Introduction:  Securing the future of Europe’s waters

Freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on the planet. In Europe, only 40 percent of EU rivers, lakes,  streams and wetlands are healthy today, largely due to pressures from industrial agriculture and hydropower, as well as other sectors, such as mining.

These industries and sectors staunchly refuse to  accept that the deterioration of Europe’s freshwater ecosystems poses significant risks to the core of their business, and that it is critical that they now adapt their behaviour and approaches – for the good of nature and EU citizens, and as is required under the EU’s water legislation. On the contrary, some industries are coming together under the umbrella of European and national associations to lobby for substantial changes to this legislation, the backbone of which is the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD).  Such changes would essentially give these industries the green light to maintain their activities “business as usual”, resulting in further pollution and degradation of our vulnerable freshwater ecosystems.

Unless EU Member States oblige these sectors and industries to radically change their ways and take a far more active role in the protection and restoration of Europe’s waters, it will be impossible to ensure a decent supply of good quality water for all legitimate uses in the future. But our elected representatives have so far failed to do so. Instead, they have continuously delayed action and allowed economic sectors to continue polluting and modifying our waters, resulting in loss of biodiversity and the critical services nature provides.

Brought into effect in 2000, the WFD is based on an innovative and holistic approach to water management. It recognises that, when healthy or in “good status”, freshwater ecosystems provide an array of benefits – from providing clean water and natural flood defence, to housing wildlife and absorbing and storing carbon. The law aims to bring the vast majority of EU rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, groundwater, transitional and coastal waters to good status by 2027 at the very latest. In doing so, it strives to secure the crucial benefits of healthy freshwater ecosystems for the sake of the health, economic prosperity and enjoyment of current and future generations.

The WFD is currently undergoing a standard review led by the European Commissions (known as a “fitness check”), which aims to evaluate whether the legislation is still “fit for purpose”. It does this by looking into whether the law is still relevant for meeting its objectives, whether it adds value at European level, and is generally effective, efficient and consistent with other policies and legislation. Given that water fuels all economic sectors, it should come as no surprise that the aforementioned industry groups are making the most of this process to ensure that they can continue “business as usual” – that is, that they will not need to adapt their current practices but continue (and even expand) practices which pollute freshwater ecosystems, destroy their natural shape and flow, and/or take too much water from our rivers, lakes, groundwater and aquifers. If ever put into effect, their proposals would seriously compromise any efforts made so far by national governments, regional authorities, civil society, but also more progressive companies, to protect and restore EU freshwater ecosystems.






The WFD gives Member States the tools to effectively protect and restore EU freshwater ecosystems to their former glory, but they need to make use of them – and that includes making sure industry plays its part.  However, instead of making the WFD work and holding these industry groups and sectors to account, several Member States have compiled a similar “wish list” of changes to the legislation, which very much aligns with that of these groups. Like industry, the Member States’ wish list is at odds with the sustainable future citizens across the world have been so vocally demanding, not least through the civil society-led #ProtectWater campaign, during which more than 375,000 citizens expressed their wish for the WFD to remain unchanged.  (Note 1)  Moreover, over the best part of two decades, EU Member States have demonstrated very little ambition to use the WFD to its full potential to tackle the root causes of bad water management and the destruction of freshwater ecosystems. They have also excessively used, and often misused, the various types of exemptions provided under the WFD to postpone much-needed action, allow destructive projects to go ahead, and water down the legislation’s objectives.  (Note 2).

This briefing brings together the positions on the WFD of national and/or European associations representing the interests of agriculture, hydropower, and extractive industry, as well as proposals made by officials from some Member States. All positions have been taken from documents which have been made publicly available by the relevant parties. The briefing then goes onto to show the clear alignment between the wishes of Member States and those of the industry groups, and outlines why these “wish lists” of changes would, if introduced into the legislation, be a terrible blow for nature and EU citizens alike. The briefing concludes with a list of recommendations to both the European Commission and Member States to ensure full implementation of the WFD.

It is clear that, without full, ambitious implementation of the WFD in its current form, it will be impossible for governments to secure enough good quality water for their citizens, nature and economies in the future.  It is therefore the duty of both Member States and the European Commission to ward off the pressures of vested industry interests and, instead, see the fitness check of the WFD as an opportunity to strengthen its implementation to ensure no further destruction or deterioration occurs, and that the majority of EU freshwater bodies are, at last, brought back to good status by 2027.


Note 1.  Living Rivers Europe, 2019, “375,000+ Citizens tell the European Commission ‘Hands off our Water Law!’”,

Note 2.  More detailed information around the current pitfalls in the implementation of the WFD can be found in the publication Bringing life back to Europe’s waters: The EU water law in action (WWF, EEB, European Rivers Network, European Anglers Alliance, 2018,


The above Commentary is the Introduction to the Report , “WEAKENING THE EU WATER LAW: INDUSTRY’S WISH LIST (2019), originally published by Living Rivers Europe, a coalition of environmental groups who represent a movement of over 40 million people across Europe. Together, they work to safeguard the EU water law – the Water Framework Directive (WFD) – and strengthen its implementation and enforcement.  The groups are WWF, Wetlands International, European Rivers Network (ERN), European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and European Anglers Alliance (EEA)

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