Water is one of our most precious natural resources, vital for our survival and livelihood, our environment, our wildlife, and all socio-economic activity. Water supports farmers to produce food, hydropower to produce energy, and inland waterways across Europe to connect cities for the transportation of goods. Freshwater ecosystems are a source of freshwater, which is becoming increasingly scarce as the effects of poor water management and climate change on water cycles take hold. Beyond this, they deliver many important benefits , such as flood protection, carbon sequestration, groundwater recharge, or water purification. They are, however, being undervalued and hence heavily degraded, with freshwater species declining at a faster rate than those in any other ecosystem.

60% of Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands are not in good ecological health. Harmful human activity such as pollution from agriculture and industry, over-abstraction, and water flow alterations for hydropower and navigation, have degraded and polluted the majority of Europe’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters to the point where they are unable to adequately support wildlife and provide those vital benefits for our health and livelihoods.

The good news is that in Europe, we have an ambitious law that protects our rivers, lakes, wetlands, streams, coastal waters and groundwater – the EU Water Framework Directive. This law also requires that waters which have been damaged are restored to ecological health by 2027 at the latest and are sustainably managed.

If properly implemented, the Water Framework Directive can tackle the main water pressures in the EU, be it pollution from agriculture, or changes to the water flow and physical characteristics of rivers as a result of hydropower, navigation and flood management.

However, if the EU’s goal of bringing all waters to ecological health by 2027 is to be achieved, more efforts and resources are needed and the implementation of the Water Framework Directive needs to be significantly stepped up. Currently, our governments show insufficient ambition in implementing the WFD, as stated in our report The Final Sprint for Europe’s Rivers.

European citizens want to be able to re-connect with their rivers and lakes and we believe that a better balance can be achieved between using Europe’s freshwaters for irrigation, energy, transportation, and using them for leisure and nature conservation. Improved quality of life for European citizens as a result of preserving and enhancing Europe’s aquatic ecosystems will far outweigh any short-term economic benefits from their unsustainable overexploitation.

60 %

of European freshwater bodies are still in need of restoration to achieve good ecological status

84 %

of freshwater species populations have declined since the 1970s (WWF, Living Planet Report)

Library for Water