Main authors: Susanne Wuijts, Jacqueline Claessens, Luke Farrow, Donnacha G Doody, Susanne Klages, Christophoros Christophoridis, Rozalija Cvejić, Matjaž Glavan, Ingrid Nesheim, Froukje Platjouw, Isobel Wright, Jenny Rowbottom, Morten Graversgaard, Cors van den Brink, Inês Leitão, António Ferreira, Sandra Boekhold
Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Wuijts, S. et al. (2021) Protection of drinking water resources from agricultural pressures: effectiveness of EU regulations in the context of local realities. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 6.3R 70 pp


Currently, nitrates and pesticides are among the major sources of drinking water resources pollution in Europe (EEA 2018). In order to reduce and mitigate emissions from agriculture to water and protect the environment, the EU has developed an extensive regulatory and policy framework that addresses both water and agricultural sectors, environmental pollution and land use over the last decades (Platjouw, Moore et al. 2019). In addition to these legal obligations, many other initiatives have been developed at local and regional scales to further contribute to the protection of drinking water resources (Doody, Foy et al. 2012, Graversgaard, Hedelin et al. 2018), some of which had already begun in the nineties (Quirin and Hoetmer 2019).

These initiatives were often triggered by an increased awareness that existing legal frameworks were insufficient to adequately protect drinking water resources from agricultural pollution (Keessen, Runhaar et al. 2011, Doody, Foy et al. 2012, Jacobsen, Anker et al. 2017). The directives had varying success in water quality improvement. The European Innovation Partnership on Water (EIP Water) identified the ‘inconsistency and fragmentation of policies, regulations and governance structures’ as ‘low hanging fruit’ whose improvement would greatly enhance the development of the sector (EC 2014). In this sectio of FAIRWAYiS we aim to contribute to the understanding how this ‘inconsistency and fragmentation of policies, regulations and governance structures’ impacts water quality improvement at the local level and what lessons can be learned from experiences so far. Governance is defined here as a process of interaction between public and/or private actors, ultimately aiming at the achievement of collective goals, including the knowledge, instruments and means to do so (Lange, Driessen et al. 2013).

The inconsistency noted by the EC (2014) can to some extent be explained by the development of European environmental legislation over time. At first, directives focused on the protection and restoration of water quality for specific water functions like drinking water (DWD, 75/440/EEC) and groundwater (80/68/EEC). During a second phase, directives focused on the reduction of emissions such as the Nitrates Directive (ND, 91/676/EEC), the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUPD, 2009/128/EC) the Urban Wastewater Directive (UWWD, 98/15/EC) and the Integrated Pollution Prevention Control Directive (IPPC, 96/61/EC). In this phase, legislation addressed water quality issues from a sectoral point of view and less attention was paid to stakeholder involvement (Van Rijswick and Havekes 2012). A third phase in the development of European water quality law can be identified with the introduction of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), reflecting the growing awareness that complex water issues cannot be addressed by legislation alone and are specific to a river basin (OECD 2015, Howarth 2017). The WFD, with its river basin approach, requires new governance arrangements for cross-sectoral cooperation with other stakeholders, both within and between Member States.

The shift towards governance-based approaches can be seen in national policies as well, although differences exist between Member States (Rowbottom, Wright et al. 2019). Several scholars noted that the mode of implementation is often adapted to existing national regulatory and policy structures, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, but research has shown that this mode of implementation may also impact its effectiveness (Keessen, Van Kempen et al. 2010, Giakoumis and Voulvoulis 2018, Birkenstock and Röder 2019).

[Note: The term ‘implementation’ refers to an explicit phase in the policy process: the execution of interventions to achieve policy objectives. It also refers to the transposition of European legislation into national law. In this section of FAIRWAYiS we focus on the attainment of policy objectives. To avoid confusion regarding the use of the term ‘implementation’, the term ‘attainment’ is used.]

Even more, building on existing national regulatory and policy structures for the implementation of EU legislation may also be the cause of the inconsistencies and fragmentation of policies in the achievement of the European ambitions (Keessen, Van Kempen et al. 2010, Birkenstock and Röder 2019). Coherence and consistency are key factors if we are to have a successful EU regulatory and policy regime that aims to prevent, and manage, the diffuse pollution of drinking water resources caused by agriculture. At regional and local scales, it may become clear whether the coherence and consistency between these policy domains is addressed well enough to achieve policy objectives.

In this context, coherence is defined as the extent to which laws and policies systematically reduce conflicts and promote synergies between, and within, different policy areas to achieve jointly agreed policy objectives (Nillson, Zamparutti et al. 2012). A sectoral policy can be effective in achieving its specific objectives without being coherent in relation to the objectives of other policy areas (Platjouw, Moore et al. 2019). Consistency marks the extent to which the jointly-agreed policy objectives can be recognised at different levels, and within different policy arenas, and there is no contradiction between them.

Several publications address the importance of analysing the impact of governance on water quality outcomes (e.g. (Newig and Fritsch 2009, Blackstock, Waylen et al. 2012)). So far however, little empirical research has been done on the local governance arrangements that could contribute to better groundwater and surface water quality (Wuijts, Driessen et al. 2017); studies are often of an aggregated national or European level, for instance to evaluate the implementation of a particular Directive (EC 2018, EC 2019a).

In this section of FAIRWAYiS we aim to discuss from the local-regional perspective,

  1. whether the different parts of EU legislation and their mode of implementation strengthen or block one another,
  2. whether local governance arrangements can overcome potential gaps or spill-over effects in this legal framework and
  3. what lessons can be learnt to improve the protection of drinking water resources from agricultural pressures.

To this end, governance arrangements in 13 case study areas in 11 European countries were analysed, using the OECD principles on water governance (OECD 2015) as the analytical framework and tested on the criteria coherence, consistency and the attainment of objectives at the local level.



For full references to papers quoted in this article see


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