Waterframework Directive- explained

On rare occasions, governments listen to their electorate. The actual people that elected them and whose wishes they were supposed to uphold against the interests of special interest groups. 

The EU occasionally asks its citizens what is important to them. Like recently, when an overwhelming majority said they could do without daylight savings. 80% of the 4.6 Million people that responded in the survey wanted the time-changing gone. Two-thirds of them were Germans, admittedly. We love complaining about things. And we came up with that bloody mess. So fair enough that we feel responsible for it.

The water plan

So when the comission asked Europeans which five environmental issues they worry about the most, 47% said: “Water pollution”. In some countries, 71% of respondents were worried about water.

That result was enough for the EU to combine and streamline its environmental legislation and start the “Water framework directive” in 2000. The previously separate laws regarding groundwater and all surface waters were now approached together and a target was set. Until 2027, after three cycles of implementation, all waters shall be in “good” condition, chemically and biologically and for groundwater, also in terms of quantity.

Cross-boundary cooperation is done through a system of organising rivers according to water basins. In theory, this helps every country work with the same goals and methodologies. River basins should have the same limit values, and the same quality standards. 

To ensure everything is going in the right direction, citizens are supposed to be kept in the loop continuously. Like right now, where the EU asks everyone what they think of the progress thus far. You can fill out the survey here if you are a European citizen (until March 2019).

Is it enough to have a plan?

When it comes to making progress on the status of its rivers and the standards of farming, most European countries are among the best in the world. Everything is tightly regulated, controlled and enforced. But is it enough to have a thorough framework?

At the moment, money for the water framework directive comes from the rural development plans (RDPs), which are part of the common agricultural policy (CAP). This means that initiatives are linked to agricultural departments in local governments. There is no common source of funding just for water initiatives.

I was interested in how the directive was going after returning from Australia. I had missed the end of the first cycle in 2015, when all countries were supposed to have mapped the condition of their rivers truthfully.

So where are we at? Well, in 2018, the European environment agency published an assessment and here are the numbers:

• For groundwater, good chemical status has been achieved for 74 % of the groundwater area (it’s not polluted), while 89 % of the area achieved good quantitative status (there is enough of it)

• Around 40 % of surface waters (rivers, lakes and transitional and coastal waters) are in good ecological status or potential, and only 38 % are in good chemical status. Most of that is due to mercury pollution and a few other ubiquitous priority substances. If we solved the mercury pollution, 97% of surface waters would have good chemical status.

• The biggest problems are that lots of rivers have been straightened for shipping, cities or power plants (40 %), diffuse sources of pollution like agricultural nitrate runoff (38 %), and atmospheric deposition (38 %), particularly of mercury, followed by point sources, like sewer overflows and urban inflows (18 %) – these numbers don’t add up to 100% because lots of river basins have a few of the issues…

They think by the time 2021 comes around, and with it, the beginning of the third round of basin management plans, that all the little initiatives have resulted in some more waters achieving good status.
You can check on the basins in the various countries over here.

As you can see, especially Germany still has lots to do in its water basins when it comes to ecological status (natural shape, nutrient pollution and living species diversity).

What we can’t know

To find out a bit more about what is behind all the glossy reports I interviewed Maria Berglund, a consultant reviewing the international cooperation in river basin management plans for the EU. 

She told me that most of the basins currently in good status were already good before any measures were implemented. Countries tried to get an edge by redefining what “good” actually meant and adopting different limit values on the other side of the border to be better off than the neighbour. Normal human behaviour.

I was slightly ashamed but not surprised. The directive defines tough deadlines and hard numbers as targets to reach. In line with the SMART goal fantasy. But the real world doesn’t always work that way. Because we don’t know which measures result in which direct benefits (and we probably can’t know for sure in complex systems like river catchments) lots of measures are implemented and rules are bent to stay on track. Because nobody wants to stay behind.

Complex, international and long term projects really just mirror what is going on in the small, day-to-day interactions of our daily lives. There are humans behind it after all.

Communication is lacking. Nobody knows how to cooperate properly, ask for help and talk to each other more than once a year. How does one communicate effectively? There aren’t many rolemodels for good communication around. Soft skills are important for everyone, including water engineers. 

The truth is, water and its status might be high on the agenda of environmental concerns for EU citizens. But those environmental concerns aren’t high on the agenda when they compete with unemployment, the state of the economy and immigration. Those are the issues that get discussed in the news, and so they get reflected in people’s worries.

So what works?

According to Berglund, a good river basin management involves having the same limit values, the same methology and close cooperation. This mean talking to each other regularly. The Commission to protect the Danube does it best.

Ideally we would know what the impacts of the initiatives are. But first, agreeing on a common set of values and methodologies would be a helpful first step. Personal differences between environmentalists and agricultural policy makers (the ones with the money) need to be put aside to work towards a common goal.

And most of all, have the health of the environment at the front of mind. That would be a great step in the right direction.

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