Fit for purpose?



It is sobering to think that the Water Framework Directive (WFD) will be twenty years old this year (23 October, to be precise).  The 70 pages of legalese that comprise this directive have, to a large extent, determined the course of my career over the past two decades (it is a few sentences in Annex V, to be precise, but unravelling and interpreting these has been enough).  Just before this anniversary arrives, however, the European Commission has published a “fitness check”, giving the Directive a thorough once-over before reaching a mixed verdict on its performance.

The report’s conclusion is that the WFD has provided a governance framework for water management but, overall, the condition of Europe’s water bodies has shown little significant improvement since the WFD passed into law.   The original objective – grossly optimistic in hindsight – was for all Europe’s water bodies to be at least at good status by 2015.  Instead, we are still in the situation where less than half are at good status.  There is no doubt that there have been local improvements, and the rate of deterioration may have decreased but this is not the same as a general trend towards better ecological quality in our water bodies.   I’ll offer three possible reasons for the shortcomings, based on my own experience of WFD implementation, in the hope that lessons learned from turning a well-intentioned policy instrument from theory into practice will have some broader lessons as we tackle the climate emergency.

The first lesson is that complex problems, by necessity, spawn complicated legislation.  The Water Framework Directive arose from an attempt, in the early 1990s, to produce a directive addressing the Ecological Quality of Waters.  As debates about this progressed, people realised that you cannot consider the state of the aquatic environment in isolation, without also considering broader economic issues such as water pricing and, indeed, all aspects of catchment management that respects the rights of other legitimate users.  Each of these issues requires a small army of bureaucrats to unpack and apply within the 28 Member States.   In some countries and for some aspects of the legislation, there were procedures in place that simply needed tweaking to be fit-for-purpose.  Some other aspects were, however, completely new for almost everyone.

The whole idea of using the health of an aquatic ecosystem (“ecological status”) as a measure of the long-term sustainability, for example, was something never attempted on such a scale before.  It had been advocated in the academic literature, and there were a few localised attempts to apply the system (RIVPACS in the UK, for example) but, as the sun rose on 23 October 2000, the task of working out how the fine words of Article 4 had to be translated to a practical reality that was both faithful to the intentions of the WFD and that worked within public sector budgets had to start.


A second big issue that was relatively under-acknowledged in the fitness check is that solving environmental problems cannot be achieved without engaging other sectors as well.   A recent review, to which I contributed, highlighted this, emphasising the need, first, to integrate water policy with other sectors (such as agriculture) whilst, at the same time, emphasising the need to demonstrate tangible benefits that extend beyond the subtleties of shifts in ecological parameters.  Bring agriculture on board to achieve more sympathetic management of catchments, in other words, recognise the contributions that farmers make (“public money for public goods”) but also back this up with substantial demonstrations of reduced flood risk for urban areas downstream.   That calls for a level of joined-up thinking across sectors that has not yet been achieved in Europe and which is, perhaps, an opportunity that the UK, shortly to be freed from the leviathan that is the Common Agricultural Policy, may be in a better position to address.  We live in hope.

The third reason may be that the ambition of the WFD may be higher than many politicians and civil servants are happy with.   Article 1 sets out the objective of promoting “sustainable water use based on a long-term protection of available water resources”.  A phrase such as that could have appeared in any of the party manifestos for our recent election but when the scientists unpack this and explain that this will mean that every river in the country needs to have average phosphorus concentrations of well under 0.1 milligrams per litre, and the water planners put a price on this, alone, that runs into hundreds of millions (if not billions) of euros, then that ambition falters.   More particularly, the noisy nature of much ecological and environmental data gives ample opportunity for bureaucrats to prevaricate rather than take steps that are unlikely to play well with the media (the WFD enshrines the “polluter pays” principle and, as we all contribute to urban wastewater loading, this translates to “voter pays”).

As its 20th anniversary approaches, the WFD will have spanned four electoral cycles (assuming national parliaments have five-year terms), at each of which policy wonks will have been thinking less about long term sustainability of water resources and more about short-term swings in voting preferences.   Moreover, since 2008, much of Europe has felt the consequences of the banking crises, with public sector finances often badly affected.  Again, the scientific challenges that the WFD creates provides easy excuses for cash-strapped regulators to kick the can down the road rather than make potentially unpopular decisions.

Governance may be in place, in other words, but a willingness to push this governance to deliver may be lacking.  That, in turn, reflects a perceived unwillingness on the part of the electorate to accept the costs.  Imperfect democracies will always deliver imperfect solutions, particularly when the underlying problems are complex and the opportunity costs are high.


Pictures in this post are from a New Year’s Day walk around the riverbanks in Durham.  New feature for 2020 is a few notes on what else I’ve been up to during the week in which this post gestated:

Wrote this whilst listening to:  Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding; Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska

Cultural highlight: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.

Currently reading: Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo – two Nobel Prize winners setting global problems into a broader economic framework.  Not an easy read but very stimulating.   A good follow-up to Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, which I mentioned in a couple of posts last year.

Culinary highlight: followed a recipe in The Guardian which involved cramming all the leftovers from our Christmas dinner (turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, parsnips, brussel sprouts) into a loaf tin along with some breadcrumbs and two eggs to bind.  This created a meatloaf which I froze and then produced on New Year’s Day to provide a final reminder of the festive season before the realities of 2020 intruded.  Doubly enjoyable as West Ham had their first win of the Festive Season as it was being demolished.


Carvalho, L., Mackay, E. B., Cardoso, A. C., Baattrup-Pedersen, A., Birk, S., Blackstock, K. L., Borics, G., Borja, A., Feld, C.K., Ferreira, M.T., Globevnik, L., Grizzetti, B., Hendry, S., Hering, D., Kelly, M., Langaas, S., Meissner, K., Panagopoulos, Y., Penning, E., Rouillard, J., Sabater, S., Schmedtje, U., Spears, B.M., Venohr, M., van de Bund, W. & Solheim, A. L. (2019). Protecting and restoring Europe’s waters: An analysis of the future development needs of the Water Framework Directive. Science of the Total Environment 658 1228-1238.

Looking back on 2019


So at least we now know what will happen next: the UK is set to leave the European Union at the end of January 2020.  Then the hard work of deciding on the shape of a future relationship begins.  The Prime Minister has already announced that the transition period will not be extended beyond the end of 2020 which gives a ridiculously short period in which to reach a trade deal.  Whether he takes up the EU’s offer to extend this remains to be seen.  I suspect that, once the bluster dies down and the magnitude of the task ahead is clear, then common sense may prevail.   If we look for some positives amidst the wreckage of progressive politics after the election, then it is that the Prime Minister can no longer be dictated to by the toxic European Research Group.

What are the prospects for the UK environment in 2020?   I wrote about this in the run-up to the election and there is no need to repeat myself.   The Environment Bill will be re-introduced and, with the Conservative majority, I guess there is little prospect of significant change during the Committee stages, despite the reservations that the environment lobby have about some aspects of this.   The bigger question will be how agricultural support is re-organised once the UK is no longer part of the Common Agricultural Policy.   If there is a greater focus on “public money for public goods”, then this can only be good for the environment.  The question that I still cannot answer, after reading the manifesto before the election, is how a re-organised and more environment-friendly agricultural subsidy scheme can be managed and enforced without more skilled people working on the ground.

I also foresee a weaker focus on the UK’s aquatic resources over the next few years.   First, though the Water Framework Directive has been transposed into UK legislation, few believe that the proposed Office for Environmental Protection will have as many teeth as the European Court of Justice.  Second, the focus on the climate emergency will, without specific funding for a larger workforce in DEFRA and associated agencies, will weaken the capability to respond to the challenges that the aquatic environment still poses.   Third, two of the most obvious consequences of climate change at the moment are flooding and drought, so we can expect more of the Environment Agency’s time and resources to be focussed on these issues.  Finally, the state of the UK’s freshwaters is, to be frank, not that high on anyone’s agenda just at the moment.

There is one other trend, independent from Brexit and populism, that we need to resist.   That is the increasing reliance on the media as an intermediary between us and the environment.   On the one hand, we know about the global climate emergency because of pictures piped onto our homes via television and the internet.  On the other hand, we are not noticing the changes that happen in our own back gardens.   This disconnect makes us, I fear, more susceptible to political hype (left and right) and feeds into the issues I wrote about in the previous paragraph.  I started this blog in 2013 mostly as a way of making me look more closely at my own local environment, and I will continue in 2020, because I regard this self-discipline as a necessary corrective to the modern ecologist who spends more time indoors staring at spreadsheets than outside interacting with nature.  If a few of you want to join me on this journey, then I will be delighted to have some company …

Too much hot air?


One day to go before polling day and I make no excuses for letting politics intrude into a blog that is primarily about natural history.  I try to explain, in my posts, how the algae that I see in the streams and lakes that I visit are affected by their environment, whether this be a stream in north-east England that periodically dries out, the drainage from a metal mine in Cyprus or a lake downstream of a major city in China (to take just three examples from my 2019 posts).   Those local effects are, however, always set within a broader context, part of which pertains to legal and regulatory frameworks and, via these, to the political process.  I cannot, in other words, extol the beauty of a desmid but ignore what the party manifestos say about policies that may enhance or degrade the habitats where desmids live.

Having said that, the film director Ken Loach, commented that the social problems he portrays in “Sorry I Missed You” were “beyond politics” during a Q&A in Durham last week.   That is much how I feel about the environmental problems we face: the structural changes required are addressed by the political parties in their manifestos but, at their root, they also need individuals to change.   Traditional economic systems are driven by demand, which equates to consumers wanting things.  Leaning to live well with less seems to be a prerequisite for moving forward, and that is an unpalatable message for politicians to sell to a fickle electorate.  More practically, such demand drives the economic growth, the tax revenues from which pay for government spending.

That means that a manifesto that pledges economic growth and a serious response to the climate emergency needs to be treated with a degree of scepticism.  How do the major party manifestos add up in this respect?    The Conservative manifesto is, unsurprisingly, the one most wedded to economic growth, using this phrase in a positive way 17 times, followed by the Liberal Democrats (5) and Labour (2).  The Green party refer to growth four times but three of these are negative and the fourth is neutral.

All Conservative and Liberal claims about the environment, therefore, need to be set in a broader context whereby their ambitions are dependent upon continued exploitation of the earth’s resources.   Granted, we can find references to “clean growth” in both manifestos and whilst it is possible for growth in the tech and service sectors to be “clean” we need to take care that a shift in emphasis in the UK economy does not simply mean the environmental costs of producing the goods that we need are not exported.   The UK has set itself challenging targets for becoming carbon neutral, but achieving these would be meaningless if it involved outsourcing our emissions to countries with weaker regulatory regimes.

The Labour manifesto, by contrast, is largely quiet on the subject of growth, albeit with some reference to promoting more sustainable design and manufacturing.  Their broader vision of creating equality within society does, at least, mean that they want to create opportunities for employment in this country which would mean that carbon emission targets would have to be met by reductions in the UK.  They also recognise that growth, alone, will not pay for increased government spending though their plans to underwrite their manifesto promises by borrowing alarms many people.   Both Labour and the Green Party promise overhauls of the tax system as one means of paying for extra expenditure on public service, but both are vague on the impact on individual taxpayers.   This is, unfortunately, the product of the previous decade of austerity, when the Tories ploughed ahead with cuts to public services whilst making tax raises a toxic issue.   Despite bolder promises from all parties on public spending than we’ve seen for some time, none seem to want to tackle head-on the possibility that this might necessitate income tax rises.

This suggests to me that, once the fine words in the manifesto are stripped away, the policy wonks in the major parties are not convinced that the electorate is ready for the scale of change that scientists believe to be necessary to tackle the climate emergency.   Scratch the surface of the green rhetoric and, as far as politicians are concerned, I suspect it is it is going to be business as usual once the dust from the election has settled.  This means that, as 2020 dawns, the environment will, once again, be competing with the health service and education for its share of the public purse.   That’s a miserable point on which to end but this has been a miserable election campaign.  At a time when we desperately need statesmen and visionary leaders, we have a sorry pair of contenders for the highest office in the land, neither of whom seems to command much respect beyond their hardcore support.

Costing the earth?


This is the third general election that has taken place during the lifetime of this blog and, looking back at the posts I wrote in the run-up to the 2015 and 2017 elections, I see one overwhelming difference.  In both 2015 (see “A plague on both their houses”) and 2017 (see “How green is my party?“) I lamented the lack of focus that the major parties gave to the environment.   The same is not true this time, though the way that the major parties approach the issue varies considerably.

I’m not going to go through the manifestos in detail: there is a good comparison of environmental policies on the BBC website that already does this.  Instead, I want to take a step back and look at the broader context and, bearing in mind the present lead that the Conservatives have in the polls, I think it is appropriate that their environmental pledges get the closest scrutiny.   As is always the case, manifestos are glossy brochures that can be frustrating documents for anyone interested in the nuts-and-bolts of implementation. However, in the case of the Conservatives, we have a better idea of what their promises will look like in practice as their Environment Bill was working its way through Parliament when the election was called. The implication from their manifesto is that this will be picked up again (perhaps with some modifications) if they are re-elected.

Greener UK, a coalition of environmental organisations in the UK sees “many welcome measures” in the Environment Bill, but has a number of concerns (summarised in this briefing paper.   There was a hope that some of these could be addressed during the second reading and committee stages but my fear would be that a Conservative government with a Parliamentary majority would be in a position to drive through the bill without taking these concerns into account.  One of my key concerns (shared with Greener UK) is that the proposed Office for Environment Protection is not sufficiently independent from DEFRA to be truly independent (see “(In)competent authority”).

My major concern, however, is not what the Conservatives promise to do, but whether they will provide the administrative infrastructure that allows this to happen.   Earlier this week, I spent a day in a meeting with representatives from the Environment Agency, Natural England, a utility company and a rivers trust, considering the actions needed to manage one catchment in northern England.   There were ten of us around the table, all bringing different perspectives and expertise to the discussion.   This is a timely reminder that, whilst the politicians might want to present a series of neat prescriptions to drive environmental improvement, the reality will always be more complicated.   Conservative (and Labour, Lib-Dem and Green) promises need to be backed up by the resources (and adequate staff) to allow the ambition encapsulated in the manifestos to be fine-tuned to local circumstances.

And this is where the Conservative manifesto falls down.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked at the spending pledges of all the major parties and found that neither Labour nor the Conservatives have spending plans that are in line with their manifesto commitments (you can see an analysis of the IFS report by the BBC’s Reality Check team, based on the IFS report here.  However, whilst Labour and the Lib-Dems are, at least, honest about the need to raise extra revenue through taxation and borrowing (even if Labour’s sums don’t add up), the Conservatives actually make a promise not to raise rates of income tax, VAT or national insurance.   That might play well, at a purely superficial level with voters with a libertarian bent, but will lead either to a gulf between ambition and delivery or to broken promises.

As 2020 dawns, the manifestos will be largely forgotten and newspaper headlines will focus on the crisis in the NHS.  We’ll still see articles about the climate emergency but, unless provoked by extreme events such as flooding, concrete pledges on spending will be few and far between.   The Environment Agency will still be limping along with senior management trumpeting a “more with less” ethos whilst their Poor Bloody Infantry will, if the polling is accurate, have barely enough resources to make the shrewd interpretations of the limited data now available that are necessary for effective decisions at a local scale.

At the root of my concerns is a question about whether the preoccupation of neoliberals with “small government” can ever be compatible with environmental management. Turning this around, the reason why academics and environmental professionals tend to be pro-EU is that they understand that the scale of the problems facing us is such that the broadly Keynesian, interventionist approach that the EU espoused was more likely to bring changes than laissez-faire economics.  That is not to say that the EU gets everything right (the Common Agricultural Programme, for example, the Common Agricultural Programme, for example, desperately needs an overhaul), just that it is going to be difficult for the UK to achieve the goals set out in all the major party manifestos unless we are prepared to pay for a public sector with a budget that is proportional to the task in hand.

Follow the data, stupid …

A perennial problem with ecology is that it is a discipline that is far better at describing problems than it is at solving them. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) encapsulates this: after nineteen years, we have a pretty good idea of the condition of Europe’s waters but have made very little progress in restoring the half that do not yet achieve good ecological status.

The reason for this is, I suspect, because describing the problem is a task that lies squarely within the remit of a scientist whilst finding solutions requires interactions that go beyond the boundaries of science, encountering vested interests along the way.   The agricultural sector’s enthusiasm for the environment is tempered by their desire to maximise yield and earn a living from the land, politicians are wary of regulations that may deter business or raise prices for the consumer and all of us are too wedded to the luxuries that the modern world offers.

The WFD can be seen as an embodiment of the social contract, articulated by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes whereby individuals forego some rights in order to transcend the state of nature (“… nasty, brutish and short.”) and give us access to the benefits of an ordered society.  In this case, we all consent to forego some freedoms in return for a share in the benefits that a healthy aquatic environment will bring to all of us.   “Freedom” might seem like a weighty word in this context but anyone who has watched their sewerage charges creep steadily upwards over the past twenty years should recognise this as the price we pay for the freedom to flush away life’s less desirable by-products.

The problem is defining the point at which we hand over our natural rights to a higher authority.   We understand this when driving: an urban speed limit of 30 miles per hour reflects the point at which the risk we pose to other road users are deemed societally unacceptable and our right to drive as fast as we wish has to be curtailed.  If we can translate that principle into environmental governance then we can set “speed limits” for the major pressures that impact on the aquatic environment.   How do we get from an ecologist’s understanding of a “healthy” river (“good ecological status”, in WFD parlance) to the “speed limit” for nutrients, widely recognised as one of the major pressures affecting both freshwater and marine systems?

That’s been the focus of some work I’ve been doing under the auspices of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, one strand of which has just been published in Science of the Total Environment.  This paper looked at the threshold concentrations for nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) used by EU countries, noting the very wide range of values chosen as the national “speed limit”.   The situation is complicated because, just as is the case for roads, different types of rivers require different limits and we had to look for variation between countries amidst an array of variation within countries.   What emerged, however, was a clear relationship between the threshold values and the method used to set the standard.  Those that had applied statistical or modelling techniques to national data generally had tighter thresholds than those that relied upon “expert judgement”.  I’ve included the two figures from this paper that make this point.


Range of good/moderate lake phosphorus (a) and nitrogen (b) threshold values grouped by method used to determine the value. Different letters indicate groups that are statistically different (p ≤ 0.05).   Fig. 7 from Poikane et al. (2019).

“Expert judgement” is one of those slippery terms that often creeps into official reports.   There needs to be space within a decision-making process for an experienced professional to see through the limitations of available evidence and present a reasoned alternative.  However, “expert judgement” too often becomes a shorthand for cutting corners and, in this case, grabbing numbers from the published literature that seem vaguely plausible.  There is also a darker side because, having unhitched decision-making from the evidence, “expert judgement” can become a euphemism for the “art of the possible”.  I have seen this occur during discussions around setting and revising river phosphorus standards in the UK: the regulators themselves are under pressure to balance environmental protection with economic development and tight standards can potentially limit what can be done in a catchment.

Another of our recent papers (this one’s not open-access, I’m afraid) shows that setting standards using empirical models is far from straightforward and we also recognise that standard setting is just one part of a longer process of nutrient management.   However, setting inappropriate standards simply as an expedience seems completely barmy, as you are never going to attain your desired ecological benefits.   The cynical view might be that, as the process of environmental change is invariably greater than the electoral cycle, there is limited accountability associated with such decisions, compared with more immediate political capital kudos from bringing investment and jobs to a region.


Range of good/moderate river phosphorus (a) and nitrogen (b) threshold values grouped method used to determine the value. Different letters indicate groups that are statistically different (p ≤ 0.05).   Fig. 8 from Poikane et al. (2019).

All of our work has shown that, in most cases, the relationship between biology and nutrients is weak and, for this reason, large datasets are needed if robust inferences are to be drawn.  This leads to one further consequence of our work: setting environmental standards may only be possible if countries pool their data in order to produce big enough datasets with which to work.  This is particularly the case for smaller countries within the EU, but also applies to water body types that may be relatively infrequent in one country but are more widespread elsewhere.   I had recent experience of this when working on the Romanian stretches of the Danube: they simply did not have a wide enough gradient of conditions in their own territory, and we had to incorporate their data into a larger dataset in order to see the big picture (see “Beyond the Tower of Babel …”).    Writing about the benefits of international collaboration as the Brexit deadline looms obviously has a certain irony, but it needs to be said.  Far from being the distant and unaccountable law maker of Brexiteer mythology, in this field the European Commission has been quietly encouraging Member States to share experience and promote best practice.  One can only speculate about the future of the UK environment once free of Brussels oversight.


Philips, G., Teixeira, H., Poikane, S., Salas, F. & Kelly, M.G. (2019).   Establishing nutrient thresholds in the face of uncertainty and multiple stressors: a comparison of approaches using simulated data sets.   Science of the Total Environment684: 425-433.

Poikane, S., Kelly, M.G., Salas Herrero, F., Pitt, J.-A., Jarvie, H.P., Claussen, U., Leujak, W., Solheim, A.L., Teixera, H. & Phillips, G. (2019).  Nutrient criteria for surface waters under the European Water Framework Directive: Current state-of-the-art, challenges and future outlook.  Science of the Total Environment 695.  

Note on figures:

The methods used by Member States to derive nutrient thresholds are described in more detail in Poikane et al. (2019).   In brief, the approaches are:

1 – regression between nutrient and biological response;

2 – modelling;

3 – distribution of nutrient concentrations in water bodies classified (using ecological criteria) as high, good or moderate status;

4 – distribution of nutrient concentrations in all water bodies using an arbitrary percentile;

5 – expert judgement.  This includes values taken from the literature or from older European Directives. For example, for nitrate, the common use of the value 5.65 mg-N L−1 in freshwaters is likely to be derived from the guideline value of 25 mg L−1 of nitrate in the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) or now repealed Drinking Water Directive (80/778/EC).

6 – The so-called OSPAR Comprehensive Procedure is used widely in coastal and transitional waters. In this, a water body is considered to be an ‘Eutrophication Problem Area’ if actual status deviates 50% or more from reference conditions.

7 – insufficient information.

Beyond the Tower of Babel …


A week after I return from China, I was off on my travels again; this time to Vienna for a workshop between molecular ecology specialists and ECOSTAT, the committee of Member State representatives who oversee ecological aspects of Water Framework Directive implementation.   As ever, I found some time to visit some art galleries around the meeting and, as Vienna has one of the most impressive collections of paintings by Pieter Brueghel, I could not resist spending some time in front of his “Tower of Babel”.  A few years ago I cheerfully included this picture in a talk on EU ecological assessment methods, as we tried to make sense of the myriad national approaches.   Three years after the Brexit vote, however, it seems to better reflect UK domestic politics where, ironically, language is one of the few things that all protagonists do have in common.

The River Danube seems to encapsulate the reasons why Europe needs collaborative thinking on the state of the environment.  It is the second longest river in Europe, after the Volga, and flows through ten countries, with tributaries extending into nine more.   Eight of the nine countries through which the river flows are members of the EU (the ninth, Serbia, is in the process of joining) so the river represents a case study, of sorts, on whether EU environmental policies actually work.   This is not just an academic question: ecologists are generally in favour of integrated management of entire catchments whilst the EU operates on a principle of “subsidiarity”, which means that decision-making is devolved to the lowest competent authority (individual Member States in the case of the environment).   Finding the right balance between these principles takes a lot of patient discussion and is one reason why EU decision-making can appear to be agonisingly slow.


Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

And there are more problems: the Water Framework Directive evaluates the sustainability of water bodies by their naturalness yet very large rivers such as the Danube have been very heavily modified by human use for centuries.   The river has been broadened, deepened and impounded, and its banks have been straightened and strengthened in order to make it navigable, and there is a huge human population, with associated industry, living on its banks.  The stretch of the Danube along which I walked on my last morning in Vienna was also lined with embankments to protect the surrounding land from flooding but these, at the same time, cut the river off from the ecological benefits of the floodplain.

What hope for a large river such as the Danube in the face of all these challenges?   First of all, when dealing with rivers such as these we need to adjust our expectations, recognising that they are so central to the economic life of the regions through which they flow that there are limits to their capacity to ever resemble truly natural rivers.   Once we have done this, we can start to unpick the challenges that can be addressed by individual Member States.  In the case of water quality, in particular, the story for the Danube is encouraging and European environmental legislation has played its role in this process.  By the time the Danube reaches the borders with Romania, for example, nutrient concentrations are low enough for many of the benthic algal-communities to meet criteria for “good ecological status”.

You can see this in the graph below, from a paper that we’ve published recently.   The Romanian sites are largely clustered at the top left hand side of the graph, relative to data from other countries – indicating low phosphorus concentrations and good ecology (expressed as “ecological quality ratios”, EQRs).   Thanks to an extensive exercise that took place a few years before I started grappling with the Romanian data, we already had a consensus view of the EQR boundaries for high and good status, and most of the Romanian data fits into the band representing “good status”.  That’s encouraging and whilst these communities are just one element of a much more complex ecosystem, but it is a clear step in the right direction.


The relationship between dissolved phosphorus and ecological status of the phytobenthos (expressed as the Ecological Quality Ratio, EQR, based on the intercalibration common metric (which gives a harmonised view of status between Member States).   Horizontal lines show the average position of “high” (blue) and “good” (green) status boundaries.   RO = Romanian data; XGIG = data from other Member States.   See Kelly et al. (2018) for more details.  

Romania is, of course, a long way downstream from where I was standing in Vienna.  Before the Danube gets there it has to cross Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia.  The river also forms the boundary between Romania and Bulgaria for about 300 kilometres, so it is important that there is joined-up thinking between those responsible for water quality on the two opposite banks.  That’s why the EU is so important for the environment on a pan-European scale.  It is easy for those of us crammed onto our insignificant archipelago in the north-west corner of the continent to overlook this, but the Danube is really a great success stories for European environmental collaboration and, indeed, a reason for staying with this ambitious project into the future.   Too late, I know, but it needs to be said.


Kelly, M.G., Chiriac, G., Soare-Minea, A., Hamchevici, C. & Birk, S. (2018).  Defining ecological status of phytobenthos in very large rivers: a case study of practical implementation of the Water Framework Directive in Romania.  Hydrobiologia 828: 353-367.


Sightseeing in Vienna: Stefansdom, the historic cathedral in the city centre and the Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park, which played a starring role in Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

Hug a Brexiteer …


I was hoping to start this blog, written on the original date for Brexit, noting that, in contrast to most other UK citizens, I had begun the day outside the EU but had, during the course of the morning, re-joined the Union.  The delay in the date for Brexit messes up that neat little opener but the experience of walking across the Green Line in Nicosia, from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus is a sobering reminder of the way that festering resentments within communities can spiral out of control.

There are few certainties in UK politics at the moment but, based on voting patterns in the referendum, it is very likely that over 40 per cent of the population is going to be dissatisfied with the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.   I have made my own views clear in this blog and I know that some of my readers disagree with my views.   This post is not about the rights and wrongs of Brexit but about the aftermath, and how the country as a whole treats that large proportion who will almost certainly be disappointed by the outcome.

The situation in Cyprus is complex but there are parallels to Brexit in that, after 1945, the key political question concerned a union (with Greece in this case) that would have left a significant minority of the population feeling disenfranchised.  On the other hand, there is one key difference from the UK in 2019 in that the disenfranchised minority were ethnically distinct.  In 1974 the failure to find a mutually-acceptable settlement led eventually to invasion by Turkish forces and the partition of the island which persists to this day.   We in the UK should be thankful that there is no such clear “them” and “us” distinction as our politicians pick their way through the morass of possibilities.

But the absence of a physiognomic, linguistic or religious differentiator in the Brexit debate does not mean that differences – and resentments – will not persist long after a final settlement is agreed.  That means the country, once it has resolved the present Brexit stalemate, will need to think seriously about a reconciliation process to heal the divisions.   Time, alone, will not necessarily be enough; indeed, time may even sharpen the divisions, especially if the economy is not buoyant in the post-Brexit years.  I live in a liberal bubble where almost everyone I encounter is pro-EU and opposed to Brexit; however, if the UK does end up leaving the EU, there is no point in brooding over what might have been.  We will need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and move on.   And hug a Brexiteer.  Judging by the press reports, many of them are going to be just as disappointed as the Remainers.   At least we will have that in common