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EU water management policy

This section provides a brief overview of the water management system in the EU. The following key legal documents are in the cornerstone of the water management system:

  • Water Framework Directive (2000/60/)
  • Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC)
  • Bathing Water (2006/7/EC)
  • EU Flood Directive (2007/60/EC)               
  • Waste water Directive (91/271/EEC)
  • Industrial emissions Directive (2010/75/EU)
  • Nitrate Directive (91/676/EEC)

These are described in more detail below.

Information in this section is adopted from the European Commission website.

EU Water Framework Directive

On 23 October 2000, the "Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for the Community action in the field of water policy" or, in short, the EU Water Framework Directive (or even shorter the WFD) was finally adopted.

The outline below illustrates the key elements of the Directive.

A single system of water management: River basin management

The best model for a single system of water management is management by river basin - the natural geographical and hydrological unit - instead of according to administrative or political boundaries. Initiatives taken forward by the States concerned for the Maas, Schelde or Rhine river basins have served as positive examples of this approach, with their cooperation and joint objective-setting across Member State borders, or in the case of the Rhine even beyond the EU territory.

Co-ordination of objectives - good status for all waters by a set deadline

There are a number of objectives in respect of which the quality of water is protected. The key ones at European level are general protection of the aquatic ecology, specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, protection of drinking water resources, and protection of bathing water. All these objectives must be integrated for each river basin. It is clear that the last three - special habitats, drinking water areas and bathing water - apply only to specific bodies of water (those supporting special wetlands; those identified for drinking water abstraction; those generally used as bathing areas). In contrast, ecological protection should apply to all waters: the central requirement of the Treaty is that the environment be protected to a high level in its entirety.

Surface water

Ecological protection

For this reason, a general requirement for ecological protection, and a general minimum chemical standard, was introduced to cover all surface waters. These are the two elements "good ecological status" and "good chemical status". Good ecological status is defined in terms of the quality of the biological community, the hydrological characteristics and the chemical characteristics. As no absolute standards for biological quality can be set which apply across the Community, because of ecological variability, the controls are specified as allowing only a slight departure from the biological community which would be expected in conditions of minimal anthropogenic impact. A set of procedures for identifying that point for a given body of water, and establishing particular chemical or hydromorphological standards to achieve it, is provided, together with a system for ensuring that each Member State interprets the procedure in a consistent way (to ensure comparability). The system is somewhat complicated, but this is inevitable given the extent of ecological variability, and the large number of parameters, which must be dealt with.

Chemical protection

Good chemical status is defined in terms of compliance with all the quality standards established for chemical substances at European level. The Directive also provides a mechanism for renewing these standards and establishing new ones by means of a prioritisation mechanism for hazardous chemicals. This will ensure at least a minimum chemical quality, particularly in relation to very toxic substances, everywhere in the Community.

Other uses

As mentioned above, the other uses or objectives for which water is protected apply in specific areas, not everywhere. Therefore, the obvious way to incorporate them is to designate specific protection zones within the river basin which must meet these different objectives. The overall plan of objectives for the river basin will then require ecological and chemical protection everywhere as a minimum, but where more stringent requirements are needed for particular uses, zones will be established and higher objectives set within them.

There is one other category of uses which does not fit into this picture. It is the set of uses which adversely affect the status of water but which are considered essential on their own terms - they are overriding policy objectives. The key examples are flood protection and essential drinking water supply, and the problem is dealt with by providing derogations from the requirement to achieve good status for these cases, so long as all appropriate mitigation measures are taken. Less clear-cut cases are navigation and power generation, where the activity is open to alternative approaches (transport can be switched to land, other means of power generation can be used). Derogations are provided for those cases also, but subject to three tests: that the alternatives are technically impossible, that they are prohibitively expensive, or that they produce a worse overall environmental result.


Chemical status

The case of groundwater is somewhat different. The presumption in relation to groundwater should broadly be that it should not be polluted at all. For this reason, setting chemical quality standards may not be the best approach, as it gives the impression of an allowed level of pollution to which Member States can fill up. A very few such standards have been established at European level for particular issues (nitrates, pesticides and biocides), and these must always be adhered to. But for general protection, we have taken another approach. It is essentially a precautionary one. It comprises a prohibition on direct discharges to groundwater, and (to cover indirect discharges) a requirement to monitor groundwater bodies so as to detect changes in chemical composition, and to reverse any antropogenically induced upward pollution trend. Taken together, these should ensure the protection of groundwater from all contamination, according to the principle of minimum anthropogenic impact.

Quantitative status

Quantity is also a major issue for groundwater. Briefly, the issue can be put as follows. There is only a certain amount of recharge into a groundwater each year, and of this recharge, some is needed to support connected ecosystems (whether they be surface water bodies, or terrestrial systems such as wetlands). For good management, only that portion of the overall recharge not needed by the ecology can be abstracted - this is the sustainable resource, and the Directive limits abstraction to that quantity.

One of the innovations of the Directive is that it provides a framework for integrated management of groundwater and surface water for the first time at European level.

Co-ordination of measures

There are a number of measures taken at Community level to tackle particular pollution problems. Key examples are the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and the Nitrates Directive, which together tackle the problem of eutrophication (as well as health effects such as microbial pollution in bathing water areas and nitrates in drinking water); and the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive, which deals with chemical pollution. The aim is to co-ordinate the application of these so as to meet the objectives established above. This is done as follows.

First of all, the objectives are established for the river basin as outlined in the previous section. Then an analysis of human impact is conducted so as to determine how far from the objective each body of water is. At this point, the effect on the problems of each body of water of full implementation of all existing legislation is considered. If the existing legislation solves the problem, well and good, and the objective of the framework Directive is attained. However, if it does not, the Member State must identify exactly why, and design whatever additional measures are needed to satisfy all the objectives established. These might include stricter controls on polluting emissions from industry and agriculture, or urban waste water sources, say. This should ensure full co-ordination.

The river basin management plan

All the elements described above must be set out in a plan for the river basin. The plan is a detailed account of how the objectives set for the river basin (ecological status, quantitative status, chemical status and protected area objectives) are to be reached within the timescale required. The plan has to include all the results of the above analysis: the river basin's characteristics, a review of the impact of human activity on the status of waters in the basin, estimation of the effect of existing legislation and the remaining "gap" to meeting these objectives; and a set of measures designed to fill the gap. One additional component is that an economic analysis of water use within the river basin must be carried out. This is to enable there to be a rational discussion on the cost-effectiveness of the various possible measures. It is essential that all interested parties are fully involved in this discussion, and indeed in the preparation of the river basin management plan as a whole.

Public participation

In getting our waters clean, the role of citizens and citizens' groups will be crucial.

There are two main reasons for an extension of public participation. The first is that the decisions on the most appropriate measures to achieve the objectives in the river basin management plan will involve balancing the interests of various groups. The economic analysis requirement is intended to provide a rational basis for this, but it is essential that the process is open to the scrutiny of those who will be affected.

The second reason concerns enforceability. The greater the transparency in the establishment of objectives, the imposition of measures, and the reporting of standards, the greater the care Member States will take to implement the legislation in good faith, and the greater the power of the citizens to influence the direction of environmental protection, whether through consultation or, if disagreement persists, through the complaints procedures and the courts.

Getting the prices right

The need to conserve adequate supplies of a resource for which demand is continuously increasing is also one of the drivers behind what is arguably one of the Directives's most important innovations - the introduction of pricing. Adequate water pricing acts as an incentive for the sustainable use of water resources and thus helps to achieve the environmental objectives under the Directive.

Member States are required to ensure that the price charged to water consumers - such as for the abstraction and distribution of fresh water and the collection and treatment of waste water - reflects the true costs.

Drinking Water Directive

The Drinking Water Directive (Council Directive 98/83/EC of 3 November 1998 on the quality of water intended for human consumption) concerns the quality of water intended for human consumption. Its objective is to protect human health from adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean.

The Drinking Water Directive applies to:

  • all distribution systems serving more than 50 people or supplying more than 10 cubic meter per day, but also distribution systems serving less than 50 people/supplying less than 10 cubic meter per day if the water is supplied as part of an economic activity;
  • drinking water from tankers;
  • drinking water in bottles or containers;
  • water used in the food-processing industry, unless the competent national authorities are satisfied that the quality of the water cannot affect the wholesomeness of the foodstuff in its finished form.

The Directive laid down the essential quality standards at EU level. A total of 48 microbiological, chemical and indicator parameters must be monitored and tested regularly. In general, World Health Organization's guidelines for drinking water and the opinion of the Commission's Scientific Advisory Committee are used as the scientific basis for the quality standards in the drinking water.

Principles laid in the Directive are:

  • Planning
  • Regulation (obligations of the Member States and the Commission)
  • Monitoring
  • Information and Reporting

On 1 February 2018 the European Commission adopted a proposal for a revised drinking water directive to improve the quality of drinking water and provide greater access and information to citizens.

Main elements:

  • The proposal updates existing safety standards in line with latest recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and ensure our drinking water is safe to use for the decades to come.
  • It will empower authorities to better deal with risks to water supply and engage with polluters.
  • It will empower consumers by giving them much more information and oversight over the efficiency and effectiveness of water suppliers.
  • It contributes to the transition to a circular economy. It will help EU countries to manage drinking water in a resource-efficient and sustainable manner so as to reduce energy use and unnecessary water loss. It will also help reduce the number of plastic bottles following increased confidence in tap water, improved access and promotion of use of drinking water.
Bathing Water Directive

Since the 1970s, the EU has had rules in place to safeguard public health and clean bathing waters. The revised Bathing Water Directive (BWD) of 2006 updated and simplified these rules. It requires Members States to monitor and assess the bathing water for at least two parameters of (faecal) bacteria. In addition, they must inform the public about bathing water quality and beach management, through the so-called bathing water profiles. These profiles contain for instance information on the kind of pollution and sources that affect the quality of the bathing water and are a risk to bathers' health (such as waste water discharges).

EU Flood Directive

Directive 2007/60/EC on the assessment and management of flood risks entered into force on 26 November 2007. This Directive now requires Member States to assess if all water courses and coast lines are at risk from flooding, to map the flood extent and assets and humans at risk in these areas and to take adequate and coordinated measures to reduce this flood risk. With this Directive also reinforces the rights of the public to access this information and to have a say in the planning process.

Urban Waste Water Directive

The Council Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste-water treatment was adopted on 21 May 1991. Its objective is to protect the environment from the adverse effects of urban waste water discharges and discharges from certain industrial sectors (Annex III of the Directive) and concerns the collection, treatment and discharge of:

  • Domestic waste water
  • Mixture of waste water
  • Waste water from certain industrial sectors (Annex III of the Directive)

This is illustrated in the figure below:

EU waste water

Four main principles are laid down in the Directive:

  • Planning
  • Regulation
  • Monitoring
  • Information and reporting

Specifically the Directive requires:

  • The collection and treatment of waste water in all agglomerations of >2000 population equivalents (p.e.);
  • Secondary treatment of all discharges from agglomerations of > 2000 p.e., and more advanced treatment for agglomerations >10 000 population equivalents in designated sensitive areas and their catchments;
  • A requirement for pre-authorisation of all discharges of urban wastewater, of discharges from the food-processing industry and of industrial discharges into urban wastewater collection systems;
  • Monitoring of the performance of treatment plants and receiving waters; and
  • Controls of sewage sludge disposal and re-use, and treated waste water re-use whenever it is appropriate.
Industrial Emissions Directive

Directive 2010/75/EU on industrial emissions (IED out the main principles for the permitting and control of installations based on an integrated approach and the application of best available techniques (BAT).  BAT is the most effective techniques to achieve a high level of environmental protection, taking into account the costs and benefits. The Directive sets our requirements also for control and minimisation of emissions into water.

Nitrate Directive

The Nitrates Directive of 1991 (91/676/EEC) aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices.

The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against agricultural pressures.

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1. Identification of water polluted, or at risk of pollution, such as:

  • surface freshwaters, in particular those used or intended for the abstraction of drinking water, containing or that could contain (if no action is taken to reverse the trend) a concentration of more than 50 mg/l of nitrates
  • groundwater containing or that could contain (if no action is taken to reverse the trend)  more than 50 mg/l of nitrates
  • freshwater bodies, estuaries, coastal waters and marine waters, found to be eutrophic or that could become eutrophic (if no action is taken to reverse the trend)

2. Designation as "Nitrate Vulnerable Zones"(NVZs) of:

  • areas of land which drain into polluted waters or waters at risk of pollution and which contribute to nitrate pollution; or
  • Member States can also choose to apply measures (see below) to the whole territory (instead of designating NVZs).

3. Establishment of Codes of Good Agricultural Practice to be implemented by farmers on a voluntary basis. Codes should include:

  • measures limiting the periods when nitrogen fertilizers can be applied on land in order to target application to periods when crops require nitrogen and prevent nutrient losses to waters;
  • measures limiting the conditions for fertilizer application (on steeply sloping ground, frozen or snow covered ground, near water courses, etc.) to prevent nitrate losses from leaching and run-off;
  • requirement for a minimum storage capacity for livestock manure; and
  • crop rotations, soil winter cover, and catch crops to prevent nitrate leaching and run-off during wet seasons.

4. Establishment of action programmes to be implemented by farmers within NVZs on a compulsory basis. These programmes must include:

  • measures already included in Codes of Good Agricultural Practice, which become mandatory in NVZs; and
  • other measures, such as limitation of fertilizer application (mineral and organic), taking into account crop needs, all nitrogen inputs and soil nitrogen supply, maximum amount of livestock manure to be applied (corresponding to 170 kg nitrogen /hectare/year).

5.   National monitoring and reporting. Every four years Member States are required to report on:

  • Nitrates concentrations in groundwaters and surface waters;
  • Eutrophication  of surface waters;
  • Assessment of the impact of action programme(s) on water quality and agricultural practices;
  • Revision of NVZs and action programme(s)
  • Estimation of future trends in water quality.

Reports and studies

  • The 4-yearly reports produced by the Member States are used as the basis for a 4-yearly report by the European Commission on the implementation of the Directive.
  • In order to assist Member States in implementing the Directive and to extend scientific knowledge on best farming practices for protection of water quality and minimisation of nitrogen losses from agriculture, DG Environment also commissions studies on different aspects of the Nitrates Directive.


This project is funded by the European Union

And implemented by a consortium led by