In a landmark day for Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, the European Commission has announced that the EU’s strong water legislation — the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) — will not be changed. The message from the Commission is clear: the WFD is an essential piece of EU environmental legislation and is here to stay in its current form.
In a statement to POLITICO, the EU’s Commissioner for Environment, Ocean and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, confirmed the need to focus on supporting implementation and enforcement “without changing the directive”. The announcement comes six months after the law was concluded to be “fit-for-purpose”, following a thorough two-year evaluation. Over the course of this process, more than 375,000 citizens demanded that the law be kept in its current form and better implemented by their governments.
The Commission’s decision is welcomed by Wetlands International, WWF, EEB, the European Anglers Alliance and European Rivers Network, who together form the Living Rivers Europe coalition and led the #ProtectWater campaign to safeguard the WFD.
The WFD is one of the EU’s most ambitious and holistic pieces of environmental legislation, setting the target of having 100% of the EU’s freshwater ecosystems in good health by 2027 at the very latest , up from just 40% currently . The EU must meet this target in order to preserve its water resources and ensure Europe can adapt to climate change. But implementation from Member States has been weak and political will to make the law work in practice is low. There has also been much pressure to weaken the legislation, including from industry lobby groups.
Eef Silver, Policy Officer Water and Rivers of Wetlands International Europe, said:
“The WFD is an urgently needed policy instrument to halt and reverse the growing freshwater biodiversity crisis in Europe. The Commission has decided to listen to the overwhelming support to leave the WFD intact and focus on support to Member States to make our waters healthier. With this decision, we are on course to reinforce efforts to protect and restore rivers, lakes, wetlands and estuaries and the species that depend on them. Through the third river basin management plans, due in 2021, Member States must ensure that the pace of ecological improvement of water bodies will finally overtake the pace of their degradation.”
With this announcement, it is clear that there can be no further delays from Member States. The European Commission must now work with all relevant stakeholders to fast-track implementation and ensure that the WFD’s objectives are reached by 2027 at the very latest. Member States will need to pull out all the stops in the next cycle of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs).
Since the launch of the fitness check, the WFD has received public support from hundreds of thousands of EU citizens and scientists. The critical role of the WFD in halting the decline in freshwater biodiversity was highlighted in a letter from close to 6,000 scientists, which was sent to the Commission at the end of last year. The WFD also has the public support of a group of businesses, who have urged the Commission and EU Member States to preserve this groundbreaking law in its current form.
Steven Weiss, Associate Professor at the Institute of Zoology, Karl-Franzens University of Graz and signatory of the letter from scientists, said
“As one of nearly 6,000 scientists who signed a letter of support to the Water Framework Directive, I am delighted to see that the European Commission has taken on board the views of the scientific community. Freshwater species are currently the most vulnerable in Europe. Full implementation of the Water Framework Directive is vital in reversing this trend, and in protecting the diversity of life and processes that freshwater ecosystems support.”
 The original deadline for meeting this final objective was 2015, and was missed by a long shot. With 60% of EU waters still not healthy, the European Commission and Member States need to pull out all the stops to boost implementation and meet the final 2027 deadline.
 The latest data from the European Environment Agency shows that 60% of EU fresh waters are currently not healthy and fail to meet the WFD’s standards (EEA, European waters — Assessment of status and pressures 2018)
Notes to the editor
European Commission stands strong in the face of pressure to weaken the EU’s water legislation:
- Since the launch of the European Commission’s evaluation, the Water Framework Directive has been under significant pressure from business lobby groups, who have been pushing for a weakening of the legislation. Many of these groups represent sectors which exert huge pressure on freshwater ecosystems, including the hydropower industry and industrial agriculture.
- In March this year, the lobby organisation BusinessEurope attempted to influence an exchange of views on the follow-up to the directive’s evaluation taking place at the Environment Council, calling for less stringent water protection requiremen A majority of Member States expressed their support for the fitness check conclusions on the Water Framework Directive ahead of/on the day of this meeting. Several – including France, Austria, Denmark and Greece – stated that the WFD needs to be maintained in its current form.
What we need now:
The European Commission must now work with Member States and all relevant stakeholders to fast-track implementation and ensure that the WFD’s objectives are reached by 2027 at the very latest. Concretely, we will be looking out for the following implementation gaps to be tackled:
On dam removal:
- In the past, Member States’ River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) have missed the opportunity to improve river health by tackling hydromorphological pressures (changes to the physical shape and/or flow of a water body), including through dam removal. Dam removal has large economic benefits, in terms of job creation, and is cost-efficient when compared to the costs of maintaining obsolete dams, and increases resilience to extreme weather events.
- Whilst the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy includes the concrete commitment to restore 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers (including through dam removal), it is neither clear from this nor from the Recovery Package how the Commission will financially support this target. Dedicated funding is needed to turn this commitment into a reality, and the Natural Capital and Circular Economy Initiative proposed under the Recovery Package could be an opportunity for this. Freeing up money for this initiative is a win-win, helping meet the Biodiversity Strategy’s targets and the objectives of the WFD.
- Drought management strategies need to be developed as part of Member States’ River Basin Management Plans and as a preventative response to climate change, rather than solely as an emergency response when droughts have already hit. Water management is not an isolated issue and must be tackled holistically, as required under the WFD.
- The European Commission’s WFD implementation report and fitness check conclusions highlighted lack of funding as a significant obstacle to the law’s implementation. If Member States were to fully implement cost recovery under the WFD, they would not be depriving themselves from a source of revenue. Moreover, they would ensure that the costs of implementing the measures were not solely borne by consumers, while at the same time incentivising good practices.
The pressure of hydropower dams on Europe’s rivers is immense, with more than 20,000 existing plants and more than 8,000 additional ones on the cards. With the costs of solar and wind plummeting, the EU must invest in these renewable options rather than giving the green light to more hydropower plants, and invest in the refurbishment of existing hydropower plants.