Reflections on the water surface. Photo: Bård Bredesen,

Towards a good aquatic environment

Norway is joining forces with the rest of Europe to protect the aquatic environment and ensure sustainable use of water resources. The Water Management Regulations are closely based on the EU Water Framework Directive, one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in Europe. They introduce clear environmental objectives for all water – rivers, lakes, coastal waters and groundwater. Management plans for each river basin district are the most important tool for achieving these objectives by the specified deadlines.

Norway has incorporated the Water Framework Directive into Norwegian law as part of the Agreement on the European Economic Area. Like the directive, Norway’s Water Management Regulations are intended to ensure integrated management of water resources and a good aquatic environment.

The underlying causes of poor environmental conditions are to be identified, and if necessary, action will be taken to remedy the situation. This will also require a better understanding of how much pressure people can put on the environment before there are negative impacts on fish, molluscs, kelp forests or other ecosystem components.

Coordinating water resource management

Both the directive and Norway’s regulations require cooperation between everyone who uses water resources, or whose activities have impacts on the aquatic environment. This includes authorities at all levels, companies, organisations, educational institutions, researchers and the business sector.

Knowledge-based management and cooperation between sectors will make it easier to find measures that are cost-effective and provide economic benefits, and to target them more precisely. The result will be improvements in the state of the aquatic environment.

Integrated, ecosystem-based management from mountain top to fjord

The purpose of the new management system is to protect and if necessary improve environmental status in all rivers, lakes, groundwater bodies and coastal waters. Pollution is to be reduced and targeted steps will be taken as necessary to improve environmental status.

The main principles of this integrated management system can be summarised as follows:

  • All water resources will be managed with a view to conservation and sustainable use of water and aquatic ecosystems.
  • There will be an integrated system from mountain top to fjord, and the natural boundaries of river basins and associated coastal waters must be used as the boundaries of management areas.
  • Management of water flow and level, water quality and aquatic ecology will be coordinated.
  • The cumulative effects of all sectors that use water and affect the aquatic environment will be considered.
  • Arrangements will be made to ensure that all interested parties and the general public can participate.


Cooperation essential

Water resources are under great pressure in many countries in Europe. Health and welfare problems have arisen as a result of inadequate management of the water resources that are fundamental to our well-being. A shared framework for water resource management is essential if real improvements are to be made.

Europe has many transboundary river basins that need to be managed jointly, and environmental problems do not respect national borders. Examples of environmental problems in Norway that have been caused mainly by activities outside Norway are the spread of the red king crab (Paralithodes camtschatica), which is invading Norwegian waters from Russia, and pollutants of various kinds that are carried to Norway in ocean currents.

Organisation of water resource management in Norway

The new management regime is based on the natural boundaries of river basins. Norway has been divided into 11 river basin districts, which vary considerably in size and in the types and scale of environmental problems that need to be dealt with. In addition, Norway shares five river basin districts with Sweden and Finland.

In each river basin district, one county council has been appointed as the “competent authority” responsible for coordinating activities. The work is shared with a river basin committee for each district, consisting of representatives from relevant sectors, the county governors’ offices and the county and municipal authorities. The county councils are responsible for drawing up management plans and programmes of measures for their river basin district. A regional reference group consisting of representatives of rights-holders and private and public user interests in each river basin district follows developments and provides advice and input to the river basin committee.

Each river basin district has been divided into suitable sub-districts, and the same county councils are also responsible for coordinating planning in the sub-districts.

The Ministry of Climate and Environment has overall national responsibility for coordinating water resource management, in close cooperation with several other ministries. All sectors must take their share of the environmental responsibilities in order to meet the objectives of Norway’s regulations and the EU directive. The responsibility for action to improve the status of water bodies and for monitoring their effects is therefore being assigned according to the user-pays principle. The Norwegian Environment Agency heads and coordinates a steering group of representatives of the directorates responsible for implementing the new management regime.


Integrating all management activities

Norway already has many years’ experience of coordinating planning processes – for example water resource planning, coastal zone planning and multi-use plans for water bodies. The Master Plan for Water Resources and the Protection Plan for Water Resources are examples of the results. Despite this, and despite Norway’s tradition of making information easily accessible and encouraging public participation, water resource management was still too fragmented. This often led to an unnecessarily high level of conflict. 

The new management regime introduces requirements for better coordination and more targeted action. The establishment of river basin committees is formalising a management regime with new forums where river systems, groundwater and coastal waters will be discussed together.

All the parties involved are now working on the same processes: identifying water management issues, defining specific environmental objectives, and planning and carrying out programmes of measures. This requires more knowledge and better coordination, and will make for clearer and more predictable rules. Conflict may not be eliminated, but all legitimate interests will be heard.

Planning processes

To draw up sound management plans, knowledge of the current situation is needed. An overview is therefore made of the pressures affecting each water body and the environmental problems that need to be dealt with. The information is used to assess how far conditions deviate from what would be expected in an undisturbed water body, and of what steps are needed to improve each water body’s status.

Three 12-year management cycles are planned for achieving the environmental objectives of the directive and regulations. Each of them consists of a six-year planning phase and a six-year implementation phase.

The system uses river basin management plans specifying environmental objectives for the water bodies in the area, and setting out a programme of measures designed to achieve these objectives as cost effectively as possible. Norway is drawing up management plans for each river basin sub-district. The first management plans, for 29 pilot sub-districts, were published in 2009. This was done to gain experience of implementation and to synchronise this phase of the work with the EU. Management plans for the whole country are being drawn up in the period 2010–15. The implementation phase for the first management cycle, including carrying out the programmes of measures, will last from 2016 to 2021.

The overall aim is for water bodies to achieve good ecological and chemical status. Surveys, monitoring and assessment provide information on current status and on which water bodies are at risk of not achieving the environmental objectives by the deadlines. Continued monitoring will provide information on which measures are having the intended effect and on the progress Norway is making towards its goals. Public participation in the whole process is being encouraged, among other things by publishing information on the website

Closing knowledge gaps

Norway’s regulations and the EU directive are tools for sustainable water resource management. Norway has abundant water resources, and on the whole their environmental status is satisfactory. The environmental authorities are now putting the new system into practice in order to improve conditions where necessary. 

It will often be necessary to use a combination of measures to achieve the environmental objectives. A common feature of many environmental problems is that causal relationships are poorly understood and the knowledge base is inadequate. This means that gaps in our knowledge need to be closed so that it is possible to identify the most cost-effective ways of improving the environmental status of water bodies.

Encouraging public participation

The success of this process will depend on the broadest possible participation by all actors and the political will to see the process through. If the objectives are to be achieved, sufficient resources must be provided for regional water resource management, monitoring and research and development activities.

A healthy environment gives a competitive edge

A number of sectors are dependent on well-functioning ecosystems and a common European system for identifying and categorising environmental status. Many of Norway’s water bodies show little deviation from natural conditions, and this can give the Norwegian business sector a competitive edge.

The Norwegian Environment Agency and other authorities intend to work closely with all those who use or put pressure on water resources in Norway. Together, we will take targeted action to safeguard and improve the aquatic environment as sustainably as possible. This will be to our own benefit and also that of the environment and future generations.