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Journal Articles Journal of Environmental Management Year : 2022

Water governance diversity across Europe: Does legacy generate sticking points in implementing multi-level governance?

Jenny Rowbottom
Morten Graversgaard
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  • PersonId : 1147896
Isobel Wright


The Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims to protect and improve water quality across Europe through an integrative and multi-level water governance approach. The goal is to ensure that water quality in Europe meets good ecological status by 2027. Whilst the WFD has been hailed as a cornerstone for governance innovation in water management, most EU member states (MS) still struggle to achieve good ecological status of their waters. The realignment to a multi-level governance structure under the WFD is discretionary, and has generated diversity in WFD multi-level governance implementation approaches and final governance arrangements across MS. This diversity may contribute to low goal achievement and weak compliance. This paper investigates how visual impressions of legislative structure across nine MS can illustrate and contribute to understanding the differences in multi-level implementation of WFD and associated water protection directives. We explore, in-depth, the drivers of visual differences in Portugal, Germany (Lower Saxony) and France. We hypothesise that many of the challenges of WFD implementation, and resulting governance arrangements can be explained in terms of the legacy effects of previous water governance choices. With this conceptual framework of investigating the history and legacy, we found the three in depth studies have had different starting points, paths, and end points in their water governance, with sticking points influencing the decision-making processes and compliance required by the WFD. Sticking points include the complexity of existing water governance structures, lobbying by different sectors, and the mandatory WFD timeline for implementation. Portugal had to resolve its focus on water infrastructure and engineering to enable a re-focus on water quality. France and Portugal experienced ‘top down’ governance at different points in time, slowing the shift to a multi-level governance system. Lower Saxony, representing just one of 16 federal state systems in Germany, highlighted the complex historic governance structures which cannot easily be restructured, generating a layering effect where new governance systems are fitted to old governance systems. We conclude that there is a need to implement a hybrid approach to water governance and WFD implementation including decentralisation (discretionary) to ensure collaboration and engagement of stakeholders at the local level. This hybrid governance system should run in parallel with a centralised (mandatory) governance and regulatory system to enable national environmental standards to be set and enforced. Such systems may provide the best of both worlds (bottom-up involvement of stakeholders meeting top-down goal achievements) and is worthy of further research.
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Dates and versions

hal-03717169 , version 1 (08-07-2022)



Jenny Rowbottom, Morten Graversgaard, Isobel Wright, Karl Dudman, Susanne Klages, et al.. Water governance diversity across Europe: Does legacy generate sticking points in implementing multi-level governance?. Journal of Environmental Management, 2022, 319, pp.115598. ⟨10.1016/j.jenvman.2022.115598⟩. ⟨hal-03717169⟩


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