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Brussels, 22 March 2007

Questions and answers on European water policy

1. What is World Water Day?

World Water Day stems from an initiative that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. That same year the United Nations General Assembly designated 22 March as the World Day for Water. The first World Water Day was celebrated in 1993. Member countries were invited to devote the Day to implementing UN recommendations on water management and to organise activities deemed appropriate within their national context.

Coping with Water Scarcity is the theme of this year's World Water Day. The theme highlights the scale of water scarcity worldwide and the need for increased integration and cooperation to ensure sustainable, efficient and equitable management of scarce water resources, both at international and local levels.

This year the European Commission is using World Water Day to present its water policy and the progress of individual Member States in implementing this policy.

For more information:

2. What is the 2007 European Water Conference?

The European Commission chose World Water Day as the first day of the 2007 European Water Conference (22-23 March) to draw attention to a number of initiatives. The Commission will present the first implementation report on the Water Framework Directive and will officially launch the Water Information System for Europe (WISE). At the conference, which will be held in Brussels, the progress of Member States in implementing water quality management systems will be presented. Discussions at the conference will also assess whether the European Union's water policy is on track to address Europe's future water challenges.

For more information:

3. What does the Water Framework Directive aim to achieve?

The Water Framework Directive (2000) sets out a long-term perspective for the management and protection of bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, coastal waters and groundwater. The directive introduces the objective of “good status” for all bodies of water by 2015. Another important aspect of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the integration of water management based on river basin districts rather than administrative boundaries. Under the directive Member States are obliged to prepare river basin management plans by 2009 as a way of providing a flexible and cost-effective instrument to address water-related issues.

The directive includes a number of other important elements such as the assessment and monitoring of waters, the use of economic instruments like the introduction of water pricing policies and the polluter-pays principle, and the consultation and involvement of the public in drawing up water policy.

For more information:

4. By when must the Water Framework Directive be fully implemented?

The implementation process of the directive is divided into several steps. Member States will have had to:

  • Transpose the WFD into national legislation by December 2003;
  • Report on the designation of river basin districts and the nomination competent authorities by June 2004;
  • Report on the characteristics of their river basins under their jurisdiction and account for the pressures and impacts of human activity and other economic aspects of these basins by March 2005.

A new Commission Communication and related Staff Working Document assess the implementation of these three provisions.

The deadline for submitting the report on the setting up of monitoring networks under Water Framework Directive expires on 22 March 2007. The next steps are as follows:

  • 2007 - Member States need to begin public consultations on the different aspects of the WFD;
  • December 2009 - River Basin Management Plans need to be finalised after public consultation the previous year;
  • 2010 - water pricing policies must be introduced;
  • 2012 - the "programme of measures" or action programmes must be operational;
  • 2015 - “good status” must be achieved. Second river basin management plan must be submitted.
  • 2021 - objectives of the second plan must be achieved and the third river basin management plan must be submitted. Deadline to meet these objectives is 2027.

For more information:

5. What reports is the Commission publishing on World Water Day?

The Commission is publishing four reports on the 2007 World Water Day:

  • A Communication to the European Parliament and the Council called “Towards sustainable water management in the European Union[1]”.
  • A Commission Staff Working Document[2] presenting the first report on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive[3] and;
  • A Commission Staff Working Document[4] presenting the fourth report on the implementation of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive[5]
  • Third Report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive[6]

In addition, a number of maps and other material on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive will be available.

For more information:

6. What is the situation on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive?

The Commission reports highlight the performance of the Member States on three issues:

  • The transposition of the directive in national law (due in December 2003)
  • The agreement of administrative arrangements to manage water (due in June 2004).
  • The environmental and economic analysis as a starting point for river basin management (due in March 2005)

When Member States fail to implement or report on time the Commission has taken swift legal action. The content of the reports from Member States show some encouraging results although there also are major shortcomings in some areas. Major deficiencies include the poor quality of national laws (19 Member States), the inconsistency of certain data, and the lack of assessments of important elements such as economic analyses. For example, water prices paid by households, industry and agriculture is in many cases not known. When these prices are reported agriculture tends to pay significantly less than other sectors.

Member States must remedy the inconsistencies of their water policies before 2010 when their first river basin management plans are due for adoption.

7. What is the Water Information System for Europe?

The Water Information System for Europe (WISE) is a new information platform providing a single entry point to European water-related data. It offers information and services on the status of European waters, on the implementation of water policies, and on the main water issues addressed at European level. It also offers access to reports and other in-depth information products.

A series of interactive thematic maps on selected European water issues can be viewed and the data submitted by Member States is publicly available. These maps will be regularly updated when new data is verified for quality.

WISE provides compliance information about the Water Framework Directive and information on the State of the Environment as published by the European Environment Agency. The information platform is linked to a WISE-RTD portal, a user-friendly internet platform that provides up-to-date scientific information on water-related issues. It also presents an overview of many research, technology and development projects carried out under the Commission's 5th and 6th Research Framework Programmes.

The single entry point allows experts to access, download and upload all available data Member States submit to EU institutions. This will streamline and reduce the reporting burden for Member States in their reporting obligations.

Data is gathered at European level by various EU bodies. The development and maintenance of WISE is a partnership project between the European Commission (Directorates-General for Environment and Research, Joint Research Centre and Eurostat) and the European Environment Agency (EEA). The public website is hosted by the EEA.

For more information:

8. What other services have been launched by the European Commission on World Water Day?

Environmental Marine Information System (EMIS)

The purpose of EMIS is to enhance the understanding of marine processes by providing access to information derived from research. EMIS focuses on eutrophication in European seas and allows users to obtain detailed spatial and temporal information for European regional seas on:

  • physical variables (generated mainly by numerical models),
  • biological variables (derived from satellite remote sensing),

indices on eutrophication sensitivity and oxygen depletion risk.

EMIS is targeted for the general public, decision-makers and researchers.

For more information:

European Flood Alert System (EFAS)

After the disastrous floods of the Elbe and Danube river basins in August 2002, the European Commission has been developing a European Flood Alert System (EFAS) in close collaboration with relevant institutions in Member States. The aim of the European Flood Alert System (EFAS) is to provide early flood warnings to competent authorities in Member States as a way to improve flood preparedness in Europe. EFAS provides information on the entire river basin, thus allowing authorities downstream to have an overview of the current and forecasted flood situation in countries upstream.

The system is at present at the development and testing phase. During this testing phase EFAS issued several successful early flood warnings. These include the floods of the Danube in August 2005 and those of the Elbe and Danube rivers in March and April 2006. The 22 public authorities that make up the EFAS network now receive regular reports describing where and when flood events can be expected.

EFAS provides the European Commission with a useful overview of the flood situation in Europe and allows it to compare and share data from across Europe.

For more information

European River and Catchment Database (CCM – Version 2)

River networks and drainage basins are complex functional entities independent of national boundaries. To study pressures and impacts on water resources data must be presented according to a hierarchical network of rivers and drainage basins based on a set of physical and socio-economic characteristics, thus allowing models to be generated for processes at various scales.

Homogeneous datasets covering extensive areas such as the European continent are especially important for mapping and monitoring European Union activities in this area. The Catchment Characterisation and Modelling (CCM) activity of the European Commission Joint Research Centre developed a pan-European database of river networks and catchments. The second version of this database will be released by April 2007.

The CCM River and Catchment Database covers the entire pan-European continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains and from the Mediterranean Sea to northern Scandinavia, including Iceland, the Atlantic islands and Turkey. The database is complementary to the existing national datasets, which are more detailed, but cover limited areas.

The database will be mainly used by various services of the Commission, the European Environment Agency, Member States and research organisations.

For more information:

9. What is the Nitrates Directive?

This aim of the Nitrates directive[7] is to reduce and prevent water pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. The directive obliges Member States to monitor the nitrate concentration and trophic status of bodies of water. Member States must identify the bodies of water with a eutrophic level above 50 mg/l or those that might reach this eutrophic level if no action is taken.

Under the directive Member States must designate vulnerable zones which include polluted waters. They must carry out measures to reduce nitrate pollution in these zones. Member States also need to draw up codes of good agricultural practices that can be taken up by farmers on a voluntary basis. Several Member States did not fully comply the directive's requirements in time (mid 1990s).

Member States must submit implementation reports every four years. Based on these reports the Commission publishes a summary of the information received. If the reports show that the objectives have not been achieved remedial action must taken by Member States.

The implementation of the Nitrates Directive is essential to achieving good water status. The Water Framework Directive has incorporated several aspects of the Nitrates Directive in its provisions. For example, the nitrates vulnerable zones became protected areas under the Water Framework Directive and the measures under the Nitrates Directive became the measures of the River Basin Management Plan.

For more information:

10. What is the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive?

The aim of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive[8] is to protect the environment from the adverse effects of discharges of waste water from urban areas and industry. Under the directive Member States are required to provide collection facilities and urban waster water treatment plants for all municipalities with a population above 2,000. Member States must also designate sensitive areas. Certain measures such as treating water to remove nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients must be implemented in these areas so as to protect them from the adverse effects of waste water discharges and eutrophication. Sensitive areas must be reviewed every four years.

The 15 Member States before the 2004 enlargement had to implement the main aspects of the directive before the end of 2005. Several of these Member States did not fully implement them in time. All new Member States have been given transitional periods in which to implement the directive. Most deadlines end in 2015 save for Romania which has until 2018 to comply with the directive.

Member States submit reports during the implementation process and must publish status reports every two years thereafter. The Commission regularly compiles a synthesis report on the implementation status of the directive in all Member States. Legal action may be taken if Member States do not comply with the directive.

In the present report, compliance with the 2000 deadline is assessed. According to Member States the level of compliance is 81% (for the old 15 Member States). The Commission believes the figure is closer to 51% because of the discrepancies in the designation of sensitive areas.

The implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive is essential to achieving good water status under the Water Framework Directive.

For more information:

[1] COM(2007) 128 final.

[2] SEC(2007) 362 final

[3] 2000/60/EC.

[4] SEC (2007) 363

[5] 91/271/EEC.

[6] COM(2007) 120.

[7] Directive 91/676/EEC.

[8] Directive 91/271/EEC.

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