The Floods Directive: adapting to the future risk of flooding

European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment, discusses how flood risk management helps us understand the future risk of flooding and how to adapt to it.

Floods endanger lives as well as cause heavy economic losses. They may also have severe environmental consequences. Although floods for the most part occur naturally, through the right measures we can reduce the risk of flooding and limit their impacts. Co-operative and co-ordinated action at the level of the European Union brings added value and improves the overall level of flood management.

The Floods Directive (FD) has successfully established a pan-European framework for the management of flood risks that focuses on prevention, protection and preparedness. Member States are moving in the same direction and at comparable pace, however from different starting points/experience. By introducing flood risk management in all countries, Member States have to think about floods in a holistic and cyclical way through risk identification and assessment, risk of flooding and risk maps and finally flood risk management plans. Furthermore, the Directive is resulting in increased consideration of spatial planning, cross border issues and climate change as well as reinforcing environmental objectives of other Directives, such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Finally, the Member States have the opportunity to learn from each other.

Floods are natural phenomena which cannot entirely be prevented. However, human activity is contributing to an increase in the likelihood and adverse impacts of extreme flood events. One of the main pressures is changes in land use, especially changes close to the water bodies and coasts, such as damaging forests in the upper catchment area, straightening of rivers, suppression of natural flood plains and inappropriate drainage. Furthermore, the magnitude and frequency of floods are likely to increase in the future as a result of climate change (higher intensity of rainfall as well as rising sea levels). On top of urbanisation, population and wealth growth contributes to an increase in the number of people and economic assets located in flood risk zones and therefore of the risk. As a result, the risk of floods will continue to be present in the European Union and may increase during the coming decades. The challenge is to anticipate these changes and to protect society and the environment from the risk of flooding.

Reducing flooding in Europe

Science, like in almost any area, plays a fundamental role in reducing flooding. Science related to flood management helps us to understand better what the future brings (climate change) and how to best adapt (what are the most cost effective adaptation measures). It also helps us in better predicting the risk of flooding (forecasting) and helps us in planning prevention measures (flood hazard and risk maps). The EU has been funding numerous research projects related to a large number of different aspects of flood risk management over the past years and continues to invest in further bringing the latest research in flood risk management into practice. A very good example of this is the Copernicus Emergency Management Service that translates the latest scientific developments in research into operational tools such as the European Flood Awareness System or the rapid mapping of floods.

Moreover, the WFD and FD, both aim at the protection of the environment and human health within the same spatial frame, the river catchment. While the WFD aims to protect water bodies as well as to restore them to a condition as close as possible to natural, the FD has established a pan-European framework for the management of flood risks. Flooding directly relates to several aspects also relevant to water status and is a key challenge for water quantity management. The two are often impacted by the same anthropogenic pressures (e.g. land use, climate change). When the WFD was introduced in 2000, one of its objectives was to mitigate the negative effects of floods, at the same time extreme floods can be a justification for (temporary) deterioration in water quality.

The FD, which was adopted seven years later, took a synergistic approach to the WFD by promoting the objectives of the latter inter alia via nature based solutions. These reduce flood risks and simultaneously can benefit water quality, biodiversity and water flow. Both Directives should work hand-in-hand trough integrated river basin management where climate and land-use change, water quality, flooding and economic and social impacts are intimately connected and are jointly taken into consideration.

European Commission
Directorate-General for the Environment

Please note, this article will also appear in the second edition of our new quarterly publication.

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