The Water Framework Directive (WFD) (2000) sets down the main regulatory scheme for improving the rivers, lakes, wetlands, coastal and transitional waters, as well as groundwaters for the European Union (EU). The instrument for this scheme is the River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) which each member of the EU establishes for each basin within its jurisdiction, or which is shared with other members. The focus of the RBMPs is to set objectives, with timescales, for assessing the status of each waterbody within each basin, as measured by its ecological, quantitative and chemical status, as well as for its protected areas.
The RBMPs are revised every six years and currently the Third RBMP is scheduled to be adopted by the end of 2021, and to cover the period of 2022-2027.
In a recent report, the World Wildlife Foundation offers a series of recommendations on priorities and measures that can be incorporated with basin-specific measures in each Member State’s Third RBMP. We will cover the general recommendations while we note that each section also includes a list and description for specific elements that can be included in the RBMPs and that are important to review.
Dam Removal and Adaptation of Barriers
A fundamental step is the consideration of the physical character and water content of water bodies, known as hydromorphological pressures. Here water flow and substrate, which provide the physical habitat for fish, invertebrate and aquatic macrophytes ,are assessed. These pressures can disrupt river continuity through barriers, the straightening of rivers for navigation, or construction of infrastructure for flood protection. It is estimated that there are at least one million barriers disrupting the natural flow of rivers.
Adapting or removing these barriers would improve flow, shifting the resource from a reservoir to free-flowing rivers. Such corrective measures could also release sediment, and improve connectivity for the migration of fish and other organisms. While such actions are costly, they also can provide substantial economic benefits. A university study in the US determined that billions of dollars can be saved by removing dams rather than repairing them. From 2016 to 2018, WWF and Finland demolished 27 dams which produced 600km of free-flowing rivers. Such measures are also important for the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 which calls for the restoration of at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rive
Another related measure is the reduction of the negative impacts from existing hydropower plants. A recent WWF study showed that 5,734 hydropower plants are being planned across the EU, adding to the 19,268 existing plants. Disturbingly, these planned facilities are not even included in many RBMPs, and there seems to be a widespread reluctance to associate degradation of rivers with the hydropower sector.
River and Wetland Restoration
The obligations under the RBMP include addressing adverse pressures from the past, not just preventing further deterioration of water quality. The WFD expressly includes recreation and restoration of wetlands as supplementary measures. Other environmental protection efforts reinforce restoration. The Ramsar Convention requires parties to conserve and use wetlands wisely. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 requires binding nature restoration targets in 2021. And restoration of freshwater ecosystems significantly helps fight impacts from climate change as they are natural sinks.
A specific measure discussed is the use of nature-based solutions for flood management instead of grey, hard infrastructures. And studies indicate that the benefits of restoring ecosystems greatly exceed the costs.
Water Allocation and Abstraction Control
Allocating water to various and competing users will become an increasingly difficult challenge in light of the ongoing climate breakdown impacts, and abstraction will continue to be a contentious issue.
The main sectors responsible for water abstraction are public water supply, industry and agriculture. The report notes that water abstraction in Europe decreased overall by 19% between 1990 and 2015, but water demand from agriculture grew in 2010-2015 in Southern Europe. That same pressure on more water for agriculture will become more intense with the plans to significantly expand the sector in Ireland. And the abstraction of water in the Shannon watershed to supply Dublin and other areas east of the Shannon will remain a challenge.
A critical measure to consider in the Third RBMP is the full, science-based estimation of existing abstraction of water, including by sector; an accounting for changes to be affected by climate breakdown; and, the equitable pricing for abstraction.
The WWF report distinguishes between water scarcity, which results from an overuse of water resources, and drought, which is a natural phenomenon, driven by deviations from average precipitation over time and over large regions. Droughts are heavily influenced by higher temperatures.
Over the past 60 years there has been an increase in the frequency, duration and intensity of droughts across much of the EU, and those conditions are expected to continue over the next 80 years. For example, 2019 was the warmest year on record for Europe, with lower than average water levels in water flow in river, and higher than normal lake surface temperatures.
An example for RBMPs is the Spanish government ‘s development of a Special Drought Plans for 16 river basin districts, some of them transnational. The plan provide separate management measures for instances of water scarcity and for drought.
Global climate conditions of course have affected flood management. November 2019 was one of the wettest Novembers on record, with precipitation four times more than normal. Floods will be more frequent in the future, and the reach and intensity of those floods will be affected by the degradation of 70-90% of floodplains in Europe.
Despite the improvement of floods forecasting generally, the RBMPs have not kept pace and lack the full scope of flood risk management. For instance, 40% of floodplains are occupied by farmland, yet there is little provision in RBMPs requiring famers to take the necessary measures to account for floods on their land.
An example of a corrective flood action is the dyke relocation in the Lödderitzer forest. A dyke was removed and a new one built further down the river. This action restored 600 hectares of a critical floodplain in Central Europe and it is expected to reduce flood levels by about 30cm for a 100-year flood for 8km upstream, reducing flood risks for city of Aken.
While agriculture is mentioned in various areas of the report, the sector deserves a separate section since farming affects the quantitative, chemical and ecological aspect of water status. Agriculture uses the largest share of water, with 40% of annual water in Europe. That share will rise as crop irrigation is expanding. It is also the major source of diffuse (or non-point source) pollution, especially from manure and fertilisers.
Despite this prominent role in creating risks for water resources, there are few sufficient basic or supplementary measures on agriculture in the earlier RBMPs. This shortcoming is accentuated by the lack of any coordination between the RBMPs and the EU Common Agricultural Policy. That needs to be addressed in the formation of the Third RBMPs.
The WFD calls on the authorities to recover the costs of water management, including environmental and resource costs, based on the polluter-pays principle. Yet very little cost recovery is achieved, or even attempted. While water supply and sanitation generally recover their financial costs, other sectors such as industry, hydropower and agriculture do not. It is expected that the Third RBMPs will correct this weakness. It should be noted that Ireland has been in revolt and retreat over water charges since the 1970s, and currently is in retreat with no direct water charges.
The final point raised by the WWF is the issue of waivers, and their manipulation. There are about 53% of water bodies that fall under one or another exemption. For some Member States the number rises to 95%. At that level it can fairly be said that the exemptions have swallowed the regulations.
For the past two and for the Third RBMPs, exemptions have been allowed for “technical feasibility” and “disproportionate costs.” After 2027 these exemptions will no longer be acceptable. It is also noted that even now costs cannot be disproportionate simply because they are deemed to be unaffordable.
The exemptions provision also provides that RBMPs must include measures necessary to address floods and droughts based not only on past experiences but also based on anticipated changed circumstances, as with climate change.
To further reduce the dependence on exemptions, the Third RBMP is to include a gap analysis which compares current performance with expected or required performance. This analysis is used to determine whether the Member State is meeting expectations and using its resources effectively.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Third River Basin Management Plans: WWF Recommendations (July 2020). https://bit.ly/3uouf7b
EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030. bit.ly/3spx8Tv
Will Kenton, “Gap Analysis,” Investopedia (27 Nov 2020). bit.ly/3sC9X8L