Europe’s water: A progress update

The 2000 European Water Framework Directive aims to secure good ecological status for all waters in Europe and both an integrated approach to and a real price for water.

The EU directive aims to improve rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal and groundwaters
The EU directive aims to improve rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal and groundwaters
  • Updated: 23 July, 2015
  • Author: Campbell Gemmell, Consultant and Professor at Glasgow University

The story so far

European member states have had since 2000 to make preparations for, and from 2009 to implement, the first work cycle of the directive.

River basin management plans have been developed on a partnership basis for each river basin district. Initial status and the path to 'good' status had to be mapped, and tools and plans to achieve the step up had to be set out.

Where are we now?

At the end of this first six-year cycle of work we asked four research questions for Europe and Scotland. And for all four, if we can't answer, what are the gaps and what do we need to know?

1. What has implementation of the directive achieved?

A lot has been achieved – levels of compliance and improvement are impressive in Scotland, although overall across Europe significantly less than half of our waters are 'good'.

2. What are the costs?

Estimates of expenditure, based significantly on water investment programmes by state and private providers amount to vast sums, around €10bn per year.

3. What are the benefits delivered?

This is very much harder to assess and quantify. But using various assessment methods reported already to the European Commission and some other research, roughly €10bn per year! And this attempts to take an ecosystem services view, which we discuss in full when the full paper is published later this year.

4. What still needs to be done?

An EU framework of prioritised programme needs has to be developed if we are to make more sense of the position. And in Scotland, both physical barriers and diffuse pollution remain challenges. Work has been progressed but more is needed.

So, what have we learned?

There is a clear need for better data, more consistency and stronger impact measures – a real EU-wide framework for measures, costs and benefits.

The story at this point is only partly told and only partly delivered. It appears that real impacts and benefits are being achieved and innovation is emerging, but much more structure and rigour would help us to know what has happened and what works. We as policymakers, practitioners or commentators and advisers would be better able to describe, communicate and replicate that.

About the author

Professor Campbell Gemmell's article is based on a paper presented to the World Water Conference in Edinburgh in May 2015.

It is based on collaborative work between Campbell Gemmell and Professor Marian Scott at the University of Glasgow and Roger Owen, Head of Ecology at Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), with additional SEPA input. Their full paper will be published later this year.