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© Wild Wonders of Europe / Daniel Zupanc / WWF

Water

Across Europe, we are polluting our rivers and stretching water resources thin
According to the latest data from the European Environment Agency, 60% of EU rivers, lakes and wetlands are not healthy today. This is part of an alarming global trend, with WWF’s Living Planet Report showing that freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on the planet, and that freshwater species populations have declined by 83% since the 1970s.

In Europe, ambitious, holistic legislation defends these vulnerable ecosystems – the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Adopted in 2000, the law aims to bring the vast majority of EU rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, groundwater, transitional and coastal waters back to good health by 2027 at the very latest. In doing so, it strives to secure the crucial benefits of healthy freshwater ecosystems – such as absorbing and storing carbon, filtering water, and acting as natural flood defence – for the sake of the health, economic prosperity and enjoyment of current and future generations.

WWF advocates for the effective implementation and better enforcement of the WFD to ensure 100% of freshwater ecosystems in the EU are healthy by 2027 at the very latest. This includes minimising changes to the natural conditions of freshwater ecosystems through the construction of destructive infrastructure, such as for the purposes of hydropower, and reducing pollution and over-abstraction (taking too much water) by agriculture or industry.

"We need to bring free-flowing rivers back to Europe. The Water Framework Directive provides all the right tools, but these need to be matched with far-reaching, ambitious action!"

Claire Baffert
Senior EU Policy Officer, Water
@CBaffert

© Leopold Kanzler

What WWF is doing

On EU water legislation 

WWF has worked on EU water policy since the establishment of the European Policy Office in 1989, including the negotiation of the WFD. 

In 2018, the European Commission launched its “fitness check” of the WFD, a process each piece of EU legislation undergoes to evaluate whether it is still relevant and “fit for purpose”. Some industry groups and Member States saw this as an opportunity to weaken the WFD’s strong elements. Urgent action was needed. Together with other NGOs, WWF launched the #ProtectWater campaign to defend the WFD during the ongoing fitness check, and ensure it did not result in a weakening of the law. 

From 2018 to 2020, the #ProtectWater campaign inspired more than 375,000 citizens to call on the European Commission to keep the WFD in its current form, making the public consultation on the legislation one of the largest ever in the history of the EU. This call from citizens was echoed in December 2019 in a letter from 5,500+ scientists.

Just a week after this letter from the scientific community, the European Commission released its final conclusions on the WFD fitness check, which declared the law to be “fit for purpose", acknowledging that the WFD's objectives “are as relevant now as they were at the time of the adoption”. 

However, despite the clear conclusions, the Commission did not immediately discard the possibility of revising the law. This silence was creating legal uncertainty for Member States and left the door open for industry lobby groups to continue pushing for a weakening of the law ahead of a critical meeting of EU Environment Ministers. Together with its partners in the Living Rivers Europe coalition, WWF campaigned hard for the WFD to be given the final sign-off. Finally, on 22 June 2020, the EU’s Commissioner for Environment, Ocean and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, declared that the WFD would not be opened up for revision, confirming the need to focus on supporting implementation and enforcement "without changing the directive". 

Looking ahead, it is now important for the Commission and Member States to pull out all the stops to reach the objectives of the WFD by 2027. There is a long way to go: The European Environment Agency's State of the Environment Report 2020 showed that, out of the four freshwater indicators analysed by the EEA, only one has shown progress over the last 10-15 years.

Member States are now finalising their plans (known as River Basin Management Plans) to achieve the WFD’s objectives during the 2022-2027 cycle: This is an unparalleled opportunity for them to triple and speed-up their efforts on water protection. The European Commission needs to embark all actors together in an ambitious vision for healthy and clean waters in Europe, one which requires political will, enforcement of the legislation, and adequate financing. 

For our detailed recommendations to Member States and the European Commission on improving the implementation and enforcement of the WFD, please refer to the notes to the editor of this story.

Contacts

Claire Baffert
Senior EU Policy Officer, Water
+32 492 73 10 92
@CBaffert

Sophie Bauer
Communications Officer, Water
+32 471 05 25 11
@SoFreeBauer

© Goran Šafarek
On hydropower

Hydropower is an enormous pressure on rivers in Europe, and one of the main reasons that the WFD is breached. 

While hydropower is often regarded as “green”, the dams or weirs needed to operate the plants have an enormous impact on rivers and biodiversity – these destroy both rivers and their surrounding environment, changing the river’s natural flow, blocking fish migration routes and trapping sediments that protect riverbanks and deltas against floods and sea level rises. Moreover, they release methane and CO2 from their reservoirs (and are therefore not climate neutral).

Despite the huge impact it has on nature, the hydropower sector is booming in Europe. In 2019, WWF, together with other NGOs, commissioned the first-ever mapping of all existing and planned hydropower plants on the continent. The message from the analysis is clear: Europe’s hydropower potential has been well and truly harnessed. There are currently 21,387 hydropower plants in Europe, with 8,785 additional plants planned or under construction. Almost half of these are in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean, where many plants are funded or subsidised by the EU. 

WWF advocates for there to be no more new hydropower development in Europe, and for existing plants to be refurbished to lessen their impact on biodiversity. WWF is also advocating to end subsidies and public financing for new hydropower development in Europe.  
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© WWF, RiverWatch, EuroNatur, GEOTA

Hydropower pressure on European rivers: The story in numbers
 

The first ever Europe-wide inventory of hydropower plants shows rivers to be saturated with hydropower dams and thousands more on the cards. This is despite EU rules which should limit new hydropower plants. Commissioned by WWF, RiverWatch, GEOTA and EuroNatur, the study provides damning evidence of governments’ failure to protect rivers and biodiversity, demonstrating a blatant disregard for EU water and nature protection laws. Click here to download the study.