with hydropower dams and thousands more on the cards. This is despite EU rules which should limit new hydropower plants. Commissioned by WWF, RiverWatch, GEOTA and EuroNatur, the study provides damning evidence of governments’ failure to protect rivers and biodiversity, demonstrating a blatant disregard for EU water and nature protection laws. Click here to download the study.