New report: poor health of Vistula and other European rivers persists

90% of river basins studied in various EU countries will still be unhealthy by 2027, reveals a new report by WWF and Living Rivers Europe. This means those countries will miss the legally binding EU target to return Europe’s polluted freshwaters to health by then. The research also identifies serious gaps within the River Basin Management Plan for Poland’s largest river, the Vistula.

‘The final sprint for Europe’s Rivers’ – the second edition of this report – highlights key findings after reviewing 21 draft River Basin Management Plans. The analysis finds that only two river basins in Finland might see good health by 2027, although even these management plans contain gaps.

For this second edition NGOs assessed eight new draft plans from Romania, Spain and Poland; none of which are classed as “good”. The Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (OTOP), a Save Polesia partner, reviewed the draft River Basin Management Plan for the Polish Vistula.

The authorities in Poland are abusing the exemption system under the Water Framework Directive. There are so many exemptions that we will not have good water quality and healthy rivers by 2027” states Justyna Choros, OTOP’s advocacy and policy officer. She also explains that key documents that underpin the River Basin Management Plan are not yet finalised or are not available to the public. To obtain these documents OTOP is forced to make freedom of information requests to the authorities and even apply to court. How can public consultation be meaningful if vital information is not in the public domain?

The government of Poland is progressing plans to build the E40 waterway, which would not only cut through the heart of Europe’s Amazon, but also destroy the Vistula and Bug rivers in Poland. As part of it, several dams for inland navigation and hydropower along the main course of the Vistula are proposed. Constructing the planned Siarzewo dam is Poland’s first step towards this massive infrastructure project. “Nowhere in the River Basin Management Plan are the disastrous consequences of the E40 waterway for water and people mentioned“, says Choros.

The Vistula, with a length of over 1,000 kilometres, is Poland’s largest and longest river. Image credit: Janusz Kępa

Flood protection in the 21st century requires us to work with nature and not against it. Restoring and protecting floodplains and free-flowing rivers should be a priority in light of the climate crisis if we are to protect people from dangerous flooding. The WWF report lays bare that the plan for the Polish Vistula does not refer to nature-based solutions at all. The authors of the report conclude that this is definitely worrisome considering that flood events in Europe are expected to occur in higher intensity and frequency.

The analysis just released includes recommendations to national and river basin authorities as well as to the European Commission on how they can achieve the goals set out. Member States have only a few weeks left to finalise their river basin management plans for the next six years, as required by EU legislation. The drafts for 2022-2027 are the third round of national plans before the 2027 target and are Europe’s final opportunity to get things right.

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*Top image shows the Vistula River in Poland. Image credit: Marek Zadrożny