Speech by Commissioner Vella: Ministerial Water Conference ”Implementation status of the water and marine directives: challenges and good practices”, Bucharest, 21 May 2019

Ministers, delegates, distinguished guests, thank you for this kind invitation.

I’m always happy to speak about water. However high it is on the political agenda, and at the moment it is riding quite high, my feeling is always the same. It isn’t high enough!

It needs to be higher because too many people still don’t understand the dangers we face. As environmentalists, it’s our task to drive that message home. Not to the greens, not to the converted, but to those who are still unaware. Water is life – so a threat to water is an existential threat.

My thanks to the Romanian Presidency for holding this event, and for the emphasis they are placing on the importance of water and the marine environment.

The biggest threat, of course, is climate change. I sometimes wonder if we didn’t make a huge mistake, all those years ago, when we chose the term ‘climate change’. It sounds almost harmless. Perhaps we should have said ‘water change’.

Because it all comes back to water – floods and drought, rising seas. Rain instead of snow. Warmer rivers and bigger storms.

All these things are already here. Last summer, many parts of Europe experienced water shortages for the first time. Navigation on the main rivers was severely limited, and farmers lost billions due to lower yields. There were serious knock-on effects for EU and Member States budgets. Lower groundwaters destabilised soils and flood defences. These problems will only get worse.

Is anybody listening? Is the water community talking to itself, or will central governments sit up and listen?

Perhaps things are beginning to change. At the Sibiu meeting on 9 May, EU Heads of State and Government reaffirmed their commitment to protecting our environment and fighting climate change. It’s the last of their ten commitments, so perhaps it’s the one that people will remember.

Our task, ladies and gentlemen, will be ensuring that water is part of that commitment.

We are here to protect this resource, and prepare for the changes ahead. So I’d like start by looking back, and seeing how things have progressed.

On fresh water, we have reversed the trend of ever-declining water quality. Not just in our 130 000 water bodies, but in groundwaters as well. For now, drinking water and bathing waters are safe.

Many sources of pollution have been addressed. Manufacturing industry, agriculture, households, energy production now take water quality and water quantity into account in their operations. 

We’ve seen a massive expansion of waste water treatment capacity, pesticide use is slowly coming down, and household water consumption has halved.

In our seas, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive requires Member States to use this environment sustainably, protecting habitats and resources.

Over the past years, the EU has done great things to improve the state of its seas. We are conscious of the need to work together within a marine region, as the seas know no boundaries.

We now have laws on single-use plastics – we need to get rid of this scourge. I think that we have achieve a lot together in the past two years through circular economy action plan, and in particular through the waste legislation, plastics strategy and proposal for a single plastic use. Information that Member States gathered and their assement of the scale of marine litter problem was one of key factors for success.

We are protecting parts of our seas through marine protected areas and have surpassed the 10% coverage target.

We have spent at least 500 million euros on marine research, looking for instance at potential hazards posed by micro-plastics.

As Commissioner in charge of the environment, fisheries and maritime sectors, I have over the past 5 years worked hard to spread that message that green and blue go hand in hand. And we must work together to have clean, healthy and productive seas and oceans.

But we still need to do far more to reach our targets. Marine biodiversity is still at risk and is vulnerably to the impact caused by all of human activates, both on land and at sea.

Plastics are being found in the most remote and deep places on the planet – we need to prevent that more gets in there.

We need more marine protected areas that are well-connected and managed properly.

And we have to ride on the success of our fisheries policies to achieve even better results in maintaining healthy stocks and limit the damage for example to the seabed.

And that story is repeated with the Water Framework Directive and Floods Directive. Knowledge and reporting have significantly improved.

Water quality is increasing, but too slowly. Pesticides and nutrients from agriculture are compromising that quality. Over-abstraction is a common concern, and hydromorphology is always a challenge. Wherever we look, we find dams, weirs and obstacles that block the path of sediment and migrating fish, and prevent the river from playing its natural role.

The message, is the same. We need better implementation.

For the Water Framework Directive and the Floods Directive, the Commission has issued specific recommendations to all Member States, with a view to improving the local situation.

Europe cannot sustain this level of loss. We currently lose 6.5 billion m3 at the EU level every year. That’s equivalent to the consumption needs of entire Member States like France and Germany put together.

There are also substantial investment needs for river restoration, and enhancing resilience against climate change.

The current spend across the EU is in the region of EUR 100 billion every year.

Our estimates show that this needs to increase substantially. The studies are still on going, but the preliminary estimates of this increase are in the region of EUR 600 billion on infrastructure spending in the period up to 2030.

The Commission is helping as best it can. During the current programming period, we’ve spent over 16 billion euros on environmental protection through the Cohesion funds alone, with a significant share on projects related to water.

That support will continue in the years to come, with water remaining a priority.

I said that the legislation is mature. But I didn’t say it was complete. There are still gaps to fill.

Climate change means higher pressure water quantity. Rising temperatures mean rising demand, especially from agriculture. All year round, agriculture is responsible for over 50% of all freshwater use.

And yet there’s an obvious solution. Many southern states are already reusing waste water, but Europe has the potential for a 6-fold increase in the volume of water reuse. The Commission proposal, in simple terms, is very good news for farms. It makes it easier and safer to re-use urban waste water for agriculture.

When it comes to water quality, there is one other area to be addressed. In March this year the Commission proposed a Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment. It sets out a range of actions, including the design of pharmaceuticals, their distribution, their use, and how to address the question of waste.

We can all do more to reduce the quantity of pharmaceutical products that enter our environment, from pharmaceutical companies to pharmacists, from doctors to hospitals, as citizens and as waste water treatment companies.

It’s too soon to talk about next steps, especially as we are engaged in a fitness check of our water legislation. There may be legislative implications – but they will be carefully tailored, and guaranteed fit for purpose.

The challenges we face are universal. Ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is an SDG, and we are committed to achieving that goal.

We are implementing the objective through international cooperation. Be it China, Iran, Mexico, India, Mediterranean countries, wherever I go, I start a dialogue on water. For this same reason we have been vocal on marine issues internationally – the sea is everyone’s common heritage.

Overall, these policies are flowing in the right direction, but sometimes the stream gets blocked. I need your help, ladies and gentlemen, to restore the natural flow.

We need stronger commitment. We need engagement on all sides, accelerating the implementation of EU water law, for freshwater and marine environments.

In concrete terms, we need progress on Drinking Water, and we need progress on water reuse. Our citizens deserve no less. Water change is coming, and we need to be prepared.

Thank you.

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