Urban and industrial growth have consequences, perhaps most poignantly felt at the source, but their impacts affect us all. The first 1992 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio has recognised that “We all live downstream” – quite literally in the case of water resources.
Pollution and environmental degradation in river basins affect ground and surface water resources, including the quality and availability of drinking water for people; the life of aquatic organisms; the quality, diversity and health of the wider environment; human health; sectors of economic activity directly or indirectly related to water (agriculture, tourism, fisheries, etc.); and ultimately the prosperity of the entire country and its people. In many cases, pollution directly contributes to conflicts over water resources, as well as to flooding: as such it has severe consequences for infrastructure, economic production, and human lives.
For trans-boundary water courses, pollution and environmental degradation in upstream countries spread all negative consequences to downstream countries, often amplified. Conversely, environmental degradation in the downstream of river basins can affect the migration patterns of aquatic organisms, thus affecting the functioning of the ecosystem basin-wide, as well as commercial fisheries. Effects from pollution in river basins can occur in both downstream and upstream direction.
Addressing these issues effectively requires a basin-wide perspective – according to the natural geographical and hydrological unit, and not limited by administrative or political boundaries. Therefore, trans-boundary efforts and cooperation to ensure that waters have good chemical and biological status are essential: not only for protecting ecosystems and habitats, but also for national, human and economic development.
The concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) recognises that the environmental, social and economic impacts of land and water management, and ground and surface water management, have to be integrated; this paradigm is now generally the accepted global standard. The 1992 UNECE Water Convention has proposed some principles for establishing transboundary water resource monitoring and management systems.
While Europe is dominated by transboundary river basins, the EU has led the way on trans-boundary water resources management. In 2000, the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) was adopted “for Community action in the field of water policy.” The EU WFD approach to IWRM is globally recognised as a best practice in the field. The WFD establishes a legal framework to protect and enhance the status of all waters and protected areas including water depending ecosystems, to prevent their deterioration, and to ensure long-term, sustainable use of water resources – at the scale of catchment area. The WDF provides detailed guidelines on how countries may cooperate in the management of and planning for water resources: by setting common transboundary water quality objectives; using common ecological classification; and using shared methodologies for joint monitoring of water systems and for jointly developing River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) while balancing stakeholder (including citizens’) interests.
The broader European Neighbourhood Policy context recognises that many European river basins are shared with the EU’s eastern neighbours; the Dniester, Prut, and Kura-Aras basins in particular are shared with non-EU upstream countries. Thus, the overarching EU WDF objective – ‘good status’ of all water bodies by 2015 (or ‘good potential’ to ‘good status’ by 2027) – is difficult to achieve without the cooperation of the countries outside of the EU.
In turn, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries have become increasingly aware of the need to adopt a river-basin-wide approach to water resources management. As a logical extension of their existing commitments under the UNECE Water Convention, they have already implemented a number of actions to improve trans-boundary water resources management in accordance the WFD IWRM principles. In doing so, they have encountered challenges related to required significant human and financial resources, and particularly with the inherited the Maximum Allowable Concentrations approach to water resources management. Nevertheless, EaP countries have demonstrated commitment to further water sector reform activities: to ensure sustainable water resources and environment, and sustainable economic and human development.
The trans-boundary project Environmental Protection of International River Basins (EPIRB) was designed to respond to these imperatives: to support reform activities in the water sector in the EaP states; to aid them in implementing in the WFD best practice in water resources management; to further the EU-EaP partnership with respect to water quality protection and water resources management; to contribute to achieving the EU WDF objectives; to foster cooperation between the EaP states toward sustainable development; and above all, to contribute to sustainable water resources both in quality and quantity and to reduce the effects from pollution for people both in the EU and in the EaP states.
The EPIRB project aims to improve water quality and water resources management in the trans-boundary river basins of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The project was started in 2011 and it will conclude in 2015. It has an operating budget of EUR 7.5 million.
In specific, EPIRB provides support to the EaP countries so that they: improve the availability and quality of data on the ecological, chemical, and hydro-morphological status of trans-boundary river basins, including groundwater; increase the capacities of respective national authorities to carry out hydro-biological, chemical, and hydro-morphological monitoring of water quality, including groundwater; assess various needs regarding laboratory infrastructure, equipment and training; develop River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) for selected river basins and sub-river basins according to the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive; and increase technical capacities by means of implementing RBMPs for selected rivers.
Project activities include:
The project will culminate in the development of National and basin-wide Programmes of Measures, and River Basin Management Plans for selected five river basins and their sub-basins. Selected Programme measures will be implemented for the pilot basins: Akhurian Basin District (Armenia), Central Kura Basin District – right tributaries (Azerbaijan), Upper Dnieper Basin (Belarus, Ukraine), Chorokhi-Adjaristskali Basin (Georgia), and Prut Basin (Moldova, Ukraine).
On the premise that everyone is a stakeholder, the RBMPs development process will include public consultations. Public involvement and increasing public awareness will be ensured every step of the way – to add to sustainability of results and to extend the project impact beyond the immediate scope of water resources management.
Within two years of its inception, the project EPIRB is halfway through its implementation. Already its impact is evident and measurable in terms of capacity building and dissemination of best practices in water monitoring. (1) Across the 6 participant countries, a total of 73 experts have been trained in surface and groundwater surveying, monitoring, sampling, equipment programming and calibration (23 from Georgia, 23 from Armenia, 27 from Azerbaijan, 21 from Belarus, 20 from Moldova, and 16 from Ukraine). (2) The total number of project trainees to date includes 130 specialists in water, groundwater, biology, etc. (3) Quality assurance and quality control trainings have been carried out in one laboratory in each project country.
In terms of data and research, for all five pilot river basins, the following have been completed: (1) joint field surveys to cover gaps in data for springs, surface water and groundwater; (2) river basin analysis reports, including pressures and impacts; (3) groundwater body identification and typological delineation. All reports including updated data and original maps/graphs to visualise data analyses are available (in English and Russian) on the EPIRB project website. In effect, these providing a major resource for water resources, geological, geographical and economic research well beyond the scope of the project.
Also, the project has successfully established inter-sectoral connections and partnership and collaboration with associated national and international water governance projects. Partnership and collaboration with e.g. the UNECE Helsinki Water Convention, the International Convention for the Protection of the Danube River, or the EU project Environmental Monitoring of the Black Sea (EMBLAS) will not only benefit EPIRB as such, but also further increase the capacity of national agencies/experts in the area of WDF-compliant management and monitoring and ensure viability for project results and long-term delivery of the project.
Clearly, different project partner countries have different water resource problems, they have different political and legislative backgrounds, and they have started this project with different level of adherence to the WFD. Even so, the project has been successful in fostering fruitful cooperation between partner countries in tackling their shared and common problems. In a series of workshops on RBMPs development, partner countries developed their ability to learn from each another in order to follow up and focus on their national water resource and environmental priorities.
Public involvement and increased public awareness on water resources, water quality and sustainable development are another area where the project already shows marked success. Along with press conferences/releases, field activities as such have attracted much public attention, effectively involving entire families – in particular young people – in issues of pollution awareness and control. Public consultations are planned in the process of RBMPs development; these have been systematically publicised, and public participation has been encouraged.
The process of development of River Basin Management Plans in accordance with the WFD has started in January 2014. Through the development of RBMPs in the pilot areas, this project will assists EaP countries in the design and development of implementation programmes that lead to improved water quality. EPIRB intends for these WDF-compliant RBMPs to become property of project countries – essentially planning and implementation tools to help galvanise investment in water quality and the environment. Thus, EPIRB will craft such plans that can be most effective and helpful for each EaP country.
RBMPs in selected pilot basins can be seen as pieces of a much larger jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, reveals a clear regulatory framework for the Black Sea and Caspian Sea basins. Many other pieces are already in place: the EPIRB project builds on previous work that the EU has undertaken in the two sea basins, including the development and implementation of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) strategies through the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Thus, through these pilot basin RBMPs, the impact of the project EPIRB on water quality and sustainable development will extend well beyond the individual basins and the lives and activities of people there.