The quality of water has always been a major issue in European Union environment policy.
Although it has improved over the last 30 years, we still need to be careful, particularly about using too much water, and the continuing problem of pollution.
The European Union's overall aim is to achieve a good ecological status for all European waters by 2015, to the benefit of people, wildlife, and the environment in general. ('Ecology' describes the way different organisms relate to one another and to their surroundings.) This means dealing with the water cycle as a whole, and it has brought a new approach to research and legislation.
It involves thinking about entire river basins, instead of trying to divide water up by administrative or political boundaries. After all, rivers don't stop at national frontiers!
What is a river basin? It is the natural geographic and hydrological unit of a river. Take a map of Europe and follow a big river like the Seine, the Thames, the Danube or the Po, from its source to where it discharges into the sea, including all its contributing streams and rivers. That's a river basin. Scientists are now studying what makes each river basin different from others, the impact human activity is having on the ecology of the river basin, the way the water is used, and how much that costs the community.
Although industry is the greatest consumer of water, it is also the sector that is easiest to control, and has already introduced more modern production techniques that use less water and create less pollution. In fact, agriculture is a bigger source of pollutants. Individual people in the European Union are also using more water. On average, for watering our gardens we use 17 m^3 of water for each square metre of ground, so a garden of 100 m^2 will take 1700 m^3 of water! Washing a car uses 200 l of water, and a washing machine needs 100 l of water for each 5 kg of clothes.
Directives (European laws)
The European Union has issued a number of laws, or 'directives', to try and solve the problems facing freshwater and seawater systems.
The 1998 Drinking Water Directive sets thresholds for health safety (for example, regarding the content of microbiological contaminants, lead, etc).
The 1991 Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive aims to protect the environment from the adverse effects of urban waste water discharges and discharges from certain industrial sectors. It also deals with the collection, treatment and discharge of domestic water, domestic water, mixture of waste water and waste water from certain industrial sectors.
The 1991 Nitrates Directive aims at reducing the quantity of fertilisers, such as nitrates and phosphates, used in farming.
The 1976 Bathing Water Directive protects bathers and safeguards the environment by setting health standards for natural fresh and coastal waters (not for swimming pools!). Revised in 2006, the new Bathing Water Directive aims to simplify the health standards for bathing water; to improve the management of bathing sites and the provision of public information about them; and to streamline water quality monitoring programmes.
The 2000 Water Framework Directive puts forward a new plan for managing water, organised by river basins. This law is different in that it is being drawn up after listening to the views of everybody with an interest in the subject - the so-called 'stakeholders'.
The 2006 European Flood Action Directive aims to reduce and manage the risks that floods pose to human health, the environment, infrastructure and property.
The European Commission has also proposed an ambitious strategy to protect more effectively the marine environment across Europe. The Thematic Strategy on the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment aims to achieve good environmental status of the EU's marine waters by 2021 and to protect the resource base upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend.
Working together: European Union and European citizens
The European Union follows a 'multidirectional' approach and is not just about passing laws. The EU Water Initiative (EUWI), for example, was launched at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development. The initiative aims to contribute to a set of goals (named the `Millennium Development Goals´) relating to the availability and use of water and sanitation. One central goal is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or afford safe drinking water and the proportion of people who do not have access to adequate sanitation.
The Union also provides incentives to help us change our habits when it comes to the ways we use water. For example, with respect to laundry detergents, the European Union has approved a directive to reduce the amount necessary for washing and to reduce harmful ingredients, to promote recycling and reduced packaging, and to promote low temperature detergents that use less energy.
The European Union uses 'Eco-labelling' to identify products that do not damage the environment. To get an Eco-label, the whole production cycle, use and disposal of a product must conform to high standards, covering the use of natural resources and energy, disposal and waste, noise, emissions to air, water and soil and effect on ecosystems. In 1999, for example, the European Union established standards for laundry detergents. The Eco-label now covers 19 different product groups.
The European Union now recognises that if its efforts to protect the environment are to be successful, it must win the support, and listen to the views of all the different people and groups who are affected: industry, property developers, fishing communities, hoteliers, tourists, local authorities, environmental groups, researchers, transport firms, sports enthusiast and many, many more.
The European Union has signed a number of international conventions on the protection of seas and oceans. They include:
- The Helsinki Convention (1974) on the Protection of the Baltic Marine Environment
- The Oslo and Paris Conventions (1974 and 1978) on the Protection of the Northeast Atlantic
- The Barcelona Convention (1976) on the Conservation of the Mediterranean
- The Bucharest Convention (1992) on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution
- The OSPAR Convention (1992) on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic