21st Feb 2019

EU states dragging heels on landmark water law

  • Seven years down the line and plenty remains to be done (Photo: European Commission)

A major review of EU water management law later this month is expected to show that several EU states are not living up to a timetable to secure clean drinking water and aquatic habitats in Europe for decades to come, but the past seven years of work has created a new legal toolkit and pushed knowledge forward.

Brussels' so-called Framework Water Directive - which became EU law in 2000 - aims to create and enforce a new set of targets on acceptable forms of water use by households and industry. The targets are to be implemented in two phases between 2015 and 2027 in a scheme that could stimulate investment of up to €400 billion in the EU water sector.

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The timetable obliges EU states to transpose the framework directive into national law in 2003, present preliminary reports on river basin quality in 2004, submit action plans for river basin management in 2008 and introduce new policies on water services pricing in 2010 to help meet the gargantuan costs of investment required by 2027.

The framework pulls together old laws on urban waste water (1991) and drinking water (1998) as well as spinning off new "daughter directives" on clean groundwater, flood risk management and restrictions on toxic "priority" substances, with the groundwater bill passed in late 2006 and the latter two bills going through the EU machine this year.

But when the European Commission and the German EU presidency meets leading players from the EU water sector in Brussels on 22 March to check progress so far, Brussels' report is set to show that some EU states are falling behind the new deadlines while others are backsliding on old legislation in the field.

"The directive provides all the tools needed to achieve truly sustainable water management in the EU for years to come," one of the commission's top officials on the water dossier, Helmut Bloech, told EUobserver. "However, there is still a long and challenging road ahead for member states to implement these tools."

According to the latest commission data, Italy and Luxembourg have still failed to transcribe the framework directive into national law while Italy and Greece have not yet submitted the so-called "Article 5" river basin analyses due in 2004, decreasing their chances of hitting the 2008 deadline for river basin action plans.

On top of this, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland and Sweden are facing EU court cases for violating the existing urban waste water and drinking water directives. Spain is the worst offender with six cases, such as nitrate pollution - which can cause blood disease in children - in the Almeria and Vera regions or such as building leisure parks with no proper impact assessments.

Greece is also disturbing: untreated waste from major towns and factories is being allowed to seep into the water table forcing 18 municipalities to drink water with unacceptable levels of nitrate, ammonia and arsenic. In Portugal, untreated effluent from 700,000 homes in Estoril is flowing into the sea.

Many of the largest new member states, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia have secured derogations from aspects of the waste water directive until 2015, allowing Communist-era water treatment practices to remain in use.

Looking at Poland, just 55 percent of households are connected to municipal sewage systems compared to over 90 percent in Denmark or the Netherlands. Some 3,500 Polish industrial plants discharge water directly into rivers but just 1,900 of these run waste water treatment plants.

EU states which are not breaking or which are not outside the scope of existing legislation also leave room for improvement: in France 57 percent of sewage treatment plants in environmentally "sensitive" areas don't meet EU recommendations. In the Netherlands, many major towns have not yet installed nitrogen treatment units.

Quality not quantity

Going back to the "Article 5" river basin reports that did find their way to Brussels on time, a major study by pro-green lobby WWF last year questioned the quality of research submitted so far, saying they were drawn up with no public consultation and ignored key elements such as the environmental impact of hydroelectric facilities.

The WWF study was particularly scathing on the economic aspect of the more than 20 river basin studies in question, saying they failed to define "water services" or critique the implications of water service pricing and taxation policy in relation to the 2010 water pricing reforms and the €400 billion investment burden.

"The majority of competent authorities have considered [the research] as a desk-based data-gathering exercise with no direct input from stakeholders," the WWF analysts said. "The challenge posed by the integration of economics into water management has not been successfully addressed."

On top of this the political climate in Europe - with energy instead of water top of the environmental agenda - does not bode well. "The real challenge is to put water at the top of the political agenda," OECD expert Lorents Lorentsen said at a major water conference in Brussels last year. "The real question is whether the political will exists to deal with [the task]," German MP Uschi Eid added.

Glass is half full?

It would be churlish to suggest the past seven years have not seen significant steps forward however, yielding a vast body of unprecedented information on Europe's river basins and setting new policy parameters for EU states, which have for the first time committed to integrate water protection into wider industrial and social reforms.

The more than 24,000 pages of "Article 5" river basin research so far includes detailed maps showing population density, water availability in terms of cubic metres per person per year, levels of land cultivation as well as levels of nitrogen and phosphorous present in the sprawling catchment areas of most of Europe's greatest river systems such as the Danube, Rhein, Oder, Elbe, Vistula, Seine and Loire.

The studies show that 50 percent of Europe's surface waters and ground waters fall below "good status" with 30 percent of surface waters "heavily modified" in terms of shape and content by industry, urbanisation and transport. The best waters are in the north, such as in Norway's Telemark basin. The worst tend be in the south as well as in the UK and Belgium.

The 22 March conference will see the information launched in a public online forum called the Water Information System for Europe (WISE) in the hope that EU citizens, local authorities and other stakeholders will get behind the project, making good on recent Eurobarometer research saying 47 percent of Europeans are worried about future water supplies.

The framework directive should "provide for a long-term, sound and predictable basis for decision-taking, from the local and regional level to the European level, for technical, financial and political decisions," the commission's Mr Bloech said. "Water is a divine gift, but we are abusing it," the then environment commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, said launching the scheme back in 2000.

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