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Introduction to the EU Water Framework Directive 

Citizens, environmental organisations, nature, water-using sectors in the economy all need cleaner rivers and lakes, groundwater and bathing waters.

Water protection is therefore one of the priorities of the Commission. European Water Policy should get polluted waters clean again, and ensure clean waters are kept clean. The following will provide an overview on development, present state and future of European Water Policy.

An early beginning  

Early European water legislation began, in a "first wave", with standards for those of our rivers and lakes used for drinking water abstraction in 1975, and culminated in 1980 in setting binding quality targets for our drinking water. It also included quality objective legislation on fish waters, shellfish waters, bathing waters and groundwaters. Its main emission control element was the Dangerous Substances Directive.  

Addressing pollution from urban waste water and from agriculture  

In 1988 the Frankfurt ministerial seminar on water reviewed the existing legislation and identified a number of improvements that could be made and gaps that could be filled. This resulted in the second phase of water legislation, the first results of this were, in 1991, the adoption of

  • the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, providing for secondary (biological) waste water treatment, and even more stringent treatment where necessary.
  • the Nitrates Directive, addressing water pollution by nitrates from agriculture.

Other legislative results of these developments were Commission proposals for action on

  • a new Drinking Water Directive, reviewing the quality standards and, where necessary, tightening them (adopted November 1998),
  • a Directive for Integrated Pollution and Prevention Control (IPPC), adopted in 1996, addressing pollution from large industrial installations, later transformed into the Industrial Emissions Directive.

Getting Europe's waters cleaner by managing water on a river basin scale: the new European water policy

Pressure for a fundamental rethink of Community water policy came to a head in mid-1995: The Commission, which had already been considering the need for a more global approach to water policy, accepted requests from the European Parliament's Environment Committee and from the Council of Environment Ministers and the outcome of a broad process of consultation. Concretely, the Commission concluded that, while considerable progress had been made in tackling individual issues, the water policy was fragmented, in terms both of objectives and of means. All parties agreed on the need for a single piece of framework legislation to resolve these problems. In response to this, the Commission presented a Proposal for a Water Framework Directive with the following key aims:

  • expanding the scope of water protection to all waters, surface waters and groundwater
  • achieving "good status" for all waters by a set deadline
  • water management based on river basins
  • "combined approach" of emission limit values and quality standards
  • getting the prices right
  • getting the citizen involved more closely
  • streamlining legislation

The outline below shows how these elements are made operational within the Directive.  

A single system of water management: River basin management  

The best model for a single system of water management is management by river basin - the natural geographical and hydrological unit - instead of according to administrative or political boundaries. Initiatives taken by the States concerned for the Maas, Schelde or Rhine river basins have served as positive examples of this approach, with their cooperation and joint objective-setting across Member State borders, or in the case of the Rhine even beyond the EU territory. For each river basin district - some of which will traverse national frontiers - a "river basin management plan" needs to be established and updated every six years, and this will provide the context for the co-ordination requirements identified above.

Co-ordination of objectives - good status for all waters by a set deadline  

There are a number of objectives in respect of which the quality of water is protected. The key ones at European level are general protection of the aquatic ecology, specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, protection of drinking water resources, and protection of bathing water. All these objectives must be integrated for each river basin. It is clear that the last three - special habitats, drinking water areas and bathing water - apply only to specific bodies of water (those supporting special wetlands; those identified for drinking water abstraction; those generally used as bathing areas). In contrast, ecological protection should apply to all waters: the central requirement of the Treaty is that the environment be protected to a high level in its entirety.  

Surface water  

Ecological protection  

For this reason, a general requirement for ecological protection, and a general minimum chemical standard, was introduced to cover all surface waters. These are the two elements "good ecological status" and "good chemical status". Good ecological status is defined in Annex V of the Water Framework Directive, in terms of the quality of the biological community, the hydrological characteristics and the chemical characteristics. As no absolute standards for biological quality can be set which apply across the Community, because of ecological variability, the controls are specified as allowing only a slight departure from the biological community which would be expected in conditions of minimal anthropogenic impact. A set of procedures for identifying that point for a given body of water, and establishing particular chemical or hydromorphological standards to achieve it, is provided, together with a system for ensuring that each Member State interprets the procedure in a consistent way (to ensure comparability). The system is somewhat complicated, but this is inevitable given the extent of ecological variability, and the large number of parameters, which must be dealt with.

Chemical protection  

Good chemical status is defined in terms of compliance with all the quality standards established for chemical substances at European level. The Directive also provides a mechanism for renewing these standards and establishing new ones by means of a prioritisation mechanism for hazardous chemicals. This will ensure at least a minimum chemical quality, particularly in relation to very toxic substances, everywhere in the Union.

Other uses  

As mentioned above, the other uses or objectives for which water is protected apply in specific areas, not everywhere. Therefore, the obvious way to incorporate them is to designate specific protection zones within the river basin which must meet these different objectives. The overall plan of objectives for the river basin will then require ecological and chemical protection everywhere as a minimum, but where more stringent requirements are needed for particular uses, zones will be established and higher objectives set within them.  

There is one other category of uses which does not fit into this picture. It is the set of uses which adversely affect the status of water but which are considered essential on their own terms - they are overriding policy objectives. The key examples are flood protection and essential drinking water supply, and the problem is dealt with by providing derogations from the requirement to achieve good status for these cases, so long as all appropriate mitigation measures are taken. Less clear-cut cases are navigation and power generation, where the activity is open to alternative approaches (transport can be switched to land, other means of power generation can be used). Derogations are provided for those cases also, but subject to three tests: that the alternatives are technically impossible, that they are prohibitively expensive, or that they produce a worse overall environmental result.  

Groundwater  

Chemical status  

The case of groundwater is somewhat different. The presumption in relation to groundwater should broadly be that it should not be polluted at all. For this reason, setting chemical quality standards may not be the best approach, as it gives the impression of an allowed level of pollution to which Member States can fill up. A very few such standards have been established at European level for particular issues (nitrates, pesticides and biocides), and these must always be adhered to. But for general protection, we have taken another approach. It is essentially a precautionary one. It comprises a prohibition on direct discharges to groundwater, and (to cover indirect discharges) a requirement to monitor groundwater bodies so as to detect changes in chemical composition, and to reverse any antropogenically induced upward pollution trend. Taken together, these should ensure the protection of groundwater from all contamination, according to the principle of minimum anthropogenic impact.  

Quantitative status  

Quantity is also a major issue for groundwater. Briefly, the issue can be put as follows. There is only a certain amount of recharge into a groundwater each year, and of this recharge, some is needed to support connected ecosystems (whether they be surface water bodies, or terrestrial systems such as wetlands). For good management, only that portion of the overall recharge not needed by the ecology can be abstracted - this is the sustainable resource, and the Directive limits abstraction to that quantity.  

One of the innovations of the Directive was that it provided a framework for integrated management of groundwater and surface water for the first time at European level.

Co-ordination of measures  

There are a number of measures taken at Union level to tackle particular pollution problems. Key examples are the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and the Nitrates Directive, which together tackle the problem of eutrophication (as well as health effects such as microbial pollution in bathing water areas and nitrates in drinking water); and the Industrial Emissions Directive, which deals with chemical pollution. The aim is to co-ordinate the application of these so as to meet the objectives established above. This is done as follows.

First of all, the objectives are established for the river basin as outlined in the previous section. Then an analysis of human impact is conducted so as to determine how far from the objective each body of water is. At this point, the effect on the problems of each body of water of full implementation of all existing legislation is considered. If the existing legislation solves the problem, well and good, and the objective of the framework Directive is attained. However, if it does not, the Member State must identify exactly why, and design whatever additional measures are needed to satisfy all the objectives established. These might include stricter controls on polluting emissions from industry and agriculture, or urban waste water sources, say. This should ensure full co-ordination.  

The combined approach  

But there is a further aspect. Historically, there has been a dichotomy in approach to pollution control at European level, with some controls concentrating on what is achievable at source, through the application of technology; and some dealing with the needs of the receiving environment in the form of quality objectives. Each approach has potential flaws. Source controls alone can allow a cumulative pollution load which is severely detrimental to the environment, where there is a concentration of pollution sources. And quality standards can underestimate the effect of a particular substance on the ecosystem, due to the limitations in scientific knowledge regarding dose-response relationships and the mechanics of transport within the environment.  

For this reason, a consensus has developed that both are needed in practice - a combined approach. The Water Framework Directive formalises this. It does so as follows. On the source side, it requires that as part of the basic measures to be taken in the river basin, all existing technology-driven source-based controls must be implemented as a first step. But over and above this, it also sets out a framework for developing further such controls. The framework comprises the development of a list of priority substances for action at EU level, prioritised on the basis of risk; and then the design of the most cost-effective set of measures to achieve load reduction of those substances, taking into account both product and process sources.  

On the effects side, it co-ordinates all the environmental objectives in existing legislation, and provides a new overall objective of good status for all waters, and requires that where the measures taken on the source side are not sufficient to achieve these objectives, additional ones are required.  

The river basin management plan  

All the elements of this analysis must be set out in a plan for the river basin. The plan is a detailed account of how the objectives set for the river basin (ecological status, quantitative status, chemical status and protected area objectives) are to be reached within the timescale required. The plan will include all the results of the above analysis: the river basin's characteristics, a review of the impact of human activity on the status of waters in the basin, estimation of the effect of existing legislation and the remaining "gap" to meeting these objectives; and a set of measures designed to fill the gap. One additional component is that an economic analysis of water use within the river basin must be carried out. This is to enable there to be a rational discussion on the cost-effectiveness of the various possible measures. It is essential that all interested parties are fully involved in this discussion, and indeed in the preparation of the river basin management plan as a whole. Which leads to the final major element of the Directive, the public participation requirements.

Getting the prices right  

The need to conserve adequate supplies of a resource for which demand is continuously increasing is also one of the drivers behind what is arguably one of the Directive's most important innovations - the introduction of pricing. Adequate water pricing acts as an incentive for the sustainable use of water resources and thus helps to achieve the environmental objectives under the Directive.