European flood action

European flood action
It’s caption is Some 20% of European cities are classified as being vulnerable to river floods. © John Fielding

Floods are among the most costly natural disasters in Europe. Here, Government Europa takes a look at some of the causes and consequences, and how the EU’s flood action plan aims to help.

The need for flood action to be taken by the commission was made clear by a number of reports which showed the dramatic economic impact that flooding has had on Europe over the last 20 years. Europe saw over 100 major damaging floods between 1998 and 2002. Between 1998 and 2004 floods caused some 700 fatalities, the displacement of about half a million people, and at least €25bn in insured economic losses, according to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) 2011 report ‘Mapping the impacts of recent natural disasters and technological accidents in Europe’.

This report also highlighted that flooding and storms were still the most costly hazards between 1998 and 2009, and that by 2009 the number of fatalities had reached 1,126 in 213 recorded flood events.

The overall losses recorded for this period totalled some €52bn for floods and €44bn for storms, the report stated, demonstrating the need for viable flood action on a European level.

Floods are thus among the most costly natural disasters in Europe, and the Executive Summary of the EEA’s 2017 document entitled Green Infrastructure and Flood Management –Promoting cost-efficient flood risk reduction via green infrastructure solutions reveals that some 20% of European cities are classified as being vulnerable to river floods, with increasing urbanisation and soil sealing, along with wetland conversion or degradation, contributing to increased run-off and flood risk.

The importance of knowledge

The importance of adequate knowledge of the costs of natural disasters as a result of climate change was recently emphasised by the Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) Lorenzo Alfieri and colleagues in a paper published in the journal Climate. This article, entitled ‘Multi-Model Projections of River Flood Risk in Europe under Global Warming’ argued that this knowledge is ‘key information for planning adaptation and mitigation strategies of future climate policies.’

The authors argued that while recent years have witnessed the development of new impact models for large scale flood risk assessment – and they attributed this development to the increased availability of high resolution climate projections and, moreover, to information on local exposure and vulnerability to river floods – a number of input data and techniques are still required for the composition of state-of-the-art flood impact models, and this, they argue, ‘can substantially influence their results’.

Their research went on to show that ‘global warming is linked to a substantial increase in flood risk over most countries in Central and Western Europe at all warming levels. In Eastern Europe, the average change in flood risk is smaller and the multi-model agreement is poorer.’

As is clear, then, flood risk in Europe is a multi-tiered concern: many areas are vulnerable to floods; knowledge on the costs of such events is under-developed; the creation of adequate models is difficult as they have to draw upon diverse data in order to be robust, and, finally, climate change is set to exacerbate the problem further.

How is the EU helping?

At the EU level, the EU Floods Directive, which entered into force on 26 November 2007 and which is carried out in co-ordination with the Water Framework Directive – notably by flood risk management plans and river basin management plans being co-ordinated, and through co-ordination of the public participation procedures in the preparation of these plans, the European Commission says – requires member states to assess whether water courses and coast lines are at risk from flooding.

EU member states must also map the flood extent and assets and humans at risk in these areas and to take adequate and co-ordinated measures to reduce this flood risk. The directive applies to inland waters as well as all coastal waters across the whole territory of the EU.

The EU Flood Action Programme

The Floods Directive was born from a 2004 EU communication (‘Flood risk management: prevention, protection, mitigation’) and subsequent stakeholder consultations which were designed to enable to Commission to establish its initial analysis and approach to flood events and the threat they pose to human life, health, infrastructure, public and private property and the environment.

This led to the initial stages of the EU Flood Action Programme (also known as the initiative on flood prevention, protection and mitigation), established, the European Commission says, as a ‘package’ of three distinct but closely interlinked components:

  • The proposal for a legal instrument (this was to become the Floods Directive);
  • Research and information: improvement of the exchange of information and knowledge, sharing experiences and increasing awareness; and
  • EU funding tools: a targeted approach to the best use of funding tools.

What role does human activity play?

The commission’s webpages dedicated to this area argue that while floods are ‘natural phenomena which cannot be prevented’, human activity is nevertheless contributing to an ‘increase in the likelihood and adverse impacts of extreme flood events, like clearing of forests in the upper catchment area, straightening of rivers and suppression of natural flood plains, inadequate drainage practices.’ Therefore, there are specific flood action efforts the commission can take to decrease risk.

Indeed, as the UK’s Royal Society explains, the Earth’s lower atmosphere is becoming warmer and moister as a result of human-emitted greenhouse gases, and ‘this gives the potential for more energy for storms and certain severe weather events. Consistent with theoretical expectations, heavy rainfall and snowfall events (which increase the risk of flooding) and heatwaves are generally becoming more frequent. Trends in extreme rainfall vary from region to region: the most pronounced changes are evident in North America and parts of Europe, especially in winter.’

New research by Günter Blöschl et al which has been published in the journal Science and which pooled data from more than 4,000 flood gauges from 38 European countries to look at how the date of the highest flood peak of the year had changed since 1960, found that the timing of the floods experienced in Europe is changing.

According to the scientists, this change is a result of changes in the climate, making this the first time a clear climate signal has been found in flooding on a Europe-wide scale.

However, the changes are not uniform, with some European regions experiencing floods earlier or later because of the interplay with other factors such as the types of soil in a region or the timing of snowmelt.

Thus, while the European Flood Action Programme has seen success with the implementation of the Floods Directive and the requirement of member states to assess their flooding risk and map the extent, perhaps there is now a need for more action, as climate change is altering not only the extent of the extreme weather events such as floods being seen in Europe, but also their timing, making it increasingly difficult to anticipate how and when Europe will be affected.

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