Exclusive Interview with João Pedro Matos Fernandes, Portuguese Minister for Environment and Climate Action


The Portuguese Presidency’s motto is ‘For a fair, green and digital recovery’. How are you going to achieve this? What are your main priorities and what is the role of water in realising them?

The Portuguese presidency will make all the effort to operationalize the multiannual financial framework (MFF) 2021-2027, to allow the implementation of the innovative set of tools that will make Europe’s recovery and resilience possible. The recovery must be sustainable and innovative. To this end, we will prioritize the European Green Deal implementation and the commitments to reduce carbon emissions in the fight against climate change, and strengthening the energy transition, sustainable mobility, and the blue (ocean) economy.

The Portuguese presidency will work to accelerate the technological transition and promote European leadership in the digital economy and in the area of data and connectivity based on ethical values.

To achieve the Water-Smart Society, a society in which the true value of water is recognised and realised, we need a cross-sectoral approach. How do you see the Portuguese Presidency contributing to this?

Water is a vital, scarce, strategic and structuring resource, so it is essential that its use is guided by principles of sustainability and efficiency. Water efficiency has the central purpose of optimizing the consumption of the water resource, ensuring that with the use of the smallest amount possible, it is possible to carry out the task or process, effectively produce the good or provide the service.

Water management activity should focus on ensuring quality and water availability, promoting sustained economic growth, making cities more resilient, promoting sustainable use of ecosystems and ensuring adaptation to climate change.

We are aware of the need for realism and moderation in the face of the impact of the pandemic by COVID‑19. But the expectations around Next Generation Europe and the next Framework Programme with the increased allocation of funds for the Green New Deal objectives are high.

We need to be effective in the use of these resources. We need to ensure effectiveness in physical accessibility, quality, continuity, resilience and security (e.g. adaptation to climate change, droughts, floods and other challenges) and affordability and equity of water services. We need to ensure the efficiency of these services: because they must ensure organisational efficiency of the sector with economies of scale, range and process, organisational, water, energy and in the use of financial resources of the services. We have to ensure sustainability: economically and financially, the infrastructural sustainability of the services and asset management, the safe use of the services’ natural resources, the adequacy and renewal of the services’ human capital and its skills, and the modernisation, innovation and digital transition of the services. And these objectives converge for the circular vision of the water sector, because it is also through them that we will be able to enhance the environment and the territory, ensuring adequate protection, efficient use of water, diversification of sources, energy transition and decarbonisation, enhance the economy, ensuring synergies and symbioses between different sectors (agriculture, industry, tourism), with business development in the internal and external market and systemic innovation of services and products, enhance society, not only through the professionals who operate in it and the perception of their value by society, but also through the responsibility of each entity, through transparency.

The Portuguese EU Presidency has placed Climate Change action at the centre of this semester´s discussions as the EGD policy and regulatory packages are well underway. The European climate law is already at trialogue-level negotiations, and the Commission presented in February the New EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate. Climate change adaptation will feature in several Presidency initiatives, such as a High-Level conference in February, and discussions at the EU Environmental Council, including the objective of adopting council conclusions at the June Environmental Council. In addition, the Informal meeting of Environmental ministers in April will be dedicated to adaptation, focusing on water challenges in the context of climate adaptation.

Following the most successful, German-led water and adaptation conference in late 2020 and the release of the New EU Adaptation Strategy, water management, and climate adaptation are increasingly seen as mutually interconnected and requiring renewed focus in EU – and national – policymaking. Indeed, water management clearly needs to improve in the EU through increased investment in water use efficiency, in treatment, reuse and/ or recirculation solutions, as well as in the restoration of ecosystems and natural habitats. Climate change impacts, including extreme weather events, will only exacerbate the need to improve water management, especially given the fact that water scarcity and even drought are projected to affect a growing number of member states in the future.

Across Europe, spatial and water management (and all its implications in other sectors, be it biodiversity, forestry, health, etc.) are central to climate adaptation. We also believe that adaptation fits very well with the concept of nature-based solutions.

Areas that deserve our attention are EU’s vulnerability to water scarcity and drought; water efficiency and management in sustainable buildings and water pricing and financing.

In the last twenty years, droughts have occurred with an increased frequency and duration in several parts of Europe and water scarcity is also increasing across the European continent, i.e. the long-term imbalance resulting from water demand exceeding available water resources is no longer uncommon and limited to the Southern Member States. Consequently, Member States that typically have less water severe conditions are now concerned with the declining water table levels in some of their groundwater resources. As it was seen in the recent Germany and trio EU presidencies conference, increasing pressure on water resources cannot only be addressed with incremental adaptation of water management. In many locations and sectors – such as agriculture – it will need a more systemic and transformational change in the way water is managed. Water planning requires a cooperation and involvement of key sectors, namely those that abstract, consume and discharge water (both surface and ground water). So, articulation between sectoral strategies, agriculture, energy, transport and the protection of water resources is determinant to have a sustainable water management and to respect the no-harm principle. The main challenge of decreasing water availability lies in enhancing resilience to climate change through the most accurate modeling, that will lead to the best forecast and preparedness and planning – which means the need for a more informed water planning and management on climate risks. The water framework directive (WFD) has as one of its purposes contributing to floods and droughts mitigation. Water scarcity and drought management plans are not even widespread despite their increased and manifest need in many countries and regions. Most frequent measures adopted in large parts of Europe are “reactive” or “preventive” measures. “Adaptive” measures are still largely absent, although they assist an ecosystem to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damages, to seize opportunities and/or to cope with the consequences. It is therefore important to develop a common implementation to face droughts and scarcity in the context of climate change, which in the future ensures resilience to climate change in the future and allows the achievement of the WFD objectives.

There are relevant issues to be addressed, namely to increase coherence and ambition across relevant EU policies, strategies, and initiatives that affect climate-resilient water management and offer opportunities for synergies, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs), the Urban Agenda for the EU,  the Forest Strategy and the initiatives announced in the European Green Deal, in particular, the new EU Adaptation Strategy, but also the Biodiversity Strategy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Renovation Wave Strategy and the Circular Economy Action Plan.

Europe spatial planning and water management and all its implications in biodiversity, forestry, health, economics sectors, among others are central to climate change adaptation.

In what concerns water efficiency and management in sustainable buildings, we need to address issues like sustainable approaches to help prevent global warming and climate change due to the significant building’s sector energy consumption, that leads to a high amount of greenhouse gases emissions; to encourage consumers and the construction business sector to adopt water efficiency solutions and measures, such as the use of alternative water sources (e.g. rainwater, greywater) and leak detection and communication; to promote the use of water-saving technologies and products, which represent technically effective, economically affordable and flexible options; to implement a qualification framework and certification scheme at the European level, for training and skills upgrading of construction and green professionals on water efficiency and water-energy nexus for building construction and retrofitting.

Regarding water pricing and financing, we must work to provide additional guidance and good-practice examples of innovative water allocation mechanisms, to support Member States in their efforts to change or develop rules for water allocation and to implement ecological flows; to establish pricing policies, in accordance with Article 9 of the WFD, to stimulate the efficient use of water; to establish a methodology to implement cost recovery – including the polluter pays principle – consistently across the EU for all water-use activities that have a significant impact on water bodies, including impoundments, abstractions, storage, treatment and distribution of surface waters, and collection, treatment and discharge of wastewater; to promote adaptive solutions with multiple benefits, especially nature-based solutions, through attractive funding opportunities, including grants, tailored loans and investments.

Which actions do you consider necessary for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive and how are you going to support the way towards this direction?

In December 2019, the Fitness Check of the Water Framework Directive, its associated Directives, and the Floods Directive, conducted by the European Commission, concluded that water legislation is overall fit for purpose, with some room for enhanced effectiveness, namely related to investments, implementation, integrating water into other policies, chemical pollution, administrative simplification and digitalisation.

The Directives have led to a higher level of protection for water bodies and flood risk management than could have been expected without them. The factors identified to contribute to the effectiveness of the Directive was:

  • List of priority substances;
  • Cross-references to the WFD’s objectives in other EU policies;
  • EU funding;
  • Non-deterioration principle; and
  • Directives’ monitoring requirements.

Despite the success of ongoing improvements to the protection of water bodies and flood risk management, we are far away from the goals defined. In 2015 only 43% of the European water bodies had achieved the good status. Good status depends on the implementation of mitigation measures to address current pressures; the implementation of restoration measures to address pressures from the past, such as hydro-morphological changes and chemical pollution; the full implementation of other EU legislation, such as the Nitrates Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive; the integration of water objectives in other policy areas with a heavy impact on water, such as agriculture, energy or transport.

This has not yet happened with the necessary speed and intensity. Difficulties in financing measures by different countries and, above all, assimilation by sector plans and strategies of the WFD objectives, are the main reasons for having a low percentage of water bodies with good status. We must increase the efforts using the instruments provide by the Green Deal, Circular Economy Action Plan, Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and A Farm to Fork Strategy, and the financial budget associated to the recovery and resilience mechanism.

With the crises of climate change and environmental degradation is now more relevant than ever before to implement the Water Framework Directive, its associated Directives, and Floods Directive. Also, a common implementation to face scarcity and droughts in the context of climate change, which in the future ensures climate resilience and allows the achievement of the WFD objectives, is needed.

The next planning cycle the programmes of measures will have an important role to make a progress towards achieving the environmental objectives by the 2027 for a greater percentage of water bodies. Currently more than half of all European water bodies are under exemptions, the challenges for Member States are more than substantial, and we must have a strategy in order to promote the good status. After 2027, the possibilities for exemptions are reduced, as time extensions under Article 4(4) can only be authorised in cases where all the measures have been put in place but the natural conditions are such that the objectives cannot be achieved by 2027. We will continue to work with the Commission in order to improve implementation of the Directives at the lowest possible cost, e.g. by sharing best practices on cost recovery, reduction of pollutants at source, green infrastructure and others, and also to prepare the future water planning cycles always with the prospect of always improving, by demonstrating that the best available techniques are implemented to improve the state of the water bodies. To this end, it is also essential that sector incentives and plans are based on this concern and objective.

The Portuguese Presidency will contribute to increasing EU-wide implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Floods Directive (FD), and to improve synergies with the marine strategy, the common agricultural policy and other sectoral policies. We will promote an integrated and cross-sectoral approach to cross-border water management, resilient to climate change effects, promoting sustainable water use and improving flood risk management strategies, such as timely and reliable exchange of data and warnings.

The European Green Deal is a major goal for the European Union. What do you consider as the strongest tools of the European Union in its effort to reach this goal?

The European Green Deal goals are transforming the EU’s Economy for a sustainable future. All the work that has been done on the implementation of community directives is the basis for achieving the objectives defined in the Green Deal.

As we’ve seen in the recent Germany and trio EU presidencies conference, increasing pressure on water resources cannot only be addressed with incremental adaptation of water management. In many locations on many themes – such as agriculture – we’ll need more systemic, disruptive and transformational change in the way water is managed.

In our view, it is important to increase coherence and ambition across relevant EU policies, strategies, and initiatives that affect climate-resilient water management and offer opportunities for synergies, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs), the Urban Agenda for the EU, the Forest Strategy or initiatives announced in the European Green Deal, such as e.g. the Biodiversity Strategy and the Circular Economy Action Plan. And to promote appropriate adaptation financing, effective climate services and increased cross-border and international cooperation.

The Portuguese Presidency congratulates the Commission for the efforts put in the development of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, given its recognized high priority in the current context, as a part of the EU’s zero pollution ambition, which is a key commitment of the European Green Deal, and globally welcomes the Commission’s proposals aiming at better protect the citizens and the environment while providing impetus innovation for safe and sustainable chemicals and boosting competitiveness.

We believe that an efficient and challenging implementation of this Strategy will certainly contribute to a toxic-free Environment and intends to make every effort to also contribute to its success.

In this context, we acknowledge the essential role to be played by the Commission in the accomplishment of the objectives and in the promotion of the identified actions as presented in the Strategy, as well as the important contribution of every involved parties, the Member-states and the Industry in the scope of the transition process.

The Portuguese Presidency took over this file as a priority and is fully engaged on the preparation of balanced and concise Council Conclusions to be adopted in March’s Council. These are aimed at expressing the political support and commitments to this ambitious Strategy, and at providing political guidance towards its implementation, as now it’s “Time to deliver: a fair, green and digital recovery”.


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