Reality Check: The Science-Policy Nexus in European Water Law
The proposed presentation analyzes the arrangements by which water policy in Europe attempts to put measures for the protection of freshwater resources on an appropriate scientific footing to deal effectively with multi-facetted challenges such as pollution, over-abstraction, loss of biodiversity, floods and droughts. The pivotal provisions in this respect are laid down in the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Union (WFD) which determines the essential features of both the national water legislation of the EU’s 28 Member States and international water law in Europe.
The WFD strives for the attainment of “good water status” until 2027 at the latest. Guided by the leitmotif of sustainable development, it follows a distinct ecological approach which is based on the notion that freshwater bodies, due to their ecological interdependency via the hydrological cycle, must be treated in conjunction with interrelated aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and the climate. Accordingly, surface water and groundwater as well as qualitative and quantitative aspects have to be managed in an integrated manner throughout the natural catchment area and irrespective of administrative or national boundaries. Such a holistic approach requires comprehensive knowledge of all ecological, economic and social factors relevant to the design and implementation of effective measures. Consequently, the WFD foresees the continuous collection, evaluation and review of accurate information on the functioning of freshwater resources, their actual status and the respective pressures of natural or human origin.
To operationalize this distinct science-policy nexus, the WFD sets up a managerial framework which aims at the comprehensive consideration of the ecological preconditions, economic pressures and social factors of human use of freshwater resources within decision-making processes. The relevant management units are the natural river basins within which measures tailored to the specific needs of individual water bodies have to be developed. EU Member States had to determine appropriate “river basin districts” (RBDs) and perform surveys of their ecological characteristics and the impact of human activities. Based on the findings, a “river basin management plan” (RBMP) including a “programme of measures” had to be established for each river basin district in order to attain “good water status” by 2027 at the latest.
As a “reality check,” RBMPs must be regularly reviewed and updated. Updated RMBPs also have to include an assessment of the progress made towards the achievement of “good water status,” including an explanation why objectives have not been reached. In this way, decision-makers are forced to justify their actions and draw conclusions from “lessons learned” in order to revise the respective measures.
In sum, the proposed presentation will highlight the various mechanisms enshrined in European Water Law to facilitate the development, implementation and adjustment of effective measures which take into account the relevant ecologic, economic and social realities. It will, however, also analyze the deficiencies undermining science-based water policy in Europe.