MOOC: Auditing Water Management

2.4. EU directives

Member States of the European Union must implement European Directives by the given deadlines. Since the directives are quite specific, they are sometimes used as reference documents in other countries upon developing water legislation.

The most important directives dealing with water are listed and described below.

Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) 2000/60/EC aims at achieving the good status of all water. It establishes quality objectives and indicates methods for how to reach this goal and how to maintain good water quality. []

The supreme goal of the WFD is to ‘prevent further deterioration as well as to protect and improve the status of aquatic ecosystems and the terrestrial ecosystems directly depending on them.’


Find the text of the Water Framework Directive.

    • What is the general purpose of that directive?
    • Why do you think it is important to have this directive?

The goals of the directive are to attain the good status of the bodies of surface water (good ecological and good chemical status) as well as the good status of groundwater (good chemical and good quantitative status). The purpose of the WFD is the comprehensive protection of waters, good quality in all European water until 2015, 2021 and/or 2027, water management on the basis of river basins (economic analysis of water utilization, selection of the most cost-efficient measures, appropriate prices in order to promote a careful way of dealing with water and ensuring public participation) and the establishment of economic instruments.

According to the directive the Member States have the obligation to:

  • Lay down environmental goals for bodies of surface water and groundwater.
  • Conduct comprehensive analyses of river basins.
  • Establish a monitoring measuring network.
  • Establish river basin management plans including a programme of measures with public involvement.
  • Cyclically revise the management plans for river basins (every six years).

Directives on surface water quality

At the community level, several directives have established environmental quality standards. The aim of these directives is to establish benchmarks in defining hazardous substances, which have negative influence on water and health, and suggest that their use should be suspended completely.

Directive 2008/105/EC on the environmental quality standards in the field of water policy refers to Article 16 of the WFD on strategies against water pollution. []

There is a list of priority substances in which the ‘priority hazardous substances’ have been highlighted. Such substances are toxic, bio-accumulative or are a cause for concern. The discharge and emissions of these substances are to be halted so that they no longer occur in the aquatic environment in the long term. For 33 of the priority substances, harmonized environmental quality standards will be set up to achieve a high level of protection for the environment and health. These environmental quality standards represent the essential benchmark for the good chemical condition of the surface waters required by the WFD.

Directive 2013/39/EU on priority substances in the field of water policy amended Directives 2000/60/EC and 2008/105/EC concerning priority substances.

This was the first revision of the list of priority substances. The amended environmental quality standards for the existing list of priority substances had to be applied until the end of 2015, and for the new substances until the end of 2018. The revision of the list of priority substances shall take place no later than four years after the date of entry into force of this Directive (2017), and thereafter every six years.

Groundwater Directive

The aim of the Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC) is to define the good chemical status of the groundwater as well as its protection against pollution and deterioration. []

In addition to the wording of the WFD, the Groundwater Directive standardizes and renders groundwater quality standards across the EU as well as uniform criteria for the establishment of threshold values by the Member States. The directive also provides for measures to prevent or limit the entry of pollutants into groundwater. The Groundwater Directive also obliges the Member States to identify significant and sustained rising trends as well as their reversal.

Member States had to transpose the Directive into national law by mid-2016.

Urban Waste Water Directive

The objective of the  Urban Waste Water Directive (91/271/EEC) is to protect the environment from harmful effects of municipal wastewater. It relates to the collection, treatment and discharge of municipal wastewater and the treatment and discharge of wastewater from certain industrial sectors. It is intended to prevent environmental damage caused by the insertion of insufficiently clean municipal wastewater. []

The main measures governed by this directive are:

  • The observance of a timetable for the construction and expansion of sewage sanitation and municipal sewage purification plants
  • The regulation of the requirements for biodegradable industrial wastewater of certain industries
  • The regulation of disposal of sewage sludge and
  • The monitoring of the inserted treated municipal sewage

The classification into so-called ‘sensitive’ and ‘normal’ areas must be done under the criterion that the affected surface water is already eutrophic in delicate areas due to the discharge of (treated) municipal sewage water or would become eutrophic without further protective measures in the near future.

Nitrates Directive

The Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) aims to reduce water pollution from nitrates used for agricultural purposes and to prevent any further pollution. The Member States are obliged to:

  • Designate as vulnerable zones all known areas of land in their territories which drain into the waters and which contribute to pollution.
  • Establish mandatory action programmes for these areas.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the action programmes.
  • Test the nitrate concentration in fresh ground and surface water at sampling stations.
  • Carry out a comprehensive monitoring programme.
  • Draw up a code of good agricultural practice that farmers apply on a voluntary basis.

The Nitrates Directive is one of the key instruments for the protection of the aquatic environment from nitrate pollution by agriculture. []

Floods Directive

The aim of the Floods Directive (2007/60/EC) is to reduce and manage the risks that floods pose to human health, the environment, cultural heritage and economic activity. []

The Floods Directive requires Member States to identify those river basins and associated coastal areas for which a potential significant flood risk exists and to prepare flood hazard and flood risk maps as well as flood risk management plans for these areas.

Member States were required to prepare at river basin level flood hazard and risk maps as well as flood risk management plans at the appropriate scale until the end of 2015. Flood hazard maps are required to cover the geographical areas that could be flooded according to the following scenarios:

  • Floods with a low probability (with a likely return period of 300 years or extreme scenario events)
  • Floods with a medium probability (with a likely return period of 100 years) and
  • Floods with a high probability (with a likely return period of 30 years)

For each of the scenarios described, the flood extent (water depth or water level, as appropriate), and – where appropriate – the flow velocity must be indicated.

The flood risk maps must show the potential adverse consequences associated with the scenarios referred to above. Flood risk maps must show the indicative number of inhabitants potentially affected and the type of economic activity of the area potentially affected.

Other basic points of the Floods Directive include placing a ban on shifting the flood risk to downstream areas; the requirement to orientate planning activities according to the entire river basin district, for which one single management plan must be prepared; the synchronization of the planning with that of the WFD; and the participation of the public in the entire process.


caseAUDIT CASE: Floods Directive – progress in assessing risks, while planning and implementation need to improve

The European Court of Auditors issued a special report on Floods Directive  in 2018 [].  Aside from the Floods Directive, which was the focus of the work, the audit also enclosed the EU Water Framework Directive, EU structural funds, insurance, land use and spatial planning. Auditors investigated whether flood prevention, protection and preparedness under the Floods Directive were based on a sound framework and whether the approaches employed were likely to be effective.

Audit questions

Source of criteria

Are flood prevention, protection and preparedness in the EU based on sound analysis and likely to be effective?

EU policy papers, legislation, Commission guidelines, studies and other publications, meetings with Member State authorities. Review of existing literature and consultations with experts in the domains of climate change and flood insurance.

1. Has the European Commission ensured that the Member States are implementing the Floods Directive effectively?

The Floods Directive has been successful in establishing a framework that, building on existing developments in the Member States and involving all relevant stakeholders, has advanced the assessment and management of flood risks.

2. Are the Flood Risk Management Plans based on sound analysis?

  • The Member States have considered project costs and benefits in implementing their FRMPs, via technologies and good quality data, cost-benefit analysis and models. 
  • The Member States have coordinated the implementation of the Floods Directive with the Water Framework Directive and, accordingly, considered green infrastructure to tackle flood risk.
  • The FRMPs take dully account of future challenges (climate change, use of insurance tools, and consistency with land use and spatial planning regulations).

3. Has the Floods Directive had a positive impact on the choice and contribution of EU supported projects to flood prevention, protection and preparedness?

The procedures used by Member States to allocate funds to flood risk management were sound, meaning:

  • Objectives in the Flood Risk Management Plans should be quantified or time-bound;
  • Enough funds were identified and secured for planned flood-related action, and for cross-border investments;
  • Project ranking procedures should be clearly linked to the priorities in the FRMPs

The auditors visited river basins in eight Member States to assess the Flood Risk Management Plans and to inspect 31 co-financed flood-related projects on site to assess their compliance with the Floods Directive. Meetings and interviews with various relevant authorities both on the European and national levels as well as experts of climate change and flood insurance were held.

The main conclusion of the audit was that while the Floods Directive was found to have had positive effects overall, the implementation of flood-related action suffered from weaknesses in allocating funding. ECA also concluded that improvements were needed to address the future challenges of integrating climate change, flood insurance and spatial planning into flood risk management.

ECA recommended improving accountability, identification of financial resources within flood risk management plans and prioritisation procedures to achieve value for money. Furthermore, compliance with Water Framework Directive needed to be achieved. ECA also advised checking whether the Member States had analysed the feasibility of implementing green measures in combination with grey infrastructure. Better integration of the effects of climate change into flood risk management, raising public awareness of the benefits of flood insurance coupled with seeking to increase coverage as well as assessment of the alignment of the flood risk management plans with land use planning rules were recommended to this end.