The Water Framework Directive structure and key principles

Page Last modified 09 Nov 2018
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Today, the most important piece of European water legislation is the...

Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). It covers all water categories (rivers, lakes, groundwater as well as coastal and transitional waters), and sets clear objectives that:

  • “Good status” must be achieved by 2015
  • Use of water resources must be sustainable throughout Europe

The Directive is based on the following key principles:

  • The setting of ambitious objectives to ensure that all waters meet  “good status” by 2015
  • The protection of all categories of waters
  • The requirement for waters to be managed at river basin level by formulating a River Basin Management Plan. In the case of transboundary water bodies, this needs co-operation between countries
  • Ensuring the active participation of all stakeholders, including NGOs and local communities, in water management activities
  • Requiring water pricing policies based on the “user pays” principle
  • Balancing the interests of the environment with those who depend on it


To ensure the achievement of these ambitious objectives and the consistent implementation of the directive in all Member States and across borders, implementation is planned cyclically in a three step process:

The first step cycle includes the preliminary characterisation of water bodies based upon existing geographical, hydrological and quality data. This allows the identification of water bodies that are “at risk” (significant alteration in the ecological quality as a result of human pressures), “possibly at risk” (lack of sufficient information to decide or moderate alteration) and “not at risk” (no or slight alteration). This first assessment also includes economic analysis.

The second step is to design the WFD compatible monitoring network. Based on the results of monitoring, the water body characterisation might be refined, and the status assessment carried out by considering both biological and chemical quality elements. This should be carried out in order to classify the status of the water body as required by the Water Framework Directive.

Finally, River Basin Management Plans should be drafted for all River Basins including specific programmes of measures. Before Management Plans are finalised and reported to the Commission, river basin authorities have to make sure that plans are presented and discussed openly with the public.

The first planning cycle runs until 2009. After which, the plans have to be reviewed every sixth year and revised as appropriate, i.e. if the objectives have not been reached.

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