Water | WWF
Confluence of Krupa and Zrmanja rivers, Croatia
	© Goran Šafarek

Fighting to protect water

Rivers, lakes and wetlands sustain all life on earth – but they are under attack. Pollution, excessive use of water, and destructive, unsustainable activities are ravaging freshwater ecosystems.

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 the species they house have declined by 83% since 1970.

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 by Member States. 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. Moreover, since the European Commission launched its standard fitness check of the WFD, it has come under fire from industry lobby groups and EU Member States alike, who are all pushing for a significant weakening of the legislation. If ever put into effect, these changes could wreak havoc on Europe’s freshwater ecosystems, and give the green light to many more destructive activities. 

What is WWF 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, 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.

Policy asks

Without full, ambitious implementation of the WFD in its current form, it will be impossible for them to secure enough good quality water for their citizens, nature and economies in the future. It is therefore the duty of Member States and the European Commission to see the fitness check of the WFD as an opportunity to strengthen its implementation to ensure no further destruction or deterioration occurs, and that the majority of EU freshwater bodies are, at last, brought back to good health by 2027. As such, we call on them to do the following: 

  • Member States should develop more effective and ambitious third-cycle River Basin Management plans (2021-2027) and associated programmes of measures to bring European waters to good status by 2027.
  • Member States should significantly restrict their use of exemptions to exceptional cases only. To uphold the purpose and effect of the WFD, the European Commission should use enforcement measures to facilitate significant reduction in the use of exemptions.
  • Member States should strictly apply the “non-deterioration” obligation and precautionary approach. They must protect remaining free-flowing, unaltered and clean stretches of rivers for their biodiversity and ecological values and not leave them open to further hydropower development and modifications for inland navigation.
  • Member States should increase the uptake of nature-based solutions and dam removal to ensure that freshwater biodiversity can spread back into degraded areas.
  • Member States should apply in full the “polluter pays” principle in line with the WFD, ensuring that water pricing reflects the true value of water and that all users, including agriculture, contribute to the full costs of water services in a more equitable way. The European Commission should take prompt and effective enforcement actions to ensure introduction of adequate water pricing.
  • Member States should improve transparency and enable effective public participation in river basin management planning and application of exemptions (e.g. Article 4(7) WFD).
  • Member States and the European Commission should ensure coherence between management and conservation of water ecosystems and relevant sectoral policies (most notably energy, agriculture, transport, flood management).
  • Member States and the European Commission should improve procedures and introduce effective tools for preventing, detecting and sanctioning breaches of established water and conservation laws.

Our Water team

Andreas Baumueller
Head, Natural Resources
+32 2 740 09 21

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

Carla Freund
EU Water Policy Assistant

Liesbeth Van den Bossche
EU Campaigner
+32 477 81 10 20 

Member States keep delaying bringing EU waters back to good health

Infographic: All Member States are using exemptions to delay bringing their freshwater bodies to ... 
	© WWF European Policy Office

How does the EU Water Framework Directive work?

Infographic on how the WFD works 
	© Martina Mlinaric/WWF