22nd September

Irish government yet to be tested on Water Framework Directive

River Shannon, part of the Shannon River Basin. Photo Paddy Mackey, SWAN

Sinead OBrien, SWAN

There is a wind of change turning the tide for Ireland’s waters. Political complacency and foot-dragging on water protection is no longer an option. The force behind this turning tide is the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD).

It may sound like just another piece of EU jargon but don’t let the name put you off. The WFD is one of the most radical and ambitious pieces of environmental legislation to ever emerge from the EU. If it is implemented properly, it has the potential to put an end to all major water pollution in Ireland. It may sound incredible, but the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) believes that with political will and real public involvement, it is possible.


SWAN is a network of thirty of Ireland’s leading environmental organisations. Its formation is an important milestone on the path to real protection for our rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal and ground waters. 

Through coordinated participation of all thirty groups in the implementation of the directive, and through public awareness activities, SWAN is committed to making sure that the WFD really does deliver for Ireland’s waters. To help de-mystify the Directive and to raise public awareness, SWAN have just launched it new website: www.swanireland.ie.

Advisory Councils awaited
Ireland’s record on implementation so far is relatively good. The ‘Characterisation Report’, published in December 2004, divides the country into seven River Basin Districts (RBDs), describes and classifies the main water bodies in each District for the first time and assesses the pressures they are under due to human activity. It is a significant achievement. But let’s not be naïve.  The government have yet to be properly tested. 

SWAN groups are still awaiting an announcement on the setting up of stakeholder ‘Advisory Councils’ in each of Ireland’s seven RBDs. These Councils will include representatives from all sectors − from industry and farming to environmental and community interests − inputting into decisions on water management plans for the District. 

SWAN groups intend to sit on every Council to ensure that the government sticks to its obligations under the Directive, and that each Council is a forum for real democratic participation and not just another bureaucratic talking shop.

By 2007 the EPA must oversee the establishment of a programme of water monitoring for the entire country.  This is a huge undertaking, involving the ongoing monitoring of thousands of water bodies nationwide by local authorities. For it to succeed, local authorities, already stretched, will need a huge injection of finance and staff. It remains to be seen whether this will be forthcoming from central government.

Another milestone is 2008, when the relevant authorities must establish a ‘Programme of Measures’ to ensure that they meet the targets of the Directive. This is when government commitment will be truly tested.  To work, these measures will have to be tough.

Fundamental changes in the way we view and use our waterways will have to be made. Effluent from septic tanks will have to be reduced; sewage treatment plants will have to be built or upgraded; discharge from industry will have to be further curtailed and run-off from agricultural and forestry land will have to be drastically reduced. 

Many of these measures will entail high costs, may attract resistance from powerful business interests and will test local authorities to the limit. Will the government rise to the challenge when the tough decisions have to be made and funding has to be found?  SWAN’s thirty partner groups will be there to ensure that it does.

Further details from: Sustainable Water Network (SWAN), 9 Upper Mount Street, Dublin 2;Tel: 01 6425583; www.swanireland.ie ; Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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