Water Framework Directive

24 January 2020
A. Vargas & J.F. Schyns



The central stated goal of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) is to protect all inland surface waters, transitional and coastal waters, and ground water bodies in the EU to ensure that they maintain or return to a good status of the aquatic environment and can sustainably supply society with sufficient freshwater for balanced and equitable water use (European Parliament and Council, 2000). This goal shows the intrinsic dilemma in WFD policies between societal benefit-taking and protection of water resources. This policy-case focuses on two WFD policy narratives related to this dilemma: water quantity management in Spain; and water quality management in the Netherlands.


Methodological Approach


Quantitative Story Telling in MAGIC follows the narratives of the policies and developments involved, illustrated along quantifications. Narratives of policies, as assumedly consistent stories connecting policy goals and means, are identified and selected for analysis with stakeholder engagement. Quantification of the narratives is pursued with a nexus focus, considering biospheric and societal resources and flows. A quality check on the narrative then considers feasibility, viability and desirability, assessing biospheric and societal constraints and normative aspects. Finally, the quality check is discussed with stakeholders.




Based on interpretative analysis of policy documents and engagement with actors through interviews and focus groups, the following two narratives were selected for analysis:

  • Narrative A – The WFD as a success story in environmental policy and integrated governance: This narrative considers how WFD environmental goals were set when expectations on economic and social possibilities to achieve goals were high, and how consideration and achievement of goals developed since then.
  • Narrative B – Europe needs to improve the aquatic environment in order to secure water for its citizens and economic benefits: This narrative considers how WFD goals may constrain (in particular) the European agricultural sector impacting on the dependency on imports and its related dependency of external natural resources.

For more information about the selected narratives, see this report.


Main Findings


The full report on ‘Narratives behind the Water Framework Directive’ is available as Deliverable 5.3. The main findings are summarized below:


Water quantity management in Spain

Functional changes between 2010 and 2015 in irrigated agricultural production, the main water using sector in the Segura basin, through upgraded irrigation technology (i.e. drip irrigation systems, see Figure 1) relieved pressure of water extraction on water resources, and reduced energy use of irrigation. A policy-desired goal of increased water efficiency was viable and thus resulted in more water-efficient production. Also, the side effect on energy use adds to the desirability of the development. However, with more advanced irrigation technology, the region appears to have increased its orientation towards more water-intensive crops.


Figure 1. Methods of irrigation application and temporal development of quantitative pressures on water resources in the Segura Basin. For sources see Deliverable 5.3.


Structural changes in irrigated agriculture over the same time span, in the form of shifting cropping patterns, fully offset the savings in water extraction, and even induced an small net increase in consumptive water use (see Figure 1). The policy-desired goal of increased water efficiency appears to have favoured the parallel shift to the production of more water-intensive crops (see Figure 2), nullifying the improvement in feasibility. It is unresolved whether this shift is rather due to desirability of grasping market opportunities or rather to a lack of economic viability of adopting water-saving technologies in the production of staple crops.


Figure 2. Irrigated area by crop in the Segura Basin. For sources refer to Deliverable 5.3.


The observed relative shift in crop production in the Segura basin from staple crops to horticulture increases both the external food dependency of the region and the supply of food products from the region to other regions or countries. The policy-desired goal of increased water efficiency appears to have increased the openness of the region with respect to staple food (increased external dependency) and horticulture (increased delivery towards other regions or countries).

In terms of irrigated area, looking at the scale of Spain, structural changes in the relative extent of irrigation are found not to correlate with the necessity of changes to relieve pressure on water resources. Socioeconomic dependency on the scarce water resources is strongest where scarcity is most severe, contributing to making changes undesirable. The policy-desired goal to constrain water use in irrigation appears to be more viable where feasibility constraints are less challenging.


Nutrient emissions and water quality management in the Netherlands

Nutrient emissions to water bodies mainly emerge from nutrient management in agricultural practices, in particular animal production. Policies here target the efficiency of production processes with respect to resulting nutrient pressures on the environment. Policy aims on improving environmental efficiencies within the existing structure of production was technically viable and contributed to partly closing the gap of environmental feasibility. Sectoral desirability and/or economic viability constraints did drive improved environmental efficiencies to go along with expansion of production that counteracted the positive effects on pressures to water systems.

Water policies are developed at all levels of governance, in a coordinated process. Policies targeting the goals of the WFD comprise general policies at the national level and regional policies at the river basin and water board levels. This analysis shows that the viability or desirability of intended changes may be level dependent. The quality check revealed that feasibility of nutrient policies to reach WFD goals timely is, at best, far from robust. Knowledge uncertainty exists on the way policy means affect the most relevant parameters of processors, in particular on policies to be implemented at the regional level.


Next steps


Nexus considerations are essential for water policy. Water policies, targeting to relieve pressures on water resources from human activities, take their effect on the sector of that activity in interaction with sectoral policies, where coherence between sectoral and water policies is often unclear. In particular, the coherence between water policies and agricultural policies is important. Due to the dominant importance of agricultural pressures for the status of water resources, QST on the WFD necessarily involves characterizing the agricultural sector and its pollutant emissions and water extractions. A combined analysis of WFD and CAP policies would yield a more complete insight in metabolic patterns. Where the current phase looked back focusing on water sustainability, next steps could focus on an integrated WFD – CAP case study on e.g. what-if analyses on sustainable intensification. In spring 2020, deliverable 6.7, Water Savings in Irrigation, will address different innovations that exert an influence in the use of water for irrigation following an integrative vision on the WFD and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the main dominant narratives behind crop production in the European Union.


Related work


OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS: European Parliament and Council (2000). 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. Official Journal of the European Communities, L 327, 22 December 2000. Brussels, Belgium.
NEXUS TIMES: The Water-Agriculture Nexus Issue
NEXUS TIMES: Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators
NEXUS TIMES: Multiple perspectives on the water-use efficiency of food production
INNOVATION CASE: Saving Water in Irrigation (work in progress)

Teams Involved