In 2000, after a decade of political struggle, the EU Parliament and Council finally adopted the ‘EC Directive 2000/60/EC establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy’ – the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Little wonder it took so long to negotiate – at the time of enactment it was one of the most comprehensive and progressive pieces of EU environmental legislation ever. There was a general belief that it would have a dramatic effect on the way water was managed in Ireland and Europe up to 2015 and beyond.

Whilst it has been the driver for a move towards a more integrated management of water, it is fair to say that its effects so far have been a lot more modest than hoped, with pressures on our waters continuing unabated. Member States have proceeded with innumerable damaging developments since 2000, with huge negative impacts on our waters, with much energy expended on securing the most liberal possible interpretation of the exemption provisions of the directive. The interpretation of the Directive has not been as ambitious as the drafters intended it to be, and unfortunately ambiguities in the text have resulted in increased application for exemptions.

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The main objectives of the Directive are:

  • To protect and where necessary to improve the quality of all our inland and coastal waters, groundwater and associated wetlands, and to prevent their further deterioration;
  • To achieve ‘good status’ for all these waters by 2015;
  • To promote the sustainable use of water;
  • To reduce the pollution of water by particularly hazardous ‘priority’ substances;
  • To lessen the effects of flooding and drought.

What is different about the WFD? The WFD was a significant departure from conventional environmental protection legislation, in that it obliges Member States to take a holistic, inclusive, ecological approach to water management.

The key requirements of the Directive are:

  1. Water quality based around the concept of ecological quality: It requires the quality ‘status’ of water bodies to be measured using ecological rather than just traditional physical and chemical parameters, with more emphasis on the quality of the biological communities of a water body.
  2. Water management at the level of river catchments: The WFD functional unit is based on river catchments or collections of river catchments (River Basin Districts), rather than along traditional political divisions (County Councils in Ireland). ‘River basins’ or ‘catchments’ are made up of lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater and estuaries – and all the land that surrounds them, and drains into them. In this way the Water Framework Directive promotes the very necessary integrated approach to water management.
  3. Involvement of the public a key requirement: The WFD emphasises consultation, public involvement and access to information more than any previous EU Directive. Article 14 of the WFD requires that “the active involvement of all interested parties” must be encouraged by every Member State. In this way, the WFD presents a new and exciting opportunity for communities and interest groups to get involved in the management of water resources at local and regional (River Basin District) level.

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River Basin Management Plans

River Basin Management Plans (RBM Plans) are the key water management tools required under the Directive. Plans for each of seven regions in the country for the period 2009-2015 were published in 2010. These Plans describe the waters of each region, their current status, and the pressures they face. The Plans also outline in general terms measures to be implemented up to 2015 to meet WFD objectives. Unfortunately, however, these have mostly remained unimplemented for the past four years. Read more about thee Plans and the current status of Water Framework Directive implementation in Ireland here.

Has the WFD worked in Ireland?

There was a general consensus when it came into force that the WFD would have a dramatic effect on the way water was managed in Ireland and Europe. Whilst it has been the driver for a gradual move towards a more integrated management of water, it is fair to say that its effects in Ireland (like a number of other countries) so far have been far more limited than was hoped. The diversity and complexity of the pressures on water, set against the current fragmented, unwieldy water management structures in Ireland, involving multiple agencies, has meant that hardly any new actions to improve protection of our rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal waters have been introduced in Ireland as a result of the WFD. This highlights the urgent need for a restructuring of water management to provide the consolidated, integrated water management approach necessary if Ireland is to meet its WFD obligations and secure real protection for our water environment. A new 3-Tier water management structure is being put in place by the government to address this, and you can read more about that in the context of river basin management planning here.