The ultimate goal of GLOBAQUA is to explore how current EU freshwater policy will need to be adapted to minimise the ecological, economical and societal consequences of water scarcity and ongoing global change.

EU freshwater policy contains other elements, but the Water Framework Directive (WFD), is of over-arching importance. The Directive was adopted to replace traditional management practices, predicated upon the command and control paradigm that looked at pressures in isolation and reduced environmental systems to their constituent elements when setting specific water objectives. Its introduction aimed to facilitate a shift from these policies to a holistic approach integrating all parts of the wider environmental system. Acknowledging that catchments differ from each other in terms of both socio-political and natural conditions, it signified a shift towards river basin management and systems thinking. The WFD was recognised as the first European Directive that focused on environmental sustainability and its introduction and innovations created a revolutionary prestige for the Directive, which was considered as a potential template and pilot for future environmental regulations.

However, fifteen years after the WFD was introduced, achieving its objectives remains a challenge. Despite some good progress, nearly half of EU surface waters (47%) did not reach the good ecological status in 2015– a central objective of EU water legislation. In essence, the WFD has been criticised due to the limited progress in delivering water quality improvements across Europe. In order to understand the problems with the WFD implementation, policy analysis and research undertaken within GLOBAQUA has been summarised in a first set of policy briefs. The briefs shed light on why the great expectations that came with the Directive have not yet been fully realised.



• The effectiveness of the WFD and its approach has been widely questioned due to the limited progress in delivering water quality improvements across Europe.

• The absence of the harmonised transposition of the WFD paradigm, the key to delivering good ecological status, was identified as a fundamental problem with its implementation.

• The process of acquiring in depth understanding of the catchment rather than the more traditional focus on policy compliance requires a fundamental shift to systems thinking.

• Improving water status by managing pressures, improving participation and interdisciplinarity to address the complex issues associated with water management, all call for a transition towards systemic thinking that can only be achieved with real transformational change.

• Implementing the WFD like any other directive is not going to work. Unless current implementation efforts are reviewed or revised, the fading aspirations of the initial great expectations could disappear for good.

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Recommendation approaches for adaptation of EU water policy

Policy analysis within GLOBAQUA delivered a list of recommendations for improving the implementation of the WFD. Uncertainties that still abound about how different stressors interact were considered. Recommendations on how the structural measures relied upon in the WFD should relate to ecosystem functionality were also included. With water scarcity exerting strong environmental pressures in many European regions, promoting water reuse was discussed as key in ensuring a water-efficient and water-saving economy. The types of uncertainty that need to be taken into account in water policy were established and recommendations were made for different adaptive management regimes, taking into account uncertainty. The Directive’s requirements for public participation in its planning process aim to address the inherent complexity of water resources management, and create the impetus for the integration of multiple perspectives and skills for decentralised policy-making in freshwater governance. For that reason, implementation progress at Member State level was examined and lessons from EU policies dealing with uncertainty and complexities in water management through participatory approaches were identified. Considering that management scenarios in a systems’ approach should account for interconnections, synergies and opportunities, participatory tools that account for environmental complexity have been proposed.



  • Improving public participation in River Basin Management planning can increase the potential of adaptive management approaches to address complexity and uncertainties
  • Involving stakeholders has greater potential in comparison to them just accepting decisions
  • Methods and endpoints have to be consistent with purposes and objectives
  • Consideration of the ethical implications and the differences between deterministic versus probabilistic approaches
  • Debates on integration of knowledge and values in decision making can support the engagement process

A schematic summary showing the current approach often seen with regards to targeting and improving elements classifications (left) and the intended Water Framework Directive process which focuses on having Programmes of Measures that effectively manage pressures to improve ecological status (right)

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