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Claire Baffert (WWF): "We need to stop overexploitation and poor management of Europe's rivers"

  • Claire Baffert (WWF): "We need to stop overexploitation and poor management of Europe's rivers"
    Image: WWF
  • Since the creation of the European Policy Office in 1989, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading non-governmental organization, has worked on EU water policy.

About the entity

The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by more than one million members in the United States and close to five million globally.

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Adopted in 2000, the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD) takes an avant-garde approach to protecting freshwater ecosystems. Nevertheless, recent data shows that 60 per cent of Europe’s rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands are unhealthy. With climate change causes and impacts increasing, Member States must make a greater effort to achieve good health for these waters by 2027 at the very latest. We speak with Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Advisor at WWF, on the current state of the WFD and on the newly announced European Green Deal, which sets a series of goals and initiatives for Europe to become the world’s first-climate neutral continent.

Question: The European Union has its own water law: the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). What role has it played in Europe’s water management since its adoption in 2000?

Answer: The Water Framework Directive is one of the EU’s most ambitious and holistic pieces of environmental legislation. It sets the target of bringing all of Europe’s surface and ground waters to good health, defined as “good status”. One of the most visionary elements is the “non-deterioration” principle, under which any project or intervention which would cause a deterioration in water quality, or alter the shape or flow of a water body, is effective against the law.

Countries that are most affected by water scarcity need to opt for models of water use that prioritise low consumption of water

Thanks to the WFD, we have seen substantial decreases in certain pollutants, such as cadmium, lead and nickel, and the law has also helped ensure a secure water supply for food production and drinking water (the quantitative status of groundwater has improved by about 5 % since 2009). The WFD revolutionised water management by requiring governments to tackle it in a broader, more holistic way, instead of focusing on water treatment and distribution alone. The law acknowledges the many elements that impact not just the quality and availability of water - such as the way we manage soil, land, and the various uses that we make of water - but biodiversity as well.

In practice, this translates into very concrete things: for instance, on May 20th of this year, Spain's Supreme Court ruled against the construction of the controversial Biscarrués dam located on the emblematic Gállego river in the Aragon region, as it would breach the WFD. The dam’s construction, which was met with protests from numerous civil society groups, would have destroyed a pristine part of the river and affected protected areas which host several endangered bird species. Under the WFD any project that would lead to the deterioration of a water body requires a comprehensive assessment of all alternatives to be carried out, in order to choose the most effective and least environmentally damaging option. This assessment must also consider whether or not there is an overriding public interest. In its ruling over the Biscarrués dam, Spain's Supreme Court affirmed that the possible benefits of the project did not outweigh the environmental cost, as laid out under the WFD. Such rulings help put people and nature first and acknowledge the critical value of healthy rivers for communities.

Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Advisor at WWF

Q: WWF, along with other NGOs, has been advocating for two years for the Water Framework Directive to be signed off as fit for purpose & better implemented. Where are we in this process?

A: On 22 June 2020, the EU’s Commissioner for Environment, Ocean and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, declared that the WFD would not be opened up for revision, confirming the need to focus on supporting implementation and enforcement "without changing the directive". This final sign-off came six months after the conclusions of the two-year evaluation of the legislation, known as a “fitness check”, were published. These affirmed that the WFD is “fit for purpose”, that slow progress in achieving the law's objectives are due to poor implementation and insufficient funding, and "not due to a deficiency in the legislation."

Over the course of the WFD fitness check, 375,000+ European citizens used the public consultation on the WFD (part of the fitness check) to call for the law to be kept in its current form and put all efforts into better implementation. This call was later echoed in a letter to the Commission endorsed by close to 6,000 scientists, who highlighted the critical role of the WFD in halting and reversing the catastrophic decline in Europe’s freshwater biodiversity. WWF congratulates the European Commission for standing by the strong evidence, and for having taken the views of EU citizens on board. The Commission must now turn its focus to improved implementation, ensuring the law works not just on paper but in practice to bring life back to Europe’s freshwater ecosystems.

Q: The WFD is an extremely ambitious environmental legislation, yet its implementation has been asymmetric in Europe. Why is implementation lagging behind and how to improve it? What countries have successfully enforced this legislation? And what mechanisms have proved effective in doing so? Which countries do you think can improve in this regard?

A: Whilst the specificities vary from country to country, there are two key factors which are slowing down WFD implementation: inadequate financing and low political will.

On financing:

  • Whilst the European Commission has regularly called on the Member States to adjust their water pricing systems to help meet environmental objectives and, more specifically, to recover the costs (financial, environmental and resource costs) of water services, this has not been successful so far.
  • In 2016, the European Investment Bank (EIB) reported that EUR 15 billion per year would be required to comply with WFD requirements in 2014-2020, on top of the investment needed to upgrade and renew Europe's water and wastewater systems. However, a study released just at the end of May by the OECD shows that the Member States are way off course. The OECD’s analysis estimates that the total cumulative additional expenditures needed by 2030 for water supply and sanitation amounts to EUR 289 billion for the 28 Member States. This does not cover the investments needed to renew infrastructure, nor the expenditure required to ensure full compliance with the WFD and the Floods Directive.
  • The estimated expenditure revealed by the OECD suggests a “business as usual” approach, not the ambition conveyed by the European Green Deal.

On political will:

  • Low political will is clearly demonstrated through Member States’ excessive use (and, often, misuse) of the so-called “exemptions” to the WFD – a flexibility in the law which allows projects to go ahead and which should be used in exceptional cases only. In practice, however, they are being approved left, right and centre to allow many damaging projects to go ahead.
  • 53% of EU rivers and lakes are currently covered by at least one exemption, many of which are to get approval for more hydropower plants. This figure even goes to over 90% in the cases of Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands.

Another example of the lack of implementation is the overuse of so-called exemptions to the Water Framework Directive – a flexibility in the law which allows projects to go ahead. In theory, this should only be used in exceptional cases, but in practice it is allowing many damaging projects to go ahead. Currently, 53% of EU rivers and lakes are covered by at least one exemption, many of which are to get approval for more hydropower plants. This figure even goes over 90% in the cases of Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. Countries where the state of water is especially poor are also those employing the most delaying tactics. Member States need to make progress on this point.

Image: WWF

Q: What are the biggest threats to freshwater ecosystems at the moment?

  • 60% of Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands currently fail to meet the WFD’s standards because of various pressures.
  • According to the European Environmental Agency, the main pressure on rivers and lakes comes from alterations to the river flow or shape – what we call “hydromorphological changes or pressures”.
  • Impounding structures such as dams, built for the purposes of hydropower, or water storage for irrigation or drinking water, are particularly harmful as they disrupt a rivers’ natural flow. In doing so, they stop fish from migrating upstream and downstream, trap sediments that protect riverbanks and deltas against floods and sea level rises, and degrade the habitats of freshwater fauna.
  • This pressure is far from decreasing: a recent WWF report revealed that, despite Europe already being saturated with hydropower plants (21,000+ currently in operation), 8,785 additional plants are planned or under construction. As most of the space for large plants is already taken, these would mainly be small hydropower plants - over 90% of all the existing and planned hydropower plants are small, meaning that each plant generates at most 10 MW of electricity. As such, the majority of the planned plants are not profitable (and can only be economically viable if supported by public funding) and would be the kiss of death for the last free-flowing rivers in Europe. It is urgent to put a stop to these harmful developments if we want to protect our last pristine rivers. If properly implemented, the Water Framework Directive can prevent most of those projects from being approved, as they are not compatible with water protection.

Q: In December, the European Commission announced the European Green Deal. Do you think the deal is ambitious enough when it comes to the protection of water resources?

A: The European Green Deal Communication from December 2019 did not put a major focus on safeguarding water resources and freshwater ecosystems. But the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, which were brought about by the European Green Deal and released on 20 May, show clear commitments to tackle key drivers of biodiversity loss, including for freshwater biodiversity.

The need for action is urgent: an 83% decline in global freshwater species population has been recorded in the past 50 years and, in Europe, migratory freshwater fish populations have seen a 93% collapse since 1970. WWF, therefore, welcomes the commitment announced in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to restore 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers through barrier removal and wetland and floodplain restoration and looks forward to working with the European Commission to speedily implement this target. Dam removal enables biodiversity to bounce back remarkably quickly and has many other benefits for resilience to climate change, societies, and the economy.

However, with hydropower being a driving cause of the massive decline in Europe’s migratory fish populations, the EU Biodiversity Strategy does not anticipate how to address subsidies that finance harmful projects, such as feed-in tariffs for small hydropower plants. The abuse of exemptions to the WFD also needs to be addressed.

Currently, 53% of EU rivers and lakes are covered by at least one exemption, many of which are to get approval for more hydropower plants

Q: Regarding drought, what are the EU Member States doing to tackle this phenomenon?

A: Droughts are becoming increasingly common and severe across the entire continent. 2019 was the warmest year on record for Europe, and we saw very tangible consequences for water, with ships unable to navigate the Rhine River, and even our northernmost countries, like the Baltic region and Sweden, experiencing forest fires, deficits in rainfall and dry soils. And 2020 could also hit some countries hard: the French Ecological Transition Ministry announced in mid-May that more than half of French departments were already now at risk of a summer drought.

According to the European Environmental Agency, the main pressure on rivers and lakes comes from alterations to the river flow or shape

National authorities’ drought responses are usually reactive rather than preventative (e.g. restricting water use once the drought has already occurred). Whilst this is certainly a piece of the puzzle, there is much more that could and should be done earlier on to mitigate the negative impacts of drought. In order to deal with recurring droughts, you also need to address its structural drivers, such as poor water management.

There are many instances of poor adaptation to Europe’s increasingly frequent and severe droughts. These can and must be avoided. For example, too often, reservoirs pumping from groundwater are being used to store water - but the water stored there evaporates and is depleting water channels and aquifers that are so much needed in times of drought.

Infographic by WWF

Q: What is needed to better tackle the effects of climate change on water resources and freshwater ecosystems?

A: We need to stop the overexploitation and poor management of rivers, lakes, wetlands, streams, and groundwater. For instance, it is striking to see that water demand from the agricultural sector increased over the course of 2010-2015 in Southern Europe, the area of Europe most affected by water scarcity. Countries that are most affected by water scarcity need to opt for models of water use that prioritise low consumption of water and soil resources, i.e agricultural crops that are adapted to dry environments or industry/energy systems that do not require much water for cooling.

We were disappointed that the EU Biodiversity Strategy did not tackle the urgent need to eliminate biodiversity-harmful subsidies

Natural, pristine freshwater ecosystems are also more resilient and cope with the impacts of drought far better than artificial or polluted rivers. They help to improve the quality of the soils and are key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. They can help store water and increase infiltration to the soil and aquifers, and also buffer temperature changes, modulating associated water stress. River Basin Management Plans, which all Member States are required to submit under the Water Framework Directive, should be used to anticipate the effects of drought and to restore and protect water bodies. The next set of plans, which will cover the period 2022-2027, are already in preparation. It is essential that the Member States take this planning exercise seriously and ensure enough budget is allocated to sustainable water management.

Q: Do you think the current health pandemic will deter from measures implemented to protect water resources?

A: The COVID-19 pandemic has put our societies in a situation of extreme vulnerability and highlighted the importance of securing our most vital resources, including clean water. In this sense, we are strongly advocating for investments in the field of water and sanitation to be moved up the priority list.

On the positive note, the pandemic has prompted a strong reaction from the EU through its Recovery Package, a significant part of it linked to the European Green Deal. But the challenge is immense. The Recovery Package estimated that 36 billion/year will be needed to achieve a green transformation in the water sectors, but this does not integrate the findings of the aforementioned OECD analysis, nor with the expenditure we know is needed to ensure full compliance with the WFD and Floods directive.

So, there is still a long way to go!

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