Exemption Excess: The EU’s Inaction to Secure its Freshwater Bodies’ Health

European Commission President Jean‐Claude Juncker loosens the exemption restrictions of the WFD, polluting the European Union’s water.

In her seminal 2014 book Adventures in the Anthropocene, Gaia Vince guides readers through humanity’s conquest of the natural world. In her discussion of rivers, Vince remarks, “freshwater is so essential to humans that you can map society on it.” From the Indus River Valley and the start of civilization to now, we have relied on rivers for our survival; in fact, all of Europe’s capital cities are connected to a body of water of some kind. Rivers and lakes not only provide us with water to drink, but flora and fauna for us to consume.

It’s startling, when we see how important freshwater access is to human life, that a 2018 report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) stated only 40% of surveyed European waterways were in good ecological standing. It’s even more startling when we learn this percentage was the same percentage as in 2012, even though the European Union (EU) predicted in 2012 that the number would be closer to 55%. The main problems holding back progress since 2012, according to the EEA, were centered on hydro-morphological changes (in the forms of dams and channelization, for example—changes in water flow) which threaten biodiversity. And while it may be daunting to fix, Andres Baumueller, the World Wide Fund’s Europe head of natural resources, said, “the legislation is there, but the political will is clearly lacking to make it work on the ground.”

Baumueller is right. The legislation exists in the form of one of the EU’s directives from 2000: The Water Framework Directive (WFD). Heralded at the time as Europe’s first water plan and initially designed to ensure all European water bodies were of good status by 2015, the WFD now represents the EU’s code on water regulation and policy. The problems facing the EU waters are not with the actions and guidelines set forth in the WFD. Instead, it is with one specific clause—Article 4(7)—which grants bodies of water exemption status to WFD rules. The exemptions rules are currently too broad, allowing for almost half of Europe’s water to be exempt from WFD policies and the creation of hydro-morphological modifiers in Europe’s waterways which destroy their health and biodiversity.

As Europe’s water convention, the WFD has two overarching priorities: achieving good status/potential of all water bodies by 2015 (now 2027) and preventing further deterioration of any water body. These priorities are achieved in administrative boundaries known as River Basin Districts, established not by political boundaries, but instead with the river basin (the spatial catchment area of the river) as a natural geographical and hydrological unit. These districts almost always transcend national boundaries, and River Basin Management Plans, or documents explaining how the district will meet the WFD’s goals, require international effort to create. Member States of the EU are legally required to refuse authorization for projects, including alterations to existing infrastructure, which might cause deterioration or failure to achieve good status or potential of a river basin in their country.

However, Article 4(7) outlines situations in which Member States are exempt from WFD rules. If failure to achieve good status or prevent deterioration is due to new modifications of physical characteristics of the body of water, and these modifications are the result of sustainable human development activities, are of the overriding public interest, and cannot be less expensively or feasibly achieved by a significantly better environmental option, the project is exempt. Additional caveats are catalogued in later clauses; Article 4(8) stipulates projects cannot permanently compromise the achievement of the WFD’s goals in other bodies of water in the same district and must be consistent with other EU environmental legislation. Article 4(9) further requires the project guarantee the same level of protection as existing EU legislation.

Just from the list of conditions, it may seem that exemption is difficult to achieve. Member States, according to the Commission, are to blame for not providing adequate justifications for their exemption requests, especially with the cost-effectiveness analysis. However, the WFD is often considered one of the most complicated and hard to interpret pieces of EU environmental legislation, and some claim this is not by accident. Blandine Boeuf, Oliver Fritsch, and Julia Martin‐Ortega argue some of the terminological vagueness is part of a strategic move to have exemptions be exploited in implementation of the directive. Others consider the ambiguous wording to be a product of the negotiation phase, where socioeconomic concerns and differing understandings of the WFD’s objectives created a “weak compromise left open for interpretation,” per the European Environmental Bureau.

Whatever the case may be, the WFD’s exemption guidelines are in part to blame for the quality of Europe’s waters. The European Commission’s report on the implementation of the WFD in February, 2019 stated that half of Europe’s bodies of water are exempt from the WFD regulations. In their Status of Our Water report from 2018, the EEA stated that the most commonly occurring pressures on surface water bodies are hydro-morphological, impacting 40% of European surface water bodies. A Key Issues Paper published by a Common Implementation Strategy Workshop of the European Commission in 2016 analyzed around 120 River Basin Management Plans. Few included a statement on Article 4(7) even though most involved modifications to water bodies. Of the sixteen or so that did include a statement, six were for navigation, four were for port development, and hydropower and electricity generation had three and four, respectively. All those which mentioned exemptions involved disruptions to the natural current, natural shape, and natural ecosystems of the rivers and water bodies, causing devastating environmental impacts.

Projects which alter hydro-morphological characteristics of water bodies frequently impact water quality. The creation of new hydroelectric infrastructure and the channeling of rivers not only disrupts the natural current and shape of rivers, but causes flooding and the introduction of otherwise‐irrelevant chemicals being introduced into the water. Disrupting the natural flow of rivers, too, causes migratory issues for fish and other aquatic creatures, leading to declined populations, and causes water to become more stagnant. This problem is being seen in the Alps, where river and stream diversion and the construction of large storage reservoirs have caused only 10% of Alpine rivers to exist in their natural or near-natural conditions and biodiversity to drop by 15%, according to the World Wide Fund.

In fact, many are touting the removal of hydro-morphological modifiers from European waterways as the best course to meet the WFD’s goals and revitalize European wildlife, especially in hydroelectric dam production. Exemptions in to build more modifiers should be more closely monitored. Sergiy Moroz, Senior Policy Officer for Water and Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said: “Fragmenting rivers with dams, barrages and other infrastructure is a key reason for the significant losses of fish and other freshwater species across Europe, as well as for the poor state of many of our water bodies. Removing old or obsolete dams helps to restore a river’s connectivity, bringing hope for migratory fish species, such as salmon, eel and sturgeon.” With the majority of exemptions under the WFD coming from projects involving hydro-morphological modifiers, the EU not only needs to bulk up their exemption guidelines but encourage Member States to scale back on disruptions to the natural flow of their waters.

One can certainly map society on freshwater, as Vince stated, but not just from a historical lens. Our impact on rivers and lakes, from the building of our cities to the building of our dams, has left its mark on the world. For us, it comes with electricity production and the ability to maintain our standard of living. For our environment, it comes with massive losses in biodiversity and water quality. Efforts in the European Union to mitigate these impacts are plagued with personal incentive and weak policy through exemptions. As our population skyrockets and our demands grow, the EU must find a way to secure the human way of life while preserving the environment. And right now, its current strategy is not cutting it.

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