EU freshwater policies


This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

EU water policies comprise a large body of legislation covering areas as diverse as flood management, bathing-water quality, chemicals in water, clean drinking water, groundwater protection and urban waste water. The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), adopted in 2000, was introduced to streamline the EU's large body of water legislation into one over-arching strategy.

With the first directives introduced in the 1970's, Europe has long been taking measures to ensure the quality of its water resources. Today, the challenge lies in tackling the pollution and overexploitation of freshwater in agriculture, industry and other human activities. According to Commission statistics:

  • 20% of all surface water in the EU is seriously threatened with pollution;
  • 60% of European cities overexploit their groundwater resources which supply around 65% of all drinking water in Europe;
  • 50% of wetlands have "endangered status" due to groundwater over-exploitation, and;
  • the area of irrigated land in Southern Europe has increased by 20% since 1985.

Eurobarometer opinion survey showed that nearly half of Europeans (EU-25) are worried about water pollution (47%), with figures for individual countries going up as far as 71%.

The EU's water policy comprises a large body of legislation with a focus on: chemicals in waterdrinking waterfloodsgroundwatermarine strategybathing water quality, and urban waste water.

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), adopted on 23 October 2000, was introduced to streamline the large body of water legislation into one over-arching strategy. "The integration of other major EU policies, e.g. agriculture, hydropower or navigation, and water policy is a prerequisite for successful protection of the aquatic environment," the Commission said.

  • Water Framework Directive

Adopted in 2000, the WFD imposes a general requirement for ecological protection and a minimum chemical standard for all surface waters. The key element of the directive is that it introduces a model for water management based on 'river basins', or geographical areas, rather than on administrative or political boundaries. 

The directive provides that, for each river basin, a "river basin management plan" should be established and updated every six years by relevant national authorities. While river basin management plans require ecological and chemical protection everywhere as a minimum standard, specific zones with particular uses can be established where higher objectives are to be met.

In contrast, policies that may adversely affect water quality may be allowed on the basis of overriding policy objectives, such as flood protection and access to essential drinking water supplies.

By 2010, the directive also requires member states to impose a water pricing policy in order to encourage consumers to use water resources more efficiently. Pricing policies are also meant to recover the costs of water services, including those relating to the environment and the use of resources. Although pricing policies are established in many EU states, others have no tradition of water pricing. However, the directive does allow for derogations in the case of less-favoured areas or to provide basic services at an affordable price.

  • Chemicals in water

Community policy concerning dangerous or hazardous substances in European waters was introduced in 1976 by a Council Directive on pollution caused by discharges of certain dangerous. Several substances were subsequently regulated in the 1980s with specific directives (also called 'daughter' directives).

The major part of Community strategy against pollution of surface waters control policy is now set out in Article 16 of the Water Framework Directive. 

The Commission adopted a proposal for a new Directive to protect surface water from pollution on 17 July 2006. The directive sets limits on concentration in surface waters of 41 dangerous chemical substances (including 33 priority substances and 8 other pollutants) that pose a particular risk to animal and plant life in the aquatic environment and to human health. The proposal envisages full implementation by member states by 2015.

A compromise agreement on the proposal was reached between Parliament and Council on 17 June 2008 (EURACTIV 18/06/08). The agreement includes a list of 13 'priority hazardous' substances such as mercury and cadmium that will have to be phased out entirely within 20 years. They are part of a wider list of 33 pollutants which will have to meet maximum concentration levels by 2018 (see final text as adopted by the Environment Council on 20 October 2008).

  • Groundwater

On 12 December 2006 the European Parliament and Council reached agreement on a new directive to protect groundwater (EURACTIV 13/12/06).

The directive’s 2009 deadline requires all member states to take "all measures necessary to prevent inputs into groundwater of any hazardous substances". This includes a list of substances to be regulated, including cyanide, arsenic, biocides and phytopharmaceutical substances.

A limit of 50mg/l for nitrate pollution, laid down in a 1991 directive on nitrates, which was under discussion, was not changed and thus still applies.

  • Drinking water

The Drinking Water Directive (DWD), introduced on 3 November 1998, aims to protect the health of EU consumers and to make sure their drinking water is wholesome and clean (free of unacceptable taste, odour, colour) and that it has a pleasant appearance.

In addition, the Directive sets standards for the most common substances (so-called parameters) that can be found in drinking water - a total of 48 microbiological and chemical parameters that must be monitored and tested regularly. 

In principle, WHO guidelines for drinking water are used as a basis for the standards in the Drinking Water Directive.

  • Urban Waste Water

The directive on urban waster water treatment aims to protect the environment from the adverse effects of discharges of urban waste water and of waste water from industrial sectors of the agro-food industry. To meet this goal, the directive provides for:

  • Prior regulation or specific authorisation for all discharges of urban waste water and industrial waste water from a list of 11 industrial sectors, as well as for all discharges of industrial waste water into urban waste water systems;
  • adequate sewerage systems and treatment plants for all agglomerations above 2.000 population equivalents ( widely used measurement unit for the organic pollution of waste water equalling to the average pollution load of one person per day);
  • assurance that urban waste water discharges and their effects are monitored, and;
  • the publishing of situation reports every two years and the establishment of implementation programmes.

The European Commission on 18 July 2006 announced that it had completed its clean water policy with a proposal for a directive on environmental quality standards for surface waters.

The proposal would limit concentrations in surface waters of 41 types of pesticides, heavy metals and other dangerous chemical substances was. It was described by the Commission as "the final major piece of legislation needed to support the Water Framework Directive (WFD), the cornerstone of EU water protection policy".  

"The WFD requires that all EU waters should achieve good status by 2015. It establishes a new regime for the prevention and control of chemical pollution of water. The new proposal will implement this for surface waters", the Commission said.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) regards universal access to water as "a fundamental right." "Services in the EU need a strong regulatory framework to ensure continuity of supply and fair access for everyone," said ETUC General Secretary John Monks. "They must be of the highest standard, and therefore accountable to both consumers and workers in these crucial sectors."

The Dow Chemical Company is trying to position itself as a leader in water treatment technologies - desalination, water purification, contaminant removal and water recycling - with the launch of a new business unit, Dow Water Solutions, in September 2006.

Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO said: "We approach the challenge of developing water resources not in a spirit of charity but as a business, in a spirit of enterprise." 

In a report released in March 2007 ahead of World Water Day, conservation organisation WWF listed the Danube in a list of ten rivers considered most at risk in the world, warning that it is "fast dying as a result of dams, pollution and climate change".

"Over 80% of the original floodplain area along the Danube and its main tributaries has been lost since the beginning of the 19th century," the WWF said, accusing "canalisation and construction of dykes and dams over the last 200 years". "Further canalising the river results not only in loss of biodiversity and wetlands - thereby increasing problems with flood management - but can also draw down water tables, risking access to drinking water for 20 million people in the region", the WWF warned. "In fact, over 85% of the Danube could fail to meet the objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive, which aims to achieve 'good status' of all European waters by 2015".

On 17 July 2006, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the WWF issued a joint letter complaining about the failure of eleven member states - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Sweden and The Netherlands - to comply with the provisions of the EU Water Framework Directive.

The NGOs said they were concerned about a narrow interpretation of the directive’s article 5, which defines what constitutes a 'water service'. 

"This leads to a situation where many water infrastructure works, like dams, weirs and dykes serving hydropower, navigation, agriculture irrigation and flood defence are excluded from any transparent economic appraisal including their environmental and resource costs," the NGOs warned. And according to the WWF and the EEB, those infrastructure works "are identified in the same reports in most cases as a major environmental problem, contributing to the failure to achieve the WFD’s overall objective."

In relation to the December 2006 agreement on a new Groundwater directive (EURACTIV 13/12/06), pesticide manufacturers at the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) advised maintaining coherence with existing strict EU laws on authorisation of chemicals used in plant-protection products. Substances that have already been assessed and authorised, said ECPA, "should not be considered hazardous in the context of member state implementation measures under the new groundwater directive".

However, the agreement was welcomed by environmental groups: "Members of the European Parliament have successfully fought off attempts by governments to re-nationalise groundwater protection," said the EEB's EU Policy Director Stefan Scheuer. "They ensured that preventing pollution and achieving quality standards is robust and legally binding."

  • 2000: Water Framework Directive (WFD) enters into force
  • 2003: Deadline for transposition in national law and identification of River Basin Districts and Authorities
  • 2008: Draft river basin management plan to be presented
  • 2009: River basin management plans including programme of measures to be finalised
  • 2010: Pricing policies to be introduced
  • 2012: Commission to table a 'Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's Water', including a review of the implementation of the WFD.
  • 2015: WFD's environmental objectives to be met
  • 2021: First management cycle ends
  • 2027: Second management cycle ends, final deadline for meeting objectives

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