An Indispensable Resource: EU Freshwater Policy - European Union Committee Contents

An Indispensable Resource: EU Freshwater Policy

CHAPTER 1: introduction

1.  In continental Europe, rivers often form the boundaries between Member States, or flow out of the territory of one into that of another. They link and integrate the pressures that society places on our use of both water and land. European legislation on different aspects of freshwater quality has a history going back over several decades, and several pieces of this legislation agreed before 2000 are still in force.

2.  Water stress varies significantly across the EU. The map at Appendix 6 demonstrates this variation, and shows that high stress is a feature in Member States as diverse as Cyprus and the Republic of Ireland.

3.  In 2000 the EU agreed the Water Framework Directive (WFD), with the intention of taking an integrated approach to the management of water resources, setting out a longer-term framework within which Member States would be required to act. All Member States have been required to produce River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) by 2009, and these provide the basis for protecting, improving and maintaining the environmental condition of surface and ground waters by certain milestone dates: 2015, 2021 and 2027. Member States should aim to ensure that, by the final date of 2027, all rivers and water bodies have reached, or have maintained, "good" or "high" status, and their progress towards that objective is to be reported at the earlier milestone dates (see Box 1). Infraction proceedings are triggered under the WFD after 2015 if the mechanisms for delivery are deemed to be insufficient to achieve the objectives, rather than whether all water bodies have met "good" or "high" status.

4.  EU freshwater policy contains other elements, but the WFD is of over-arching importance. Existing directives have already brought into force measures that are relevant to the implementation of the WFD. These include some under which the UK has previously been subject to infraction proceedings, such as the Urban Waste Water Treatment (91/271/EEC), Shellfish (79/932/EEC) and Nitrates (91/675/EEC) Directives. Other directives also clarify and co-ordinate WFD objectives to be in RBMPs, such as the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (2008/105/EC), which sets out limits on concentrations of the priority substances in surface waters; the list of priority substances is currently under revision.

5.  Most (though not all) Member States have produced RBMPs. Since 2010, the European Commission has reviewed EU freshwater policy, with a particular focus on the WFD. This has included a preliminary study, or "fitness check", of the relevance, coherence, effectiveness and efficiency of EU freshwater policy. The study's findings were expected to be published in spring 2012.

6.  This fitness check in turn underpins the Commission's "Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources" to be published at the end of 2012, with the aim of ensuring good quality water in sufficient quantities for all authorised uses. The Commission has said that the Blueprint will be the policy response to the challenges to water resource management posed by implementation issues arising out of the current EU policy framework, and by the need to develop measures to tackle water availability and water quantity problems. While the time horizon of the Blueprint will be 2020, the underpinning analysis will cover a time-span up to 2050.[1] In March 2012, the Commission launched a consultation process on potential policy options, seeking comments by June.

7.  The need to consider water protection issues extends to other EU policies. In the last two years, this committee has reported on the adaptation of EU agriculture and forestry to climate change,[2] and on innovation in EU agriculture.[3] Both inquiries highlighted water resource management as a key policy consideration. Our report on innovation also placed these concerns in the context of proposals for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and for the future approach to EU support for research and innovation.[4]

8.  We decided to conduct this inquiry in order to offer our own views on the future direction of EU freshwater policy at a time when the Commission, Member States and other interested groups were engaged in the discussions leading up to the Blueprint. We issued our call for evidence in July 2011 and we took oral evidence from a range of EU and UK witnesses between October 2011 and March 2012. Our findings are of particular relevance to the UK, and to the UK's implementation of EU water legislation. We have also drawn on the experience of other, largely Northern, EU Member States, and recognise that there are particular issues of water resource management elsewhere in the EU, for example, inter-country management issues or the extreme problems of water stress in Southern European countries, which we have not explored in this inquiry. The Commission's Blueprint will address water resources across the whole of the EU; we shall be closely interested in the way in which it shapes its proposals to reflect the variety of conditions across the EU.

9.  The members of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Sub-Committee who carried out the inquiry are listed in Appendix 1, which shows their declared interests. We are grateful for the written and oral evidence that was submitted to the inquiry; the witnesses who provided it are shown in Appendix 2. We are also grateful to Professor Bob Harris, Visiting Professor of Catchment Science at the University of Sheffield, and Dr Jonny Wentworth, Environment and Energy Adviser in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, who acted as specialist advisers to the inquiry.

10.  The call for evidence is shown in Appendix 3. The evidence received is published online.

11.  We make this report to the House for debate.

1   See Annex A to European Commission's written evidence. Back

2   8th Report (2009-10), HL Paper 91. Back

3   19th Report (2010-12), HL Paper 171. Back

4   In October 2011, the European Commission presented legislative proposals for CAP reform. See:
In November 2011, the Commission presented its "Horizon 2020" proposals for EU funding for research and innovation between 2014 and 2020. See:  

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