The European Commission unveiled its water blueprint on Thursday (15 November), calling for strengthened enforcement of the 12-year-old Water Framework Directive amid fresh reports that many national governments are failing to live up to their commitments.
The document was released a day after the European Environment Agency (EEA) reported that 48% of streams and lakes in the EU will fail to be of ‘good ecological status’ by 2015 as required by law, and criticism from environmentalists that national governments flaunt their obligations under the water directive.
As expected, the Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources avoids an ambitious agenda of legislative recommendations.
“The blueprint does not put forward a ‘one-size-fits-all’ straitjacket but rather proposes a tool box that member states can use to improve water management at national, regional and river basin levels,” the Commission said in a statement.
Janez Poto?nik, the environment commissioner, said the document reflects “a good understanding of the problems we face and a solid platform to tackle them.
“The time has come to take action to deliver the full benefits of our legislation and create opportunities for innovative solutions in water policy and the water industry. What is needed is a sustainable balance between water demand and supply, taking into account the needs of both people and the natural ecosystems they depend on."
The blueprint – in effect a mandatory review of the EU’s water legislation – is aimed at improving efficiency, security of supply and enforcement. It also aims to integrate EU conservation policies with the agricultural and cohesion programmes, an develop standards for water re-use in industries and households.
The 24-page document recommends policies that have already stoked opposition in the debate over the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, including proposals aimed at compelling farmers to create buffer areas to protect ground water from pesticide and fertiliser contamination.
Some environmental groups involved in early discussions of the blueprint have denounced the lack of ambition in the document, with campaigners privately accusing the Commission and other EU institutions of caving into politicians and businesses that have opposed binding measures for energy and water conservation.
But the European Environment Bureau, which has long criticised the EU and national governments for failing to enforce water efficiency and pollution policies, praised the blueprint for acknowledging the need to play catch-up on enforcement.
‘We are pleased to hear that the Commission plans to enforce the WFD in a strict and timely manner based on its country-specific recommendations that will be issued to all 27 countries. The unnecessary-foot dragging in this area has already done enough harm to waters, aquatic life, animals and humans,’ Pieter de Pous the EEB’s policy director, said in a statement.
However, the group expressed concern that “the blueprint has failed to come up with new measures to improve water efficiency – including household and agricultural water consumption.
Ambitious plan ruled out earlier on
An ambitious package of legislation to address lingering pollution problems – including what EEA shows are rising levels of agricultural pollutants – was ruled out early on.
A Cypriot official whose county holds the rotating presidency of the EU told EurActiv that discussions held this summer in Nicosia between EU environment ministers called for implementing legislation – including the water framework, nitrates and groundwater directives – rather than making sweeping new proposals.
“Everybody agrees that we do not need new legislation on water,” Christina Pantazi, environment attaché in the Cypriot mission to the EU, told EurActiv on 20 September.
However, there was broad agreement amongst ministers that the emphasis should be on ensuring compliance amid criticism that national governments have been too slow in implementing some of the EU’s landmark laws on water.
Water use by sector varies across the European Union – with agriculture the main consumer of freshwater in more arid regions, while energy, home and industrial consumption lead in damper climates.
Overall, households, business, hospitals and offices account for 20% of water use, according to a May 2012 report by the European Environmental Agency. Of that, flushing toilets consumes nearly one-third of water, but leakage from old pipes, commodes or public water supplies is also a big consumer.
But calls for efficiency measures are growing, and not just by policymakers. Leading water-consuming industries, including beverage and food manufacturers, are taking steps to improve efficiency to cut costs but also in the face of mounting concerns about supply security.
EU figures show that while much of Europe has ample freshwater, parts of Spain, France, Italy, Britain, Belgium and the Baltic states along with much of Cyprus have faced stress or extreme stress in recent years – with demand exceeding supply.
- 26-27 Nov.: Conference on the water blueprint scheduled in Nicosia
- European Commission: A Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Waters
- European Commission: Innovation Partnership on Water
- European Commission: Green Week: Every Drop Counts
- European Environment Agency: Europe’s water: efficient use is a must
- European Commission: Europeans call for stronger EU action on water