Water Framework Directive

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Logo of the Water Framework Directive

In response to the fragmented character of the current water policy, the Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 established a framework for Community action in the field of water policy, commonly referred to as the Water Framework Directive (WFD). The directive entered into force on 22nd December 2000. All pre-2004 Member States of the European Union are contracting parties to the Directive. The central aim is to achieve a ‘Good Ecological Status’ and a Good Chemical Status’ by 2015.


The purpose of this Directive is to establish a framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater which:

  • Prevents further deterioration and protects and enhances the status of aquatic ecosystems and, with regard to their water needs, terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands directly depending on the aquatic ecosystems;
  • Promotes sustainable water use based on a long-term protection of available water resources;
  • Aims at enhanced protection and improvement of the aquatic environment, inter alia, through specific measures for the progressive reduction of discharges, emissions and losses of priority substances and the cessation or phasing-out of discharges, emissions and losses of the priority hazardous substances;
  • Ensures the progressive reduction of pollution of groundwater and prevents its further pollution, and
  • Contributes to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts


The WFD obliges the Member states to adhere to a strictly time schedule. There are several deadlines for implementing the WFD (see Table 1). After the directive has been translated into national legislation (art. 23) River Basin Districts and responsible authorities have to be identified (art. 3). Then steps are taken to set up a River Basin Management Plan, including a programme of measures for each river basin district. By performing the programme of measures the authorities expect to reach the objectives by 2015. Monitoring will be done to check the effectiveness of the measures. If necessary extra time can be given to take additional measures in order to reach the objectives at the latest in 2027.

Table 1 Deadline associated with the Water Framework Directive
Deadline Article Task
2000 25 Directive entered into force
2003 23 Transposition in national legislation
2003 3 Identification of River Basin Districts and Authorities
2004 5 Characterisation of river basin: pressures, impacts and economic analysis
2006 8 Establishment of monitoring network
2006 14 Start public consultation (at the latest)
2008 13 Present draft River Basin Management Plan
2009 13 & 11 Finalise draft River Basin Management Plan including programme of measures
2010 9 Introduce pricing policies
2012 11 Make operational programmes of measures
2015 4 Meet environmental objectives
2021 4 & 13 First management cycle ends
2027 4 & 13 Second management cycle ends, final deadline for meeting objectives

Systematics of the WFD

The range of application of the WFD is not restricted to the freshwater, but also covers the coastal and transitional waters. In coastal areas, the WFD is in force up to one nautical mile from the territorial baseline of a Member State for a Good Ecological Status and up to 12 nautical miles for a Good Chemical Status.

To facilitate the assessment of the ecological and chemical status of the water bodies, the objectives have to be quantified. For this purpose different systematics are used for the ecological and chemical status.

Ecological status

The definition of ecological status looks at the abundance of aquatic flora and fish fauna, the availability of nutrients, and aspects like salinity, temperature and pollution by chemical pollutants. Morphological features, such as quantity, water flow, water depths and structures of the river beds, are also taken into account.

The WFD classification scheme includes five status categories:

  • high,
  • good,
  • moderate,
  • poor and
  • bad.

In combination with the biological quality elements, supporting hydro-morphological and physico-chemical elements have to be involved in the classification process. ‘High status’ is defined as the biological, chemical and morphological conditions associated with no or very low human pressure. This is also called the ‘reference condition’. Assessment of quality is based on the extent of deviation from these reference conditions. ‘Good status’ means ‘slight’ deviation, ‘moderate status’ means ‘moderate’ deviation, and so on. The WFD requires a `one out - all out' approach for classification; the status of a site should be determined by the lowest value of the quality elements used.

Under certain conditions the WFD permits Member States to identify and designate Artificial Waterbodies (AWB) and Heavily Modified Water Bodies (HMWB), where they have been physically altered so that they are “substantially changed in character” or "created by human activity" respectively. Instead of "good ecological status", the environmental objective for HMWB and for AWB is good ecological potential (GEP), which has to be achieved by 2015.

The National classification schemes of the Member states have to be harmonized in European Union context. The purpose of the intercalibration is not to harmonise the assessment systems, but only their results. The descriptions of the reference situations and the classification schemes may differ, but the outcome of the different schemes have to be comparable. The intercalibration will aim on the “high-good” and the “good-moderate” boundaries. The difference between the qualifications good and moderate is very essential in the WFD, because it decides if measures are required or not.

Chemical Status

To define good chemical status, environmental quality standards have been established for 33 new and eight previously regulated chemical pollutants of high concern across the EU. The WFD is backed up by other EU legislation such as the REACH regulation on chemicals and the Industrial Emissions Directive for industrial installations.

River Basin Management plan

The river basin district is the scale of planning foreseen in the Directive. All member states had to complete, by the end of 2004, a detailed analysis of the characteristics of their river basin districts, including a review of the pressures and impacts of the human activity on surface and groundwater. In addition an economic analysis of the use of water is required to enable a rational discussion on cost-effectiveness of the possible measures. The analysis forms the point of departure for the River Basin Management Plan. In the plan is described in detail how the objectives set for the river basin are to be reached within the timescale required. Elements that are described in the plan are:

  • The characteristics of the river basin;
  • A review of the human impact on the status of waters in the basin;
  • An estimation of the effect of existing measures and the remaining "gap" to meet the objectives;
  • A list of additional measures designed to meet the objectives.

The analysis of human impact is conducted so as to determine how far from the objective each body of water is. Then the effect of full implementation of the existing legislation on the problems of each body of water is considered. Examples of existing legislation 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 Industrial Emissions Directive that deals with chemical pollution. If through full implementation of the existing legislation the objective of the framework Directive is not attained, the Member State must identify exactly why, and design whatever additional measures are needed to satisfy all the objectives established.


As part of a River Basin Management Plan, a monitoring network has to be established by end of 2006.

Three types of monitoring for surface waters are described:

  1. Surveillance monitoring
  2. Operational monitoring
  3. Investigative monitoring.

The objective of monitoring is to establish a coherent and comprehensive overview of water status within each River Basins District and must permit the classification of all surface water bodies into one of five classes. To ensure that a reliable assessment of the status of all water bodies can be achieved, it is important that the right parameters are chosen and that the parameters are measured in the right location with the right frequency and with the most appropriate method. The member states are allowed to adjust their monitoring program to the condition and variability within their own waters.

Joint Implementation Strategy

The Water Framework directive will be implemented in a unique way; the European Commission and the Member States established a Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) for the Water Framework Directive. Many challenges and difficulties that occur during implementation will be common to all Member States. Besides many of the European river basins are shared, crossing administrative and territorial borders. A Common Strategy could limit the risks of bad application of the Directive and subsequent dispute. The CIS will develop guidance documents and other supporting technical and scientific documents to assist in the practical implementation of the Directive.


  • Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council; establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy, Brussels, 23-10-2000.

  • P. de Graaf , H. Marencic, D. Burdon , I. Simoens & H. Knaack. Water Framework Directive in North Sea coastal areas and estuaries; HARBASINS Phase 1: Legislation and Administration.RWS Leeuwarden 2006.

External links

The main author of this article is van Buuren, Jannette
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: van Buuren, Jannette (2020): Water Framework Directive. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/Water_Framework_Directive [accessed on 23-07-2024]