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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.12.255