MOOC: Auditing Water Management

3.2. River basin management approach

This chapter is based on The Water Framework Directive (WFD) 2000/60/EC []. A river basin (or ‘catchment’) is the entire area drained by a river, including its tributaries. Any activity that takes place in a river basin (e.g. disposal of wastewater, cutting of forests) has impacts downstream.

Therefore, the best model for a single system of water management is management by river basin – the natural geographical and hydrological unit – instead of administrative or political boundaries. River or lake water catchment areas (basins) tend to cross administrative borders. Therefore, their management should be agreed among different administrative units, or even countries. Figure 10 below presents an example of Pärnu river basin, which is a river basin in Estonia.


Figure 10. River basin of Pärnu river []

In real life every single stream or lake has a water catchment area, which should be managed according to the river basin management approach, which is enforced in the European Union. In reality, the Member States have decided themselves how big the areas considered to be river basin districts are. For each river basin district – some of which will traverse national frontiers – a river basin management plan (RBMP) will need to be established and regularly updated.  

RBMPs are a requirement of the WFD and a means of achieving the protection, improvement and sustainable use of the water environment across Europe. This includes surface freshwaters (including lakes, streams and rivers), groundwater, ecosystems such as some wetlands that depend on groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters out to one nautical mile.

The WFD requires Member States to aim to achieve at least good status in each water body within their river basin districts. Good status of water includes both the ecological and chemical status of water, which are measured by different scales.

Each Member State must ensure the establishment of a programme of measures for each river basin district or for the part of an international river basin district within its territory.

Elaboration of a RBMP involves a large number of actors:

  • Administration
  • Economic players
  • The general public

River basin management plans must include the following elements in particular:

  • A summary of significant pressures and impact of human activity on the status of surface water and groundwater.
  • A list of the environmental objectives established for surface waters, groundwaters and protected areas.
  • A summary of the programmes of measures including the ways in which the objectives established are to be achieved.
  • A summary of the public information and consultation measures taken, their results and the changes to the plan made as a consequence.

You can access the national River Basin Management Plans at the website of the European Commission:

Ways to audit RBMPs

The weaknesses highlighted by the European Commission following the review of the RBMPs and the programmes of measures are a good starting point for identifying promising audit themes for SAIs. We can identify the following six points of attention:

  1. Assessment of pressures: does the monitoring system allow for good knowledge of the water bodies’ status, which is necessary to design effective and efficient programmes of measures?
  2. Extension of the deadline: Are these extensions specifically set out and explained in the river basin management plan?
  3. Programmes of measures: Do the programmes of measures target all types of water pollution and specifically agriculture?
  4. Programmes of measures: Are additional measures established when deadlines are extended?
  5. Funding: Are the programmes of measures and monitoring programmes adequately funded?
  6. Objectives: Will the objectives of ‘good status’ be reached by 2027 due to the implementation of the programmes of measures?


How many river basins are in your country? Does your country share a river basin with a neighbouring country?