New report shows major European rivers are of poor ecological quality, most countries have inadequate environmental monitoring systems and will fail to meet the EU’s Water Framework Directive

Due to the impacts of canalisation, dams, pollution and altered flow regimes, 50 out of 69 river stretches in Europe, including several in the UK, are of poor ecological quality and most European countries have inadequate environmental monitoring systems to protect their biodiversity and to properly safeguard their water resources, a new report says.

The new report by the conservation organisation, WWF, Water and Wetland Index assesses the ability of freshwater systems in 16 European countries, both European Union members and applicant nations, to meet the requirements of the EU’s Water Framework Directive (see related story). The report rates the water quality and ecological state of freshwater habitats according to indicators such as the state of threatened species, threats from non-native invasive species, and pressures from agricultural, domestic and industrial water use.

The Index shows that many rivers in accession countries are in a better condition than similar sized ones in the EU. In fact, Estonia, Slovakia and Hungary should have less difficulty meeting the new standards than some existing member states. The Rhône, the Seine, the Ebro, the Segura, the Severn, the Danube (in Austria), the Meuse and the Scheldt, are among the major rivers that will need major restoration works and other actions to meet “good ecological status” before the end of 2015, as required by the Directive.

Despite showing “UK rivers as a whole to be in relatively good health, and well monitored”, the Index singles out several which are in need if remedial work. These include the Severn and the Trent in England, the Dee in Wales, and in Northern Ireland the Foyle, the Lagan and especially the Bann. The Severn is listed as having problems with sewage pollution, falling below the standards of comparable rivers in Hungary or Estonia, while the Trent has a highly variable river quality and is losing of habitats and wildlife.

UK wetlands are described in the report as being “under constant threat from development, pollution or water abstraction”, while 50 out of 69 river stretches in 16 European countries suffer from “poor ecological status” due to canalisation, dams and locks, floodplain drainage, over-abstraction of water, industrial discharges, insufficient water treatment and heavy use of fertilisers. Of the rivers examined by WWF only a few already meet future the requirements of the Directive: these include the Wye and the Usk in Wales, the Teno in Finland, the Morava in Austria, the Coe in Scotland, the Derwent in England and the Semois in Belgium.

WWF also found that France, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey have inadequate monitoring systems and lack the basic information needed to improve the state of their rivers, wetlands and scarce freshwater resources, and without improvement, will be in violation of the Water Framework Directive by 2006.

The Index says that restoring floodplains and allowing rivers to run their own course will be necessary in many parts of Europe in order to achieve the “good ecological status” required by the Directive, having the added benefit of helping to reduce the impact of floods on towns and cities. Significant changes will also be needed in water consumption, farming and irrigation practices to allow rivers to sustain their flows, especially in Southern Europe.

“Although heavy pollution in Europe’s rivers is reduced, most European rivers are far from achieving their ecological potential,” said Jane Madgwick, Head of WWF’s European Freshwater Programme. European Heads of Government have signed up for a big improvement in Europe’s rivers (which) will require a substantial investment but the costs of reviving Europe’s rivers will be more than repaid by long-term savings in flood damage, water treatment and public health.”

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