Water Framework Directive (WFD)

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) came into effect in 2000 (2003 in Ireland). It requires all EU Member States to protect and improve water quality with the aim of bringing all waters (rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal waters) into good ecological condition by 2021, or, with the application of limited exemptions, by 2027. An ambitious approach including agricultural reform, stricter planning controls and increased wastewater investment is urgently needed to turn the tide of decline in our water environment.

The main objectives of the Water Framework Directive are:

  • To protect and where necessary to improve the quality of all our inland and coastal waters, groundwater and associated wetlands, and to prevent their further deterioration;
  • To achieve ‘good status’ for all these waters by 2015 (extended to 2027);
  • To promote the sustainable use of water;
  • To reduce the pollution of water by particularly hazardous ‘priority’ substances;
  • To lessen the effects of flooding and drought.

The key requirements of the Water Framework Directive are:

Water quality based around the concept of ecological quality: It requires the quality ‘status’ of water bodies to be measured using ecological rather than just traditional physical and chemical parameters, with more emphasis on the quality of the biological communities of a water body.

Water management at the level of river catchments: The WFD functional unit is based on river catchments, rather than along traditional administrative divisions (County Councils in Ireland). ‘River basins’ or ‘catchments’ are made up of lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater and estuaries – and all the land that surrounds them, and drains into them. In this way the Water Framework Directive promotes the very necessary integrated, catchment-based approach to water management.

Involvement of the public is a key requirement: The WFD emphasises consultation, public involvement and access to information more than any previous EU Directive. Article 14 of the WFD requires that “the active involvement of all interested parties” must be encouraged by every Member State. In this way, the WFD presents a unique opportunity for communities and interest groups to get involved in the management of water resources at local and catchment  level.

Water Framework Directive in Ireland:

The Water Framework Directive requires the preparation of river basin management plans across three river basin planning cycles (2009-2015, 2016-2021 and 2022-2027), during which, management measures must be implemented so as to achieve good ecological status in all waters. Ireland is currently at the end of the second cycle and is planning the third cycle. Discussions are ongoing at EU level regarding the possible development of a fourth river basin management planning cycle.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports (2020) that more than half our rivers, lakes and estuaries (47%, 49.5% and 62% respectively) are in an unhealthy state i.e. they are failing WFD mandatory standards of ‘good ecological status’. River Basin Management measures to date are clearly not working to the scale or speed required. If the current trajectory continues, a significant proportion of Irish waterbodies will fail to meet the requirements of the WFD by the ultimate deadline of 2027, leaving our water environment in an unacceptable state and exposing Ireland to the risk of daily fines from the EU.

Read more about river basin management planning and SWAN’s work in this area:

River Basin Management Planning