This year sees the completion of a major Commission-led health check on EU water policy, with current legislation expected to be declared fit for purpose in terms of meeting current policy objectives. Some problems have been found regarding implementation, but detailed proposals are already in the pipeline to address them. These include plans to streamline reporting obligations, and greater consideration of the costs and benefits of planned water measures.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that a consistent EU policy on water cannot be limited to the water sector alone. It must also take into account the industries that determine the use of water in Europe, as well as activities that place the greatest burdens on EU water resources. That means safeguards for water must be put at the heart of policies on agriculture, transport, fisheries and energy policies, and (to a lesser degree) integrated with policies on research, chemicals and marine conservation.
The Commission is due to publish its “Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe’s Water” in November. This document will essentially be based on its analysis of three main areas: first, the management plans for national and international river basins drawn up under the Water Framework Directive; second, a review of the 2007 Strategy for Water Scarcity and Droughts, and third, an assessment of the vulnerability of water resources to climate change and other man-made pressures.
Consultations have been widespread and focused on the relevance, coherence, efficiency and effectiveness of EU policies. But a bigger problem soon became apparent: there is a serious lack of co-ordination between policies on water and policies on sectors that determine how water is used. It is clear, for example, that the EU needs to dismantle or restructure subsidies that are incompatible with environmental goals for water, both in terms of sustainable consumption and the polluter-pays principle. The current negotiations on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy are particularly important here. These talks are trying to achieve a greater ecological focus for agricultural support. Their success – or otherwise - will be an important measure of the EU’s commitment to integrate the goals of sustainable water resource management with agricultural policy.
The impact on water resources must also be taken into account in climate and energy policies, which are driving Europe’s switch to renewable energy supplies, including hydropower and biomass. Water and soil are crucial for life on the planet; they are not only the foundation for food production but also for energy crops. Responsible and efficient use of these resources will become even more important as Europe adapts to climate change. That is why it is imperative that an understanding of these linkages is central to the debate about the future of EU policy on water.
Helge Wendenburg is Director General for Water Management, Waste Management and Soil Conservation in the Germany's Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.