Europe’s rivers and lakes cry out for help as Member States continue to look the other way

Posted on 03 July 2018

The EEA's 2018 “State of Water” estimates that only 40% of European surface waters are currently healthy - yet more evidence that Member States have not been taking seriously their legal commitment to implement the EU water laws to achieve good status for Europe’s water bodies.
The European Environment Agency (EEA)’s 2018 “State of Water”, published today, estimates that only 40% of European surface waters are currently healthy [1]. This shows that Member States have not been taking seriously their legal commitment to implement the EU water laws to achieve good status for Europe’s water bodies. Instead, they have demonstrated little ambition to deviate from their ‘business as usual’ mentality.

“The state of our freshwater bodies is shocking. The findings are not surprising, though, given the fact that Member States have been skirting around their legal commitments under the EU’s water laws for the best part of two decades. Governments have been avoiding effective delivery on the legally binding objectives and allowed for further deterioration of our rivers and lakes by using (and misusing!) the various exemptions provided for by the EU Water Framework Directive. It’s absurd that exemptions seem to have become a norm in implementing the legislation!" said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office. “We have long been calling for stronger efforts to protect and restore Europe’s water resources, and can only hope that this report will act as a wake-up call.” 

The EEA’s report provides a clear, comprehensive overview of the environmental state of over 130,000 water sources across the EU - from rivers, wetlands, lakes and estuaries, to groundwater and coastal waters. It also exposes the key pressures on these sources, ranging from agriculture to the construction of invasive structures for grey flood defence, navigation, and the generation of hydropower, and chemical pollution. 

Across the EU, freshwater ecosystems, and the wildlife they house, have deteriorated at an alarming rate, and this is part of a global trend. [2] In Europe, the state of waters is particularly bad in many countries in central Europe, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, with higher population density and more intensive agriculture. Here, the majority of water bodies are still failing to achieve good ecological status.

In a bid to undo decades of abuse, EU Member States committed in 2000 to protect and restore these ecosystems through the adoption of the Water Framework Directive - a strong and ambitious law that tackles all the identified pressures on our water resources in a holistic manner and obliges countries to achieve good status for Europe’s water bodies by 2015, and at the very latest by 2027. Today’s findings show that this legislation is clearly not being implemented on the ground. 

Moreover, the Water Framework Directive tool of incentive water pricing, which could effectively influence the behaviour of water users and raise financial resources to maintain and enhance the delivery of water services, continues to be limited to wastewater treatment and the provision of drinking water, with other key sectors (such as agriculture, energy and transport) not contributing their fair share for water services they receive.

“As WWF we are bitterly disappointed to see that little has changed in terms of Member States’ ambition”, added Baumüller. “As the Water Framework Directive undergoes its scheduled review, we urge the EU and its Member States to use this as an opportunity to strengthen their implementation of this strong, visionary legislation, rather than opt for the easy route of weakening its high standards. Water affects everyone and everything - if governments don’t radically change their ways it is people, nature and economies that will pay the ultimate price.”

WWF is calling for an improved implementation and enforcement of the Water Framework Directive, effective integration of water management aspects into relevant sectoral policies, such as agriculture, energy, transport, as well as the safeguarding this strong legislation to ensure sustainable management of water resources and effective ecosystem protection. 

Sophie Bauer, Communications Officer (Freshwater), WWF European Policy Office   
+32 471 05 25 11

Notes to the editors:

[1] Percentage of lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters monitored from Member States’ River Basin Management Plans during the 2010-2015 monitoring period. 

[2] Living Planet Report, WWF, 2016: Globally, populations of freshwater species have declined by 81% between 1970 and 2012, at a faster rate than any other ecosystem.

About the Water Framework Directive (WFD)
  1. The Water Framework Directive is one of the EU’s most progressive pieces of environmental legislation. It requires the protection, enhancement and restoration of our rivers, wetlands, lakes and coastal waters, but Member States are currently failing make it work on the ground;
  2. Under the Water Framework Directive, EU governments have committed to ensure no deterioration and achieve good status for the vast majority of all water bodies by 2015, and at the very latest by 2027;
  3. Where implemented, the Water Framework Directive has proved to be effective in achieving its goals of good water status and non-deterioration, successfully balancing environmental, social and economic requirements.

The Water Framework Directive is currently undergoing its standard review in the form of a ‘fitness check’. Every piece of EU legislation goes through this process. The fitness check will look at the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and EU added value of the Water Framework Directive (and its 'daughters') and the Floods Directive. This will include a stakeholder consultation and a public consultation, which is expected to be launched in September 2018. 

As the Living Rivers Europe coalition WWF and its partners (European Anglers Alliance, European Environmental Bureau, European Rivers Network and Wetlands International) are working on safeguarding the EU Water Framework Directive and strengthening its implementation and enforcement.
The EU Water Framework Directive is a strong law - implementation by EU Member States is the problem.
© Seppo Leinonen