Refreshing Europe's Water Policy
by David Baldock
As droughts in the US push up food prices and floods claim lives from Europe to Japan, it is clear that we still undervalue water and need to invest more in managing it wisely. In a warmer and more populated world this is even more the case. So the timing is not inappropriate for looking ahead at the future of water policy in the EU. A ‘Blueprint’ is due to be launched towards the end of the year, building on the first of a new series of environmental policy reviews – the Fitness Check of EU Water Policy.
Since its beginnings in the 1970s, EU water policy has come a long way. Drinking water quality and sewage treatment have improved, contamination with toxic substances has reduced, greater attention is now paid to catchment management and action is being taken to reduce nitrate pollution. However, momentum has slackened. The implementation of the Water Framework Directive is behind schedule in most countries; for example, many governments have been slow to address the widespread problem of diffuse water pollution, particularly from agriculture. There is reluctance to require the installation of water meters, despite the capacity to measure consumption being fundamental to improving efficiency in the many areas where this is needed. The multiple ramifications of climate change on water supply and treatment have yet to be worked through thoroughly to create an updated policy.
Recovering momentum as well as recalibrating policy is thus a central challenge for the Blueprint. Investment in improved water management could contribute simultaneously to a greener economy, new jobs and more effective implementation of existing legislation. There are opportunities to draw in resources from EU funds including the Regional Development Fund and parts of the Common Agricultural Policy. Linkages with agricultural policy can be strengthened in other ways too, for example through the effective use of cross compliance in relation to the water framework and pesticides Directives. An initiative on improved catchment management could be integrated into a fresh strategy on climate adaptation. Water cuts across so many issues in such a fundamental way that it deserves the recognition that has been afforded the climate crisis. Most of the solutions required do not depend on reaching an international agreement; they can be taken forward in Europe if a reinvigorated policy is adopted.
A Blueprint suggests a level of sophistication, detail and precision exceeding that of many of the Roadmaps currently embedded in EU policy. Perhaps more importantly it implies a sense of confidence about designing for the future that is greatly needed now, both in water policy and more widely.