Territorial cohesion and water management in Europe: the spatial perspective

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

This report considers the links between water management in the EU — especially the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) — and territorial cohesion (1), in the perspective of spatial analysis (2) and spatial planning (3). It looks at the role of spatial analysis and planning for the implementation of the Directive as well as related provisions such as the Floods Directive and the development and implementation of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs). It considers links between Regional Policy (4) and water management in the EU, including the lessons from a spatial perspective. It further looks at cross.country cooperation, a key element of both the WFD and territorial cohesion and finally considers future challenges for implementation of the Directive and the development of RBMPs, in particular considering the spatial context.

The issue
The spatial dimension is particularly important for water management. The centre piece of EU water legislation, the WFD, has a strong territorial context and it is implemented through river basin districts, which are based on natural geographic catchment areas rather than existing administrative boundaries.

A review of academic literature and initial work to develop RBMPs shows that the links to these plans and spatial analysis and planning are weak in many countries. One reason is that water management and spatial planning have traditionally been carried out by separate structures and follow different traditions. A practical obstacle is that spatial planning usually follows administrative boundaries, while RBMPs, in principal, follow topographic/geographic boundaries.

The governance structures in the countries face differing political, socio-economic and historical contexts which affect the way in which administrative systems are managed. In Italy, for example, regional borders only match those of river basin districts for the two large islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Planning along natural geographic boundaries is a new approach at EU level and in many countries as well. In contrast, spatial planning is often a long-standing process. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, spatial planning is hierarchical, with national or regional plans providing a framework for those at the local level.

From an environmental perspective, planning for administrative areas that do not match natural geographic boundaries can create externalities: costs can fall on those who do not benefit, as in the case of water pollution from agriculture and industry from one territory (5) that flows downstream to others; and benefits may go to those outside the territory who have not paid for them — this can be the case for ecosystem services such as those provided by forests in one territory that regulate floodwaters downstream.

Another practical issue is that spatial planning and river basin planning follow different timescales in most countries. However, this is related to a broader issue, the lack of a legislative or policy framework at national or regional level to bring the two planning processes together. A further problem that has been identified in recent studies is the lack of shared knowledge and sufficient resources for integration.

In practice it appears that spatial planning has not been strongly linked with the first round of RBMPs, completed in December 2009. A review of six draft RBMPs (2009) found that less than half have strong links with spatial planning. A review of countries in the Baltic Sea region found that spatial planning and water management remained separate systems in most countries; moreover, the implementation of the WFD had not brought stronger integration of the two.

These results show that much more work is needed to link spatial and river basin planning across Europe. At the same time, efforts to strengthen these links are underway at national and regional levels. Several trans-national cooperation projects supported by EU Cohesion Policy funds have brought together EU regions to develop new methods and approaches.

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