Healthy rivers and lakes are not ‘nice-to-haves’, they are essential to our existence

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Freshwater ecosystems are now the most threatened on the planet, says the WWF. [© Torbjörn Hegedüs]

Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are our life support system, but EU member states are trying to destroy the law that protects them and the window to save them is closing, warns Andreas Baumüller.

Andreas Baumüller is Head of Natural Resources at the WWF European Policy Office.

Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are not a luxury. They are essential to our existence. They supply and purify our drinking water. They help us adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change by providing natural flood defence, and absorbing and storing carbon. They are home to some of the richest biodiversity on the planet, housing 15,000 different species of fish – that’s roughly 45% of all fish species on the planet – as well as birds, mammals and insects.

And yet, we continue to pollute our rivers and lakes with pesticides, nitrates, and microplastics. To dam, dredge, and channelise them. To bleed them dry to irrigate our farmlands and fuel unsustainable industries, like hydropower. The result? Freshwater ecosystems are now the most threatened on the planet, and, as WWF’s recently published Living Planet Report 2018 shows, the abundance of freshwater species worldwide has declined by an apocalyptic 83% since 1970.

The situation is equally bleak in Europe, where EU Member States have consistently failed to protect and restore their waters. 60% of EU rivers, lakes and wetlands are not healthy, with the state of water being especially terrible in central Europe, such as in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, where we see much higher population density and intensive agriculture.

60% of living species declined due to human activity, warns WWF

The ways in which humans feed, fuel and finance modern societies is pushing the planet’s natural systems to the brink, threatening the very foundation on which the world economy is based, according to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, published on Tuesday (30 October).

We need Member States to act now to protect our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and to restore those which have already been damaged. In Europe, we are fortunate to have the tool that obliges them to do just that: The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), one of the EU’s most ambitious and progressive pieces of environmental legislation. Under this law, Member States have committed to ensure no further deterioration of their waters, and to restore those which have already been wrecked so they can achieve “good ecological status”.

But, since the law came into effect in 2000, Member States have failed to make the law work in practice. And, now, many EU governments are colluding to try to destroy the WFD’s strong and progressive elements during the European Commission’s ongoing “fitness check”. And not just that: These meetings are taking place behind closed doors and outside of the official process, and at a time when the fitness check is still going on – so before the Commission has even concluded whether the legislation is fit for purpose and if it should be revised at all. When discussing the concrete ways in which they want to “improve” (read: water down) the law at this early stage, Member States effectively preempt the fitness check outcome, relegating the European Commission’s role to no more than a mere bystander.

For many, this will not come as a surprise. Member States’ poor, unambitious implementation of this law resulted in them completely missing their initial objective of bringing all waters to good status by 2015. This was then extended to 2027 – but they are nowhere close.

A group of countries (who, coincidentally, hold some of the most damaged, least biodiverse waters in Europe) are, as I write this, desperately searching for an easy way out and using the WFD fitness check to push for a significant weakening of the law, including by further postponing the deadline. 2045 is one of the options currently being batted around.

Neither our waters nor our wildlife can hold on until then. Therefore, to combat this alarming push from Member States to weaken the WFD, WWF, together with 100 other NGOs, launched the #ProtectWater campaign. The campaign calls on the Commission to defend the law, asking citizens to express their support through the ongoing public consultation on the WFD, and more than 100,000 citizens have already done so.

Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are not ‘nice-to-haves’. We simply cannot survive without them. As WWF, we will be there every step of the way during this fitness check of the WFD to ensure that this strong law remains in its current form and capable of safeguarding our rivers, lakes and wetlands. Without them there is no water. Without water is no life.

Time for EU member states to protect lakes and rivers

The latest science shows that Europe’s freshwater bodies are in a dreadful ecological state. Governments must finally take responsibility and undertake serious efforts to comply with EU legislation, urges Andreas Baumüller.

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