River Basin Management Plan: Where we are now and where we should be heading

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August 25th, 2017

Experts have long identified the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) as the centrepiece of efforts in Europe and Ireland to address threats to our water environment. It requires our rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal water to achieve a healthy state by 2021.

The River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) is the key tool to accomplish this, however, there is concern that the draft Plan falls short of what’s required to hit the targets of the Directive and secure a healthy water environment for Ireland, as Sinead O’Brien and Sydney Weinberg of the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) explain.

Draft Downsides

The draft Plan was expected to assess the state of our waters, identify the sources of impacts and furnish a concrete action plan toward definitive progress. However, as it stands, the draft Plan is subject to a number of worrisome shortcomings.

For one, no new measures have been proposed for most water bodies, even though approximately half our rivers and lakes and more than two-thirds of our estuaries are failing WFD standards. Despite the apparent inadequacy of the status quo, the new Plan relies heavily on controls that are already in place, even when dealing with significant pressures like forestry, wastewater, physical alterations (e.g. flood defences & riverside development) and agriculture.

There are many downsides to a weaker-than-desired Plan. For one, it would leave our valuable aquatic resources inadequately protected during the Plan’s four-year cycle. What’s more, the minimalist approach outlined in the current draft may be in breach of both the letter and spirit of the Directive. There is a serious risk that if the final Plan is not a significant improvement on the draft, we will see little to no improvement to a large number of inland and coastal water bodies.

There is a serious risk that if the final Plan is not a significant improvement on the draft, we will see little to no improvement to a large number of inland and coastal water bodies.

State of Play

According to the Plan, 1,301 water bodies are currently not meeting WFD requirements, with another 216 ‘at risk’ of failing. The Plan proposes actions for less than half (600-700) of these and estimates this approach will improve just 150 of them.

That’s a mere 12 per cent of all the currently unhealthy rivers, lakes and coastal waters in the State earmarked for restoration during the life of this Plan.

This course of action would leave us with 40 per cent of our rivers, lakes and bays still in an unhealthy state by 2021 – the same year that all water bodies must reach good status as required under the WFD. This is still only ten years away.

Some of the measures will take time to bear fruit in terms of water quality improvements – all the more reason to hit the ground running with a strong and ambitious Plan which accounts for time lags in tricky areas.

Not only is the process set out in the draft Plan contrary to the technical provisions of the Directive, the Plan would leave an estimated 88 per cent of our unhealthy waters in that same state at the end of the Plan’s four-year term.

While it must be said that the State has made strides in improving our woefully fragmented water governance system through the likes of the National Water Forum and Local Authority Water & Communities Office, we won’t see any improvement to our unhealthy water bodies if the Plan does not set out how to improve them.

The Plan uses strong catchment science from the EPA to outline the status of our waters and identify pressures leading to failures. This should then provide the base from which to proceed to agree effective action to address the identified problems.

Unfortunately, there is a clear gap between the scale, range and complexity of the problems and the weak policy response proposed to address them.


The consultation period is set to end on August 31. Although there is not much time left to submit your opinion, you can use Friends of the Earth’s online automated submissions tool to make your views on the Plan known to the Department in just a few minutes.

The text is informative, customisable, and focused on the national level, enabling anyone to quickly send a hard-hitting template message about the urgent need to safeguard our river systems.

Active public participation is crucial to ensuring that the value Irish people place on our wild watery places is reflected in a strong, ambitious final Plan that benefits more than just a tiny percentage of the catchments in Ireland.

Sinead O’Brien is the Coordinator of the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) and Sydney Weinberg is SWAN’s Communications Officer

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