Time for EU member states to protect lakes and rivers

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"Only 40% of Europe’s surface freshwater bodies are in ‘good ecological status’, which is a fancy way of saying ‘healthy’. The remaining 60% are sick." [Jayson/Flickr]

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.

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

Everybody would agree that freshwater is one of our planet’s most valuable resources, but few people realise quite how threatened it is.

Today’s ‘State of Water’ report of the European Environment Agency (EEA) drives home this very inconvenient truth: only 40% of Europe’s surface freshwater bodies are in ‘good ecological status’, which is a fancy way of saying ‘healthy’. The remaining 60% are sick. And they are getting sicker by the day.

This is especially true for many countries in central Europe, such as Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, with higher population density and more intensive agriculture, where the majority of water bodies have failed to achieve good ecological status.

The results of the report are not surprising: according to WWF’s own 2016 Living Planet Report, the abundance of freshwater species has shrunk by a colossal 81% since the 1970s! This is an alarming message compared to a decline of36% for terrestrial species and 38% of marine species. Freshwater ecosystems are therefore the most threatened habitats on our planet!

The unacceptable state of our waters in Europe is down to one thing: EU member states consistently failing to make EU water legislation work on the ground, opting instead to bow to vested economic interests and pressure from various industries.

Therefore, the EEA report must be a wake-up call: let’s stop taking our freshwater for granted. Let’s realise that our rivers, lakes and wetlands are critically ill. But what’s the cure?

It’s hard to believe that the most effective medicine – the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) – has already been around for as long as 18 years, aiming at bringing Europe’s freshwater bodies into ‘good status’.

But this medicine and its healing power are kept in the cabinet or only half the dose has been used at best. Not enough to fully recover, and not even enough to stop further deterioration.

The best, most visionary, most ambitious legislation cannot only ever be as effective as its implementation on the ground. Member states have been dragging their feet on this ever since agreeing the laws in 2000, bowing instead to economic pressures from industry and damaging agricultural practices often by misusing ‘exemptions’ provided for by the WFD. It’s absurd that exemptions seem to have become a norm in implementing the legislation!

According to the EEA, the WFD has played an important role in improving water management across the EU, and led to better monitoring and analysis, which is why we know now quite how bad the situation is.

Without the WFD (or with a weakened one), there would be no or not enough obligation for members states to improve the health of their rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater.

The ongoing Fitness Check of the WFD therefore goes far beyond a merely technical exercise. The question is not whether the WFD is fit for purpose as it is a landmark legislation and seen as a reference even in countries outside the EU.

The real question is whether today our political leaders in Europe are willing to revive the ambition to protect waters through a full implementation of the WFD, in the spirit of the law’s preamble, which reads: “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.”

Today’s shocking findings leave only one conclusion: water affects everyone and everything – if governments don’t urgently step up their efforts to protect our rivers, it is people, nature and economies that will pay the ultimate price.

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