1 Introduction to Water Framework Directive

1.     Introduction to Water Framework Directive

1.1.     The Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive (WFD), which came into force on 22 December 2000, establishes a new framework for the management, protection and improvement of the quality of water resources across the European Union (EU). The WFD established new and better ways of protecting and improving our water environment with the overall objective of achieving co-ordinated and integrated water management across Europe.

The WFD calls for the creation of River Basin Districts. In case of international districts that cover the territory of more than one EU Member State the WFD requires coordination of work in these districts.


EU Member States should aim to achieve good status in all bodies of surface water and groundwater by 2015 unless there are grounds for derogation then achievement of good status may be extended to 2021 or by 2027 at the latest. Good status means that certain standards have been met for the ecology, chemistry, morphology and quantity of waters. In general terms ‘good status’ means that water only shows slight change from what would normally be expected under undisturbed conditions. There is also a general ‘no deterioration’ provision to prevent deterioration in status.

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Text box 1.1: Water Framework Directive - the backbone of EU Water Policy

  • Introducing the river basin approach
  • Protecting all water bodies, including transitional waters and coastal waters
  • Covering all impacts on waters
  • Achievement of good status in all water bodies and no deterioration of status

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 The Water Framework Directive establishes a legal framework to protect and restore clean water in sufficient quantity across Europe. It introduces a number of generally agreed principle and concepts into a binding regulatory instrument. In particular, it provides for:

  • Sustainable approach to manage an essential resource: It not only considers water as a valuable ecosystem, it also recognises the economy and human health depending on it.
  • Holistic ecosystem protection: It ensures that the fresh and coastal water environment is to be protected in its entirety, meaning all rivers, lakes, transitional (estuaries), coastal and ground waters are covered.
  • Ambitious objectives, flexible means: The achievement of “good status” by 2015 will ensure satisfying human needs, ecosystem functioning and biodiversity protection. These objectives are concrete, comparable and ambitious. At the same time, the Directive provides flexibility in achieving them in the most cost effective way and introduces a possibility for priority setting in the planning.
  • Integration of planning: The planning process for the establishment of river basin management plans needs to be coordinated to ultimately achieve the WFD objectives.
  • The right geographical scale: The natural area for water management is the river basin (catchment area). Since it cuts across administrative boundaries, water management requires close cooperation between all administrations and institutions involved. This is particularly challenging for transboundary and international rivers.
  • Polluter pays principle: The introduction of water pricing policies with the element of cost recovery and the cost-effectiveness provisions are milestones in application of economic instruments for the benefit of the environment.
  • Participatory processes: WFD ensures the active participation of all businesses, farmers and other stakeholders, environment NGOs and local communities in river basin management activities.
  • Better regulation and streamlining: The WFD and its related directives (Groundwater Daughter Directive (2006/118/EC); Floods Directive COM(2006)15) repeal 12 directives from the 1970s and 1980s which created a well-intended but fragmented and burdensome regulatory system. The WFD creates synergies, increases protection and streamlines efforts.

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Implementation of the Directive is to be achieved through the river basin management (RBM) planning process which requires the preparation, implementation and review of a river basin management plan (RBMP) every six years for each river basin district (RBD) identified. This requires an approach to river basin planning and management that takes all relevant factors into account and considers them together. There are five main elements of the process:

  • Governance and public participation;
  • Characterisation of the river basin district and the pressures and impacts on the water environment;
  • Environmental monitoring based on river basin characterisation;
  • Setting of environmental objectives; and
  • Design and implementation of a programme of measures to achieve environmental objectives.

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1.1.1.      River basin planning process

River Basin Management Plans are plans for protecting and improving the water environment and have been developed in consultation with organisations and individuals.  River basin planning is a strategic decision-making process that integrates the management of land and water within river basin districts. The river basin management planning process aims to improve and support sound and sustainable water management to deliver the requirements of the WFD while balancing the environmental, social and economic needs within the river basin district.

  • The river basin planning process started more than ten years ago with implementation of the WFD in national legislation and establishing the administrative structures.
  • The river basin planning process resulted in 2004 with an analysis of the pressures and impacts affecting the water environment in the river basin district. The findings were published in March 2005 in the characterisation report required by Article 5 of the WFD.
  • River basin planning is a gradual cyclical process that involves public participation throughout. Characterisation is followed by a series of steps shown in Figure 2.1.

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 Figure 2.1 The WFD river basin planning process

Source: Adapted by CIS WFD (2003)

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Monitoring and classification: In 2006 monitoring programs within the RBDs had to be established. The WFD monitoring network will enable us to identify problems and resolve them, thereby improving the water environment. It is a core concept of the WFD that the condition of biological communities is used to assess the ecological quality of surface waters, therefore the monitoring programs established is focused on monitoring specific biological element.

The ecological classification system covers all surface water bodies, and is based on a new ecological classification system with five quality classes. It has been devised following EU guidance and is underpinned by a range of biological quality elements, supported by measurements of chemistry, hydrology (changes to levels and flows) and morphology (changes to the shape and function of water bodies). Some of the quality elements used in the ecological classification system have only seldom been monitored in Member States before.

To define good chemical status, environmental quality standards have been established for 33 new and eight previously regulated chemical pollutants of high concern across the EU. The WFD is backed up by other EU legislation such as the REACH regulation on chemicals and the Directive for Integrated Pollution and Prevention Control (IPPC) for industrial installations.

The rules for groundwater are slightly different and good chemical and quantitative status is the objective. Member States must use geological data to identify distinct volumes of water in underground aquifers, and limits abstraction to a portion of the annual recharge. Groundwater should not be polluted at all – any pollution must be detected and stopped.

The reports and consultation on Significant Water Management Issues (SWMIs) in 2007 and 2008 were important steps leading towards the production of the first RBMPs.

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Status and objective setting

Article 4.1 defines the WFD general objective to be achieved in all surface and groundwater bodies, i.e. good status by 2015, and introduces the principle of preventing any further deterioration of status. If a water body does not currently achieve “good status” measures should be established to reach good status by 2015. It may be possible to have exemptions to the general objectives that allow for less stringent objectives, extension of deadline beyond 2015.

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The River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) describe the measures that must be taken to improve the ecological quality of water bodies and help reach the objectives of the WFD. The WFD requires via the RBMPs a Programme of Measures (PoM) to be established for each RBD. The measures implemented as part of the programme should enable water bodies to achieve the environmental objectives of the WFD. The PoM must be established by December 2009 and be made operational by December 2012.

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1.2.     Geographical settings

Several million kilometres of flowing waters and more than a million lakes cover the European continent. Each body of water has its own characteristics. Coastal waters represent the interface between land and ocean, and in the context of the Water Framework Directive coastal waters include water, that has not been designated as transitional water, extending one nautical mile from a baseline defined by the land points where territorial waters are measured. The European Union has a coastline of 68 000 km and several hundreds of transitional waters in the form of fjords, estuaries, lagoons, and deltas. The seas around Europe are extensively used and provide environmental services like fish, shipping and port development, tourism, oil and gas production, wind, and wave and tidal energy.

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1.2.1.      Overview of River Basin Districts

The implementation of the WFD has resulted in the establishment of 110 river basin districts (RBDs) across the EU (Map 1.1). Since 40 river basin districts are international, there are a total of more than 170 national or national parts of international river basin districts. The international river basin districts cover more than 60 % of the territory of the EU making the international coordination aspects one of the most significant and important issue and challenge for the WFD implementation.

Only rivers arising deep inside the continent are relatively large. Many central European countries are drained by only a few river catchments (Map 1.2). For example, the Vistula (Wisla) and Oder drain more than 95 % of Poland and the Danube drains most of Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovak Republic and Slovenia. France, Germany and Spain are drained by relative few large rivers and these countries have several large RBDs.

Countries with long coastlines, for example, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Greece, are usually characterised as having large numbers of relatively small river catchments and short rivers; the three to four largest of which drain only 15 % to 35 % of their area. In these countries a number of river catchments have been merged to form river basin districts.

International river basins: Within the European Union there are many river basins which are shared between Member States. An important feature of the WFD is a planning mechanism, referred to as international river basin plans, by which Member States should co-operate to ensure that environmental objectives targets are met.

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Map 1.1 Map of national and international river basin districts

Note: Map to be updated

Source: DG Environment http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/facts_figures/pdf/2007_03_22_rbd_a3.pdf

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Map 1.2 Major European river basins

1: Volga

2: Danube River

7: Neva

9: Vistula

11: Rhine

12: Elbe

13: Oder

14: Loire

15: Nemunas

16: Douro

17: Rhône

19: Garonne

20: Ebro

21: Tajo

22: Seine

24: Guadiana

26: Po River

30: Guadalquivir

31: Torne River


Source: EEA 2005.

Map to be updated with legend and the correct administrative boundaries.

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1.2.2.      The European seas and coasts

Europe's seas include the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas. The North East Atlantic includes the North Sea, but also the Arctic and Barents Seas, the Irish Sea, and the Celtic Sea, Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast (Map 1.3; EEA 2010; SOER2010 Marine and coastal).

  • The Baltic Sea is semi enclosed with low salinity due to restricted water exchange with the North East Atlantic and large river run-off. These conditions make the sea particularly vulnerable to nutrient pollution.
  • The Black Sea is also semi enclosed; it is the world's largest inland basin with restricted water exchange with the Mediterranean. Its waters are anoxic at depths below 150–200 meters. Surface water salinities of the Black Sea are within an intermediate range. Most of the Black Sea is believed to host oil and gas reserves, and oil and gas exploration is beginning in the area.
  • The Mediterranean Sea is also a semi enclosed sea with high salinity due to high evaporation rates and low river run-off. It has restricted water exchange with the Atlantic and Black Sea. It is the most biologically diverse sea in Europe.
  • The North East Atlantic covers a range of seas and a large climatic gradient. It is a highly productive area that hosts the most valuable fishing areas of Europe and many unique habitats and ecosystems. It is also home to Europe's largest oil and gas reserves.

In the current report the North-east Atlantic has been split into two regions The Greater North Sea and the Celtic Seas to the Iberian Coast.

Map 1.3 European Regional Seas and their catchments (draft).

North-East Atlantic Ocean

split into

  • The Greater North Sea and
  • the Celtic Seas to the Iberian Coast.

Note that some parts of the catchments outside of the EU are missing.

Map to be updated with the five used sea regions.

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EEA 2010; SOER2010 Marine and coastal. Available at http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer/europe/marine-and-coastal-environment

WFD and other EU Water Directives See http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/index_en.htm

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