Water Framework Directive

1. Issued by / date / date of implementation

EU Parliament, Council / 23 October 2000 / 22 December 2000

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2. Type of legislation

European Union Directive, to be implemented by all Member States by their own means.

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3. General purpose

The Water Framework Directive establishes a legal framework to protect and restore clean water across Europe and ensure its long-term, sustainable use.

The directive establishes the approach for water management based on river basins, the natural geographical and hydrological units, regardless of nation borders, and sets specific deadlines to protect aquatic ecosystems. The directive addresses inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater.

The Directive pays particular attention to certain pollutants for which it provides definitions and general examples. Twelve groups of main pollutants are presented as general categories (e.g.” metals and their compounds”) in Annex VIII. Priority substances represent a breakdown of categories in Annex VIII to more specific examples for which priority measures are needed, due to their hazards and risks.

Priority hazardous substances are included in those mentioned above but refer to ”substances or groups of substances that are toxic, persistent and liable to bio-accumulate, and other substances or groups of substances which give rise to an equivalent level of concern”.

Although this Directive mentions the list of priority substances ,including hazardous ones ( as Annex X) the content of the list has only been published later, as Annex II of the Directive 2008/105 (see point 7.2).

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4. Substitution relevant paragraphs

Even though the phrase substitution is not explicitly mentioned in the directive, the phasing-out of chemicals is mentioned in several paragraphs. Below are some important examples.


(27) The ultimate aim of this Directive is to achieve the elimination of priority hazardous substances and contribute to achieving concentrations in the marine environment near background values for naturally occurring substances.

(43) Pollution through the discharge, emission or loss of priority hazardous substances must cease or be phased out. The European Parliament and the Council should, on a proposal from the Commission, agree on the substances to be considered for action as a priority and on specific measures to be taken against pollution of water by those substances, taking into account all significant sources and identifying the cost-effective and proportionate level and combination of controls.

45) Member States should adopt measures to eliminate pollution of surface water by the priority substances and progressively to reduce pollution by other substances, which would otherwise prevent Member States from achieving the objectives for the bodies of surface water.


Article 4

(iii) Member States shall implement the measures necessary to reverse any significant and sustained upward trend in the concentration of any pollutant resulting from the impact of human activity in order progressively to reduce pollution of groundwater.

Article 16 Strategies against pollution of water

1. The European Parliament and the Council shall adopt specific measures against pollution of water by individual pollutants or groups of pollutants presenting a significant risk to or via the aquatic environment, including such risks to waters used for the abstraction of drinking water. For those pollutants measures shall be aimed at the progressive reduction and, for the identified priority hazardous substances at the cessation or phasing-out of discharges, emissions and losses.

6. For the priority substances, the Commission shall submit proposals of controls for:

the progressive reduction of discharges, emissions and losses of the substances concerned, and, in particular the cessation or phasing-out of discharges, emissions and losses of the priority hazardous substances including an appropriate timetable for doing so.

8. Member States shall establish environmental quality standards for priority substances for all surface waters affected by discharges of those substances, and controls on the principal sources of such discharges, based, inter alia, on consideration of all technical reduction options.

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5. Assessment of relevance for substitution

One important goal with the WFD is to assure a “good chemical status” in all waters by 2015. To reach this goal chemical pollution must cease. In annex VIII the prioritized phase-out substances are listed.

The wordings substitution or replacement of chemicals with safer alternatives are not expressively mentioned in the WFD. Instead there are appeals to take action for elimination of hazardous substances by “phasing-out”, “ceasing”, “take specific measures”, “implement the measures necessary” etc. Obviously, substitution is a specific measure in this context.

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6. Link to the legal text

Directive 2000/60/EC of the European parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy

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7. Further information

7.1 Studies or publications about the legislation or its impact

Strategy against chemical pollution of surface waters

Steyaert and Ollivier 2007. The European Water Framework Directive: how ecological assumptions frame technical and social change. Ecology and Society 12(1): 25.

Hering et al. 2010. The European Water Framework Directive at the age of 10: A critical review of the achievements with recommendations for the future. Science of The Total Environment 408: 19 (4007-4019).

Moss 2008. The Water Framework Directive: Total environment or political compromise? Science of The Total Environment. 400:1-3 (32-41).

7.2 Other relevant legislation

DIRECTIVE 2008/105/EC on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy, amending and subsequently repealing Council Directives 82/176/EEC, 83/513/EEC, 84/156/EEC, 84/491/EEC, 86/280/EEC and amending Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council

DIRECTIVE 2006/11/EC on pollution caused by certain dangerous substances discharged into the aquatic environment of the Community

Last update: 10.04.2019

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