A call for stronger cooperation in order to protect European waters

As the saying goes, “Water is Life”.

Too little or too much water, or water of bad quality can not only imperil human lives and affect our health, it can also have negative effect nature and the services it provides and inflict significant damage on economic activity.

The Special Report on Global Warming published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 alerts us to the grave implications of climate change and related impacts and risks.

One of the key messages in the report is that we already are seeing the consequences of global warming through more extreme weather and acceleration in the rate of sea level rise, among other changes.

Droughts and floods resulting from climate change compound existing challenges in Europe linked to unsustainable water management.

For all these reasons, an integrated approach to water management in Europe is needed now more than ever.

This July, the European Environment Agency presented its latest health check of Europe’s waters.

The report shows that essential investments are being made to protect water and that knowledge, management and quality of water across Europe has improved.

The trend of continuous water quality decline in Europe has been reversed despite the fact that Europe is a densely populated continent and in spite of hundreds of years of intensive economic development, which has affected the vast majority of its water bodies.

However, the report also shows that we cannot rest on our laurels, since less than half of Europe’s waters have achieved the quality standards required under the European legislation.

This is especially the case for surface waters: around 40% of our rivers and lakes are still not in ‘Good Ecological Status’ as required by the Water Framework Directive a situation that is far from ideal.

In the coming months the European Commission will publish its assessment of the state of implementation of the Water Framework Directive and of the Floods Directive.

It will allow Member States to make their next River Basin Management Plans and Flood Risk Management Plans (for the period 2021-2027) more effective and will allow the Commission to ensure that Member States stay focused on the achievement of the objectives of the legislation during this period.

The assessment is still ongoing, but some findings are already emerging from the analysis.

It is clear that considerable efforts are required to overcome the remaining challenges pollution from agriculture, the impact from hydromorphological changes, from chemicals and abstraction, to name some of the key areas.

There are also new, emerging challenges to be addressed, including pollution from pharmaceuticals that are increasingly finding their way into our freshwater and seas, and longer periods of drought, as many parts of Europe experienced this summer.

As part of its efforts to keep EU Water law up-to-date, the Commission has tabled a proposal for a revised Drinking Water Directive and a new Regulation on the reuse of waste water.

We are also committed to propose a strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment.

We have also launched an evaluation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and a combined evaluation (“Fitness Check”) of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), the Environmental Quality Standards Directive, the Groundwater Directive and the Floods Directive.

The overall purpose of this process is to assess whether the legislation is still fit for purpose and has delivered the desired changes to European business and citizens.

The evaluation will help the Commission decide on next steps for water law in Europe.

The open consultation for the Fitness Check was launched the 17 September 2018. Contributions from stakeholders and Member States across Europe, along with specific expertise and the conclusions from the assessment of the River Basin Management Plans and the Flood Risk Management Plans, will all weigh into the conclusions of the Fitness Check, expected in late 2019.

Legislation cannot stand alone and we should acknowledge the big challenges Member States and many stakeholders face.

The 5th European Water Conference, which was organised in cooperation with the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in Vienna in September 2018, generated some important messages for the debate on the current and future EU water policy.

Notable among them is the message that we need to continue working together and step up our efforts to restore, maintain and improve the state of our waters, which is the main objective of EU water law.

This requires reinforcing action across Member States to implement the legislation. It also requires increasing investments in water infrastructure and water-related measures by exploring all possible funding sources, including from public, private and EU sources.

The EU’s waters require continued attention at all levels, and the European Commission will continue to do its part to keep this issue high on the agenda.