Improving European waters: steady progress but too slow


Water is essential for life, and good management of water resources can be a source of ‘blue’ economic growth. A recent Commission Communication assesses how Member States are implementing legislation designed to ensure enough clean water for people, nature and the economy.

The Commission’s in-depth review of how Member States are implementing the EU Water Framework Directive and Floods Directive finds positive trends, but also concerns about the future outlook.

Water is the basis of all life.

The first key finding is that EU legislation has improved water protection, in terms of both its quantity and quality. Most Europeans can now safely drink tap water and swim in coastal waters, as well as thousands of rivers and lakes across the EU. Flood risks have also been mapped, with Member States putting plans in place to manage them better.

Implementation of the Water Framework Directive helps to ensure there is enough clean water for people, nature and economic sectors which depend on it, such as agriculture, aquaculture, energy, transport and tourism. Pollution has been reduced over the last 20 years, and just over half of EU surface waters – rivers, lakes and coasts – have now reached ‘good ecological status’.

But Europe is still a long way short of its goal of good ecological status for all surface waters by 2015. To step up the pace of change, the Communication recommends a variety of approaches, including smarter water pricing, tighter controls on water abstraction and water use by industrial plants, and action on pollution from agriculture. Greater use of regional and rural development programmes for water protection purposes would also help.

No room for complacency

Decades of degradation and ineffective management mean that a central objective of EU water legislation – good environmental quality for all EU waters by this year – will be missed by almost half of Europe’s surface water bodies. Overuse of water resources and pollution continue to damage ecological status, fish stocks and biodiversity.

Member States need to sustain and enhance action to implement the Water Framework and Floods Directives.

“I see no room for complacency,” said Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “The reports show that Member States need to sustain and enhance action to implement the Water Framework and Floods Directives […] addressing pollution, excessive abstraction and river alterations.”

Particular problems include excessive water abstraction for irrigation around the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and widespread nutrient pollution from agriculture. Monitoring the chemical status of surface waters is insufficient – the status of over 40 % of water bodies is still unknown.

Damage is also caused by changes to river flow, as a result of poorly planned hydropower, straightening, widening and deepening for navigation. In the past, many dams were built without mitigation measures such as fish ladders, and flood protection is still too reliant on ‘grey’ infrastructure like walls and dykes, which can cause problems downstream.

Under the Floods Directive, EU Member States need to have formulated their flood plans by the end of 2015. The Commission encourages the use of ‘green’ infrastructure and a river basin approach: creating space, often in the form of wetlands, for rivers to flood earlier in their flow, before they reach populated areas. Restoration of flood plains and re-meandering of rivers can both prevent flooding and benefit water quality and biodiversity.

Commissioner Vella presented recommendations to improve implementation of water policies at the European Water Conference in Brussels on 24 March. They include better monitoring of water status, tailoring measures to the existing problems of each river basin, tackling pollution from agriculture, and more incentives for efficient water use and cost recovery through the “polluter pays” principle.

Cleaner water, lower costs, higher growth

Implementing such measures does not necessarily impose extra costs, and where it does, the business case is clear. Failing to take care of limited water resources now will mean far greater costs in the future arising from water purification, health risks, costlier agriculture, droughts and floods, and lost tourism.

The cost of not taking action against flooding, for example, which is expected to increase with climate change, could reach €20 billion per year by 2020 in Europe, and €46 billion per year by 2050.

The scale of activities in the water management sector (i.e. supply and waste water) may come as a surprise: EU water policy has helped generate a dynamic, world-leading sector that now includes 9000 small and medium-sized enterprises and provides almost 500 000 jobs in Europe.

And Member States do not have to act alone, as there is EU funding available to support their efforts in treating waste water or reducing flood risks. From regional and rural development funds, to the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, resources can be used more effectively and in a more integrated way.

Diffuse pollution from agriculture still affects 90 % of river basins, so Europe still has a long way to go. But Commissioner Vella stressed the upside as well: “There is an improvement of 10 % as against the 2009 baseline,” he said, “which means that 10 000 more water bodies such as rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal zones are now on the way to recovery.”

The glass may be half full, or half empty – but either way, Europe needs a full glass soon.


Water, marine and coast