Water Framework Directive: State of play and future perspectives

Monday 11 February 2019

Almost 20 years after its adoption, the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) [1] is considered the most ambitious piece of European environmental legislation, aiming to achieve good status of freshwater resources and ecosystems across Europe by 2027, at the latest. However, the poor performance attained by some Member States remains an important sore point. The ongoing European Commission’s Fitness Check of the Directive - required under the Better Regulation Agenda[2] - will entail an attentive evaluation of the current water policy framework to assess whether it is ‘fit for purpose’ to address the present and future challenges faced by European freshwaters.

‘Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.’[3]

It was clear early on that a key component of the new European Water Policy would have been a strong participatory, bottom-up approach. In the mid-1990s, EU citizens were increasingly aware and concerned about water pollution, which was considered an environmental issue to be tackled with the highest priority. In this context, the WFD was the EU legislators’ response to this unanimous call for action.

‘In getting our waters clean, the role of citizens and citizens’ groups will be crucial.’[4]

Hence, after an open consultation process involving local and regional authorities, water users and non-governmental organisations, the European Commission and Member States agreed on the need for a comprehensive and single piece of framework legislation that came forward in the Commission’s Proposal for a Water Framework Directive.

The Directive divides natural geographical formations into river basin districts, consisting of one or more neighbouring river basins and their associated groundwater and coastal waters. It then required Member States to draw up River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) to safeguard each of these river basin districts[5]. These plans represent the implementation tool for achieving the environmental objectives set out in the Directive.

With its ambitious and innovative approach to water management there is no doubt that the WFD has already greatly contributed to improve the status of European water bodies. Most notably, the vast majority of groundwater sources in Europe have achieved high or good ecological and chemical status, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA) ‘State of water’ report published in July 2018[6]. However, the same cannot be said of surface water bodies: only 38% of rivers, lakes and transitional and coastal waters are estimated to be in a good ecological status.

The EEA report identifies as a cause of the “poor” status of EU waters the delayed implementation of the existing legislation by Member States, partly because of funding constraints and the resulting lack of investments in monitoring and assessment.  Another challenge encountered during the implementation is represented by a number of ‘pressures’ on freshwater ecosystems which are not properly being addressed by the national authorities, such as extensive pollution, over abstraction of water due to intensive agriculture, alteration of water flows and modifications to water bodies due to dams and hydropower plants.

 ‘Thanks to the implementation of European water legislation in the Member States, the quality of Europe’s freshwater is gradually improving, but much more needs to be done before all lakes, rivers, coastal waters and groundwater bodies are in good status. Tackling pollution from agriculture, industry and households requires joint efforts from all water users throughout Europe,’ said Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries[7].

The EEA report has been published a few months before the European Commission’s ongoing Directive evaluation, called “Fitness Check”[8]. This evaluation aims at assessing whether the current water policy framework has been effectively implemented, if its objectives have been met and if it is adequate and fit for purpose to address the challenges faced by European freshwaters, today and beyond 2027.

In the context of the Fitness Check, Members States and stakeholders are called upon to provide information and inputs on the WFD, to take stock of its strengths and shortcomings.

The Living Rivers Europe, a coalition of five environmental organisations[9], stands in the forefront of those who are campaigning for the maintenance of high standards in the Directive and for the European Commission to validate the WFD as ‘fit for purpose’. To carry forward their action, the coalition launched the #ProtectWater[10] campaign  to respond to the European Commission’s public consultation on the WFD, which has already received more than 275,000 signatures.

Hopefully, the Fitness Check will assess the appropriateness of the Water Framework Directive and the European Commission and the Member States will agree to pursue the environmental objectives laid down in this ambitious legislation by focusing on the improvement of its implementation at national level.


[1] Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy


[2] https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/law-making-process/planning-and-proposing-law/better-regulation-why-and-how_en

[3] First recital of the EU Water Framework Directive

[4] See European Commission ‘Introduction to the New EU Water Framework Directive. Available online at  http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/info/intro_en.htm

[5] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/participation/map_mc/map.htm

[6] https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/european-waters-getting-cleaner-but#tab-data-visualisations


[8] https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2017-5128184_en

[9] The European Rivers Network (ERN), le WWF, the European Anglers Alliance (EAA), the European Environment Bureau (EEB), Wetlands International European Association (WI-EA)

[10] https://www.livingrivers.eu/

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