Water is critical for life and is integral to virtually all economic activities, including food and industrial production. Not only is clean water a prerequisite for human health and well-being, it provides for aquatic habitats that support healthy freshwater ecosystems. A range of pollutants including nutrients, biocides, pathogenic micro-organisms, industrial and household chemicals, metals and pharmaceutical products can be found in a number of Europe's freshwater bodies. These pollutants can come from numerous sources including agriculture, industry, transport and domestic dwellings, and can reach freshwater by various pathways. Much of this freshwater pollutant load is ultimately discharged to coastal waters with the potential to also adversely impact the quality of the marine environment.
The level at which some pollutants are found in some of Europe's freshwater has led to detrimental effects on aquatic ecosystems, degrading habitats and resulting in the loss of freshwater flora and fauna. For example, excessive nutrient concentrations promote eutrophication, characterised by a proliferation of the growth of problematic algal blooms and an undesirable disturbance to the balance of organisms present in the water. The presence of chemicals with endocrine-disrupting properties has also been shown to trigger feminising effects in male fish, raising implications for their fertility and population survival. Pesticides and metals too can be toxic to aquatic life. Concern is also growing about the combined effects on aquatic biota of the mixture of chemicals that is often found in Europe's more polluted water.
Poor water quality is also a potential threat to public health through freshwater and marine recreation, the consumption of contaminated freshwater and seafood, where sanitation is inadequate and, where access to safe drinking water is lacking. To protect freshwater from pollution, a comprehensive range of legislation has been established in Europe. Most notably, the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which represents the single most important piece of EU legislation relating to the quality of fresh and coastal waters, aims to attain good ecological and chemical status by 2015. The WFD includes a strong economic component and, in accordance with the polluter-pays principle, requires that Member States implement full recovery of the environmental and resource costs of water services. In addition, water-pricing policies are to be established that provide adequate incentives for the efficient use of water resources.
Other legislation, directly related to the WFD and providing its basic measures, targets particular groups of pollutants. Compliance with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) and Nitrates Directive (ND), for example, will improve nutrient water quality and aid, although not necessarily guarantee, the achievement of good ecological status under the WFD. The chemical quality of Europe's surface waters is primarily addressed by the recently established Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD). This daughter directive of the WFD defines concentration limits for pollutants of EU-wide relevance known as priority substances (PS). The limits are defined both in terms of annual average and maximum allowable concentrations, with the former protecting against long-term chronic pollution problems and the latter against short-term acute pollution. Some of these pollutants have been designated as priority hazardous substances (PHS) due to their toxicity, their persistence in the environment and their bioaccumulation in plant and animal tissues.
The EQSD requires cessation or phase-out of discharges, emissions and losses of PHS. Regulation of other chemicals — those not classified as PS or PHS — is to be addressed at the national level. The Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances regulation (REACH) also has an important role to play through its aim to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks of chemicals. REACH gives greater responsibility to industry to manage these risks and to provide safety information on substances used. The Bathing Water Directive (BWD) aims to protect public health by setting concentration limits for microbiological pollutants in Europe's inland and coastal bathing waters. The BWD also addresses risks from toxic cyanobacteria, requiring immediate action, including the provision of information to the public, to prevent exposure.
Concern for the current state of Europe's freshwater is also reflected by the EU's 6th Environmental Action Programme (6th EAP), in particular, the prioritisation of 'full implementation of the WFD'. This goal is strongly related to many other 6th EAP objectives, including implementation of a thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides, protection of biodiversity from pollution, the sustainable management of water resources and the conservation of marine ecosystems. With WFD implementation ongoing, one key objective of the 6th EAP is being met. However, achieving WFD compliance and fulfilling the other water quality priorities of the 6th EAP present a major challenge for the coming years. Successfully meeting this challenge will require, amongst other things, the implementation of strong, effective and timely measures under the River Basin Management Plans (RBMP) of the WFD.