European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD)

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) was enacted in 2000 and came about after determining that a clear policy framework was needed. In the previous few decades, the EU had enacted a range of water quality policies that were specific to drinking water, nitrate pollution, wastewater treatment, bathing water quality, among others, which while useful, were not consolidated or comprehensive. Thus, the WFD was developed with the following aims:

  • Expanding the scope of water protection to all waters, surface waters and groundwater
  • Achieving “good status” for all waters set by a deadline
  • Water management based on river basins
  • “Combined approach” of emission limit values and quality standards
  • Getting the prices right (adequate water pricing)
  • Getting the citizen involved more closely
  • Streamlining legislation

An important aspect of this framework is that it uses a single system of water management approach: river basin management. That is, it uses the natural geographical and hydrological unit, rather than administrative or political boundaries. This translates into a river basin management plan that can include multiple states and countries; and in some cases even going beyond the EU territory. The framework outlines protections for surface water that include ecological, chemical, and other protections. The intent was to ensure water was safe for drinking and bathing, as well as protecting the environment to a high level “in its entirety.” These protections applied to both surface and groundwater, to keep with the whole system approach. The details of the framework can be found on the European Commission website; which provides historical background, framework details, and current status. It should be noted that this effort to take a holistic cross-boundary approach is ambitious and ideal, in the sense that these problems are without boundaries, and need to be managed as such. However, there are real challenges to seeing it through. To date, this effort has not been very effective with only 40% of surface waters in good ecological condition (EEA, 2018). Some of this is due to the novelty of taking a holistic approach in a system that wasn’t quite prepared for a new structure like this. It is not to say that this system is a failure, or that we cannot learn from it. Rather, it is important to acknowledge that it takes time to put structures in place that take a holistic approach. More details around the challenges can be found in the literature (Junier & Mostert, 2012; Wiering et al., 2020). In general, the WFD is a great example to draw a range of lessons from and worth a deeper dive if we are interested in designing water quality policy frameworks at a regional scale.