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The future of EU rivers: New paper exposes business lobbies' wish list of destruction

15 May 2019
by WWF -- last modified 15 May 2019

Unsustainable industries, including industrial agriculture, hydropower, and coal mining, are lobbying for devastating changes to the EU water law - the Water Framework Directive (WFD).


A new paper from environmental groups shows that, if ever put into effect, such changes would give these sectors the green light to undertake even more destructive activities, potentially causing havoc on our rivers and lakes. But, far from obliging these sectors to clean up their act, some Member States have compiled a strikingly similar wish list, raising serious questions as to where their true interests lie.

The paper, developed by WWF, EEB, Wetlands International, the European Anglers Alliance and European Rivers Network - who together form the Living Rivers Europe coalition - is published ahead of an informal meeting of the Environment Council in Bucharest, Romania on 20 and 21 May. Environment Ministers from all EU Member States will come together to discuss, amongst other topics, issues related to water management across the EU. The gathering comes in the wake of scientists declaring a state of ecological emergency, with extensive research confirming that nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to agriculture alone, and freshwater ecosystems are showing the highest rate of decline.

"Rivers, lakes and wetlands are our life-support systems, but they are being annihilated under our very eyes. We have the legal tool to stop this - the EU water law - but Member States must actively stand up to the sectors that pollute and destroy the most", said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at  WWF's European Policy Office. "Through the civil society-led #ProtectWater campaign, more than 375,000 citizens called for the water law to remain unchanged. Member States' alignment with the positions of business lobbies begs the question: Do they really have the best interests of their citizens at heart?"

The briefing shows the clear alignment between the wishes of some Member States and those of lobby groups representing the interests of the agriculture, hydropower and mining sectors, as well as German industry associations (comprised of representatives of the construction, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals industries, amongst others). These parties want to weaken the WFD's ambitious scope and environmental objectives, and attack two of the law's most visionary cornerstones - the "one-out, all-out principle", as well as the "non-deterioration obligation", both crucial in assessing the health of freshwater bodies.

Where they differ is in their reasoning, which is completely contradictory - whilst Member States argue that these changes are needed to maintain ambition in EU water management, industry groups ask for changes because the current system is too ambitious.

"Industry groups and some EU member states are calling for the same changes to the EU water law - but, bizarrely enough, how they justify the need for these changes is poles apart: Whilst some governments say they are trying to be more ambitious to protect water, the industry groups say they want these changes because the current rules are too stringent. So, if Member States want to be truly ambitious, the current law needs to be kept and the focus needs to be on properly implementing it to protect the environment and human health," said Sergiy Moroz, Water and Biodiversity Policy Officer at the EEB.

These arguments and questions have also been reflected in a letter sent by Living Rivers Europe to the Environment Ministers of EU Member States ahead of next week's meeting in Bucharest.

WWF is one of the world's largest and most experienced independent conservation organisations, with over five million supporters and a global network active in more than 100 countries. WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.