Protecting Europe's Waters for Generations

To Come

March 12, 2018

Martina Mlinaric, Senior Policy Officer, Water, WWF European Policy Office (EPO)


IMAGE: Ian Trafford/WWF Austria

Every single thing on the planet needs water to survive. Freshwater is essential for human life and a fundamental resource for nature and economies alike. But water does even more than this: it has the capacity to inspire and to soothe, to provide us with that crucial connection to nature, and sometimes even with each other. It fuels everything from the food that we eat to the clothes we wear. It houses some of the richest biodiversity and quirkiest sex on the planet, and welcomes with open arms the weird, wonderful and occasionally wild array of pastimes we humans have concocted, from kayaking and fishing, to paddleboarding and good, old-fashioned swimming.


Water is beautiful, intriguing, and utterly inspiring. Water is life.


Our planet’s most precious resource under attack


Freshwater is one of our planet’s most valuable resources, and there isn’t an infinite supply of it. Despite the immense role it plays in people’s lives and in nature, only 1% of the world’s water is fresh and accessible. And that 1% is under threat.


All across the globe, climate change, population growth and changing consumption patterns are placing an ever-increasing strain on our freshwater ecosystems, such as rivers, lakes and wetlands, resulting in the biggest loss of wildlife on the planet. According to WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report, the abundance of freshwater species has shrunk by a colossal 81% since the 1970s. But of course, they aren’t the only species that depend on freshwater ecosystems: we humans rely on rivers for our water supply and for sanitation purposes, and studies have shown that healthy freshwater ecosystems offer a variety of recreational and health benefits. When healthy, wetlands in particular can also help with adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change, as they absorb and store carbon and ensure better flood control. The list goes on.


In the EU, freshwater ecosystems are experiencing the most significant deterioration and biodiversity decline to date. Pollution, habitat destruction and excessive use of water are pressing issues, chiefly driven by agriculture, hydropower, flood defence and navigation. Agriculture is one of the biggest culprits as it uses lots of water for irrigation and pollutes rivers with nitrates and pesticides. Wetlands are drained to make room for arable land, while rivers are dredged and embanked to prevent floods. Together with the pressures exerted by hydropower, flood defence and navigation, this abuse means that not even half of all rivers, lakes and wetlands in the EU are currently considered healthy.






IMAGE: H. Glader/WWF Austria

Turning the clock on the deterioration of our waters


The situation is inarguably bleak, but there is hope: there is still a way to turn back the clock on the deterioration of Europe’s waters, and that is by having strong laws and policies that ensure governments protect and sustainably manage their freshwater bodies.


Such a framework already exists in Europe. Back in 2000, the EU adopted extensive legislation to better protect and preserve its water resources. Known as the Water Framework Directive (WFD), this package is one of the most holistic and progressive EU environmental policies to date. WWF advocated heavily for this legislation, considering it a major step in preserving what is most precious for us, humans, and for the world around us.


A landmark policy to its core, the WFD recognises that, if we are to secure a sufficient supply of good quality water in the future, we must conserve our freshwater ecosystems. The WFD’s aspiration is visionary and its ambitious targets agreed by EU Member States. By tackling all the identified pressures on freshwater ecosystems in one integrated plan, from agricultural pollution to hydropower pressure or navigation, the WFD aims to reverse the trend of deterioration of our rivers, lakes and wetlands and the decline of biodiversity. It can be viewed as a global reference for water policy for other countries, already yielding significant improvements in Europe’s freshwater ecosystems. Especially positive results have been recorded in relation to some pollutants, raising awareness among decision makers and ensuring public participation.





IMAGE: Jorge Sierra/WWF España

WFD in dangerous waters


WWF believes that without such ambitious goals and targets, EU Member States would have neither the incentive nor the obligation to preserve and improve the health of their rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater. However, this landmark legislation is, like the very thing it defends, under threat — Member States have been dragging their feet on the implementation of its high environmental standards, bowing instead to economic pressures from industry and farmers. Consequently, despite 18 years of implementation and some improvements in status, the latest data seems to suggest that only around 40% of European surface water bodies currently reach the WFD’s good ecological status standard. Additionally, the WFD is currently being reviewed and some Member States may use this as a way to weaken the WFD’s standards on freshwater protection. This presents the real risk of environmental rollback on this crucial legislation, with potentially disastrous consequences for Europe’s freshwater bodies.




IMAGE: Charlotte Sams/WWF UK

The time to act is now


WWF is convinced that proper implementation of the WFD is essential to ensuring that Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands return to their natural state and are protected for subsequent generations. We will be there every step of the way during this crucial review period, urging the EU and its Member States to increase the ambition of the measures for protecting our freshwater bodies from diffuse pollution, over-abstraction and the unsustainable development of hydropower, navigation, and flood management infrastructure.


Whether you are fully immersed in the wonders of Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, or are simply starting to dip your toes in, follow and join in the work we are doing to ensure a full implementation of the WFD in its current form. Help us to safeguard our most precious resource and make sure it remains to inspire, nourish and invigorate us and generations to come.


Keep track of our work on and Twitter (@WWFEU)




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