EU Directives

EU Water Framework Directives

Water is life ! It is a precondition for human, animal and plant life as well as an indispensable resource for the economy. Water also plays a fundamental role in the climate regulation cycle.

Protection of water resources, of fresh and salt water ecosystems and of the water we drink and bathe in is therefore one of the cornerstones of environmental protection in Europe. The stakes are high and the issues transcend national boundaries and concerted action at the level of the EU is necessary to ensure an effective protection.

In 2000, the EU took a groundbreaking step when it adopted the Water Framework Directive, establishing a legal obligation to protect and restore the quality of waters across Europe. The Directive introduced an innovative approach to water management, based not on national administrative or political boundaries, but on natural geographical and hydrological formations: the river basins. It also requires coordination of diff erent Community policies in a framework for action. Furthermore, it sets out a precise timetable for action, with 2015 as the target date for getting all EU waters into good condition.

European water legislation dates back to the latter half of the 1970s, when the first ‘wave’ of laws set standards and targets for discharges of dangerous substances, drinking water, fishing waters, shellfish waters, bathing waters and groundwater, designed to protect human health and the environment. A 1988 review identified gaps to be filled, leading to further measures obliging Member States to control sewage from urban areas, nitrogen fertilisers from farmland, and pollution from factories and industrial plants:

  • 1991: Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and Nitrates Directive
  • 1996: Directive for Integrated Pollution and Prevention Control (IPPC)
  • 1998: Drinking Water Directive

Nonetheless, it was becoming clear that the EU needed a more coherent approach to water policy. So the Commission launched an ambitious consultation process, gathering the opinions not only of Member States, the European Parliament and experts, but also of local and regional authorities, NGOs and environmentalists, industry and utility providers, community groups and individuals.

The outcome was the 2000 Water Framework Directive (WFD), one of the most ambitious and comprehensive pieces of EU legislation ever. Subsequently, a number of acts have been adopted to complete the legal framework:on chemical pollution of surface waters, groundwater protection, and how to establish ecological status. Two other important pieces of legislation extend the scope of holistic and integrated water policy: the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) and the Floods Directive (2007/60/EC).

Main objectives
The Framework Directive is built on four main pillars:
1. Coordinated action to achieve ‘good status’ for all EU waters, including surface and groundwater, by 2015.
2. Setting up a water-management system based on natural river basin districts, crossing regional and national boundaries.
3. Integrated water management, bringing different water management issues into one framework.
4. Active involvement of interested parties and consultation of the public.
It covers groundwater and all surface waters including rivers, lakes, coastal waters and ‘transitional waters’, such as estuaries that connect fresh and saltwater. It sets a less ambitious objective – ‘good potential’ – for artificial and ‘heavily modified’ bodies of water such as canals and reservoirs, or industrial ports. It also streamlines EU legislation by replacing seven of the ‘first wave’ Directives, and incorporating their provisions into a more coherent framework.

For further information please see the WFD brochure and visit the site