Next year in 2012 the EU is due to launch major new initiatives in support of its Freshwater Policy. These are to flow from the findings of ongoing assessments of EU policy instruments and of the sustainability of water resources and a great many LIFE project experiences remain relevant to the Blueprint stakeholders.
The success of EU policies is regularly reviewed to ensure that European citizens benefit properly from EU activities. As part of this high-level review process, EU water policy is currently undergoing an in-depth assessment of its ability to achieve good status of all EU waters by 2015. The assessment will inform the content of a Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water.
The Blueprint, to be presented by the Commission in November 2012, aims at ensuring sufficient availability of good quality water for sustainable and equitable water use, and has three main objectives:
The knowledge base for this work is mainly provided by the ongoing assessment of the River Basin Management Plans under the Water Framework Directive, the review of the policy on water scarcity and drought; and the review of the vulnerability of water resources to climate change and other man made pressures, and a Fitness Check’ of Freshwater Policy.
Work for the Blueprint includes two public consultations (on the Fitness Check between December 2011 and February 2012 and on policy options in March-May 2012), and numerous stakeholder workshops, bringing together Member State representatives with different EU partners who share an interest in water policy. As evidenced at a preliminary Fitness Check workshop in May 2011, many of the policy options to be discussed highlight calls for greater action in areas where LIFE has already been producing positive effects.
Participants at the May 2011 stakeholder workshop noted that whilst sufficient instruments are in place to pursue EU water quality objectives, their success depends heavily on Member States being able to convert policy goals into practical outcomes. LIFE has played a role here by helping national, regional and local authorities to identify feasible ways for implementing water quality objectives that are appropriate for both domestic purposes as well as replicable for other countries. In Greece for example, LIFE00 ENV/GR/000685 demonstrated successful methods for planning and management of water reservoirs. This project also produced a Good Practice Guide on the topic linked to an accompanying ‘Decision Support Tool’ manual.
Scores of other LIFE project outcomes have helped, and continue to help, Member States to ‘operationalise’ water policy goals like LIFE06 ENV/B/000359 which showed how new ‘multi-barrier’ technology can treat groundwater contaminated with a mixture of pollutants. Equally replicable are the outcomes from LIFE06 ENV/NL/000167 which remain pertinent for bodies throughout the EU tasked with achieving WFD standards for effluent waste water treatment processes by 2015. LIFE remains a useful tool for helping Member States which joined the EU since 2004 overcome their own particular challenges in implementing freshwater policies. In Slovakia for instance, LIFE08 INF/SK/000243 is involved in shaping public perceptions about tackling inefficient or polluting water use practices.
Results remain at the forefront of the LIFE Programme’s support for projects and this philosophy has generated decisive returns in areas under review by the Blueprint, such as the need for effective monitoring tools and development of reliable data sets. Knowledge gaps about the scale of freshwater policy challenges and the impacts of freshwater policy initiatives can still exist and LIFE funds are available to help plug these gaps. Romanian authorities took advantage of this type of LIFE support in their LIFE03 ENV/RO/000539 project which established new surveying systems for monitoring pollution in river basins. Here, the LIFE funds also introduced tools for predicting threats to the status of freshwater as well as identify the required mitigation responses.
Further examples of results-oriented support from LIFE have been successful at tackling issues connected with water availability and water consumption. The Fitness Check confirms that Europe needs to find better ways of balancing supply and demand of our limited freshwater resources. Hence, stakeholders during the Fitness Check working group meeting discussed the benefits from increasing exchanges of experience in this subject. All LIFE projects proactively disseminate their results and thus the knowledge gained from projects like LIFE03 ENV/IT/000333 (in actions including using ‘Aqualabel’ branding techniques as part of a water-pricing toolkit) are widely publicised and freely available through the Programme’s database. Searching the LIFE project database will reveal similar experiences of tackling water demand questions, including LIFE04 ENV/GR/000099 which introduced for the first time in local Greek water policies, elements of real time cost/ benefit data and water pricing.
Blueprint priorities underscore the importance of integrating water concerns into key sectoral policies, particularly with regard to increasing the efficiency of using water in agriculture and buildings. LIFE’s library of practical experience here is valuable and ranges from work with the roof design of Dutch buildings in LIFE00 ENV/NL/000787 to developments introduced by LIFE00 ENV/EE/000922 enhancing efficiencies of Estonia’s urban water distribution systems. Agriculture has also been the recipient of a significant amount of LIFE-funded support in the freshwater field.
As Europe’s largest user of freshwater, the relevance of LIFE’s interventions in farming remains high. Irrigation consumes vast volumes of freshwater across the 27 Member States so innovations like those from LIFE03 ENV/E/000164 (which successfully reduced water demands from arable and forage crops) can make a big difference if adopted more widely by EU farmers. Work from numerous other LIFE projects also targets irrigation issues. These offer useful know-how for the Fitness Check’s interest in integrating water policy considerations within bio energy policy. Processing of agri-food products is another demand-heavy sector in terms of freshwater use, and intelligence can be gained from LIFE actions (e.g. LIFE97 ENV/D/000456) involved with identifying effective treatment techniques to gain freshwater quality from agri-food waste water.
Agriculture is also acknowledged in the Fitness Check as source of nutrient enrichment in EU rivers. Pollutants, including nitrates from fertilisers, adversely affect the ecological status of freshwater and LIFE has paid particular attention to help Member States demonstrate remedial on-farm action to reduce environmental risks from nitrates. This work complements petitions from Fitness Check stakeholders for more progress on cohesion between EU policies, because conclusions from LIFE projects involved with limiting farm-related nitrate problems (e.g. LIFE05 ENV/UK/000137, LIFE05 ENV/DK/000155 and LIFE00 ENV/IT/000019 to name just a few) can be translated directly into the prerequisites for Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) that farmers need to adopt before receiving subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy.
Solutions for curbing excess nitrates in EU fresh waters are not only found on farms though and LIFE has also been used successfully by other beneficiaries to contain nitrate concerns (see LIFE03 ENV/S/000595 in the leather industry and LIFE03 ENV/D/000030 in municipal sewage for examples).
RBMPs sit at the centre of the EU’s Freshwater Policy toolkit and so RBMPs are being carefully considered by the Blueprint. Early discoveries have indicated that the characterisation of river basins has not been an easy assignment. This underlines the need for more LIFE-type support to RBMP operations and the Programme’s flexibility has been used in a variety of different ways by RBMP partners around the EU.
Finnish experiences from the Karjaanjoki river basin (LIFE00 ENV/FIN/000668) exemplify how LIFE projects can bring together RBMP actors to map factors affecting water quality, implement restoration measures that improve the functionality of river basins, organise schemes to deal with pollution sources, set up water monitoring systems, and optimise the multi-functional potential of freshwater resources. Innovation and technology has been harnessed to achieve these types of results by other LIFE projects such as Luxembourg’s LIFE07 ENV/L/000540, Italy’s LIFE07 ENV/IT/000475 and Poland’s LIFE08 ENV/PL/000519.
Europe’s river basins are nowadays often in the news due to either an overload of freshwater creating flooding, or a dearth of water causing droughts. The Blueprint has these two phenomena on its agenda and is looking to boost preventative approaches. Land use planning is seen as being constructive here, and LIFE’s credentials remain strong in this area through actions like LIFE08 ENV/CY/000460 in Cyprus responding to drought. A host of flood prevention LIFE projects also exist including LIFE00 ENV/RO/000986, LIFE09 ENV/FR/000593, and LIFE08 ENV/LV/000451.
Some 25 different LIFE project contributions from 18 Member States are noted above which can be of interest to the Fitness Check stakeholders. These represent a relatively small sample from the Programme’s full range of projects supporting EU freshwater policy that can be found on the website.