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River basin management is a great idea--but EU governments have dragged their feet over implementation.

IT has been a real slog--persuading the European Union's (EU) 27 member states to implement detailed plans to manage their water resources on a river basin basis, rather than artificial political boundaries bearing little relation to hydrology.

They have had plenty of time: the EU's water framework directive came into force in the year 2000 and member states had until last December to get these management systems in place. But as 2010 drew to a close, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia were facing threats of legal action from the European Commission for failing to send to Brussels details of their river basin water management plans.

In its note to these government, the Commission noted that these are a key building block of the water framework directive's obligation that member states ensure all groundwater and surface water (rivers, lakes, canals and coastal water) have a legally defined "good status" by 2015. It noted: "River basin management plans give a comprehensive overview of the main issues for each river basin district and should include the specific measures needed to achieve set environmental quality objectives."

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said: "I urge those member states to take action quickly, complete the public consultation and submit their plans." If they do not, the Commission may bring a European Court of Justice case against them--which could lead to them being given weighty daily recurring fines of Euros 1,000 until they comply.

So what gives? What have these countries taken so long to set river basin management plans in place?

Given Romania only became a member states in 2007, it can perhaps be excused given it has had less time. Other newer member states Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovenia have had since their accession in 2004, which does not really let them off the hook, especially countries with small territories such as Malta and Cyprus. But what of the long established western European member states who passed the water framework directive in the first place? Stefan Scheuer, advisor to Greenpeace European Unit was scathing. He told Utility Week: "In my personal capacity I can say that there is no good excuse for failing a deadline which you know for ten years," he said.

Belgium is a classic case study. The home of most EU officials, its inability to comply with its duty to frame a national river basin plan is due largely--ironically--to the inability of the Brussels-Capital region to come up with a realistic plan for its territory. There has also been a constant and serious under-estimation of the complexities of the directive across Belgium: the two larger administrative regions in Belgium--Flanders and Wallonia--have complied, though well after the deadline. Belgium is highly decentralised and environmental issues tend to be dealt with by regional governments.

The problem in the Brussels-Capital region has been a shortage of staff capable of dealing with the analyses, investment and benefit plans, economic issues and questions of public/private ownership, said Wim Van Gils, policy coordinator for the leading Flemish conservation organisation Natuurpunt.

Sergey Moroz, freshwater policy officer for the WWF conservation group, agrees that "the directive is quite demanding in terms of its obligations and planning tasks and you really need to have a well-functioning administration being able to deliver. The fact is that Brussels is a very urbanised area and they have had to give priority to getting older legislation running, such as the waste water treatment directive."

In a formal reply to the European Commission in April, Evelyne Huytebroeck, (NOTE--NAMES IS CORRECT) environment minister for the Brussels-Capital region, said a new water management plan had been agreed by the regional government but this had to be put out for public consultation and a formal report to the Commission would not be made before June 2011.

Another long-standing member state, Portugal, has now promised to have a plan in place by 2012. Its environment ministry told Utility Week "bureaucracy and the creation of five regional water administration companies were the major stumbling blocks in transposing this crucial EU directive".

The problem here is that the decision to form these administrations was taken in 2005, but they only started operating in 2009.

The Algarve Hydrographical Administration, for instance, confirmed its river basin management plan will now be presented for public consultation in July. Other administrations are promising similar timetables.

But Portugal's most influential environment protection group Quercus is sceptical whether officials will adhere to the latest deadline. Spokesperson Carla Graca said there was a lack of expertise and now--with austerity biting--a shortage on money.

Meanwhile, Quercus criticises government water conservation in the Douro River basin in northern Portugal, Graca quoting a colleague branding it "an environmental holocaust".

She criticised Brussels for complacency and systematically accept Lisbon government explanations for its delays regarding the framework directive.

Greece is another country facing action over delays. And here Utility Week was unable to extract any kind of explanation, even after calling the country's largest water company the Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company (EYDAP SA), the environment and agriculture ministries, and the National Technical University of Athens, which has been undertaking hydrological surveys.

As for the newer member states, Slovenia is a stand out. Not only is Janez Poto?nik Slovenian himself, but the country also recently took over management of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. Under that scheme, Slovenia has responsibility for that part of the Danube basin in its territory, notably the River Sava, 221km long, whose basin covers 52% of Slovenian land.

The delay in submitting Slovenia's plan has been due to the need to secure agreement with all interested parties, according to Irina Rejec-Brancerj, policy officer in Slovenia's ministry of the environment and spatial planning. "We had problems mainly because we didn't consult enough with the public or interested sectors," she said. "The plan's been prepared in draft form. It was hard to negotiate with hydropower and agricultural interests but now we have more or less agreed these measures. The plan will be important in Slovenia--it will oblige other sectors to do what they must to manage to manage the river basin well."

Another newer member state in trouble is Malta. And to a very real extent, this dry Mediterranean archipelago has a good excuse for not complying with the legislation. "It is pertinent to note that no rivers exist in Malta," said Noel M. Borg, the Maltese government's principal information officer. He said that in order to better reflect the hydrological and hydrogeological realities of Malta, the Maltese government is preparing a 'water catchment management plan' (WCMP). This is supposed to serve as the country's river basin plan. The draft WCMP was compiled by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) and the Malta Resources Authority (MRA), and a draft copy of the WCMP was sent to the European Commission in May 2010, with a draft plan launched for a six month public consultation period ending on November 26. "The authorities are currently assessing the comments received by the public in order to see what changes, if any, need to be made to the draft WCMP before being submitted to the government for approval and adoption," said Borg, who would not comment on why it has taken his government so long to develop this plan.
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Author:Nuthall, Keith; Osborn, Alan; Deschamps, M.J.; Rowe, Mark; De Beer, Rendan; Marseilles, Makki
Publication:International News
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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