Flood risks and environmental vulnerability — Exploring the synergies between floodplain restoration, water policies and thematic policies

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Nowadays floodplain areas are reduced in size or no longer function as active floodplains, thereby impacting on the delivery of environmental services to local and regional communities and economies. These services include regulating services such as protection against floods or water purification; provisioning services, such as nutrient collection and fertile soil formation; and cultural services, such as recreational, tourism and educational services; transport routes; and finally a secure water supply.

Many of Europe's natural floodplains are under pressure: besides land use changes, there are limitations in exactly how water is flowing and where to, reduced storage capacity, water quality and pollution issues, as well as a reduction in the natural support to lower flood waves. What remains of floodplains can be viewed as important for nature conservation and will play a part in the aim to restore at least 15 % of degraded ecosystems and their services by 2020 under the targets of the EU Biodiversity Strategy.

Since 2012, a new source of information became available for the European Environment Agency (EEA) following the assessment and mapping of floods in Europe for the 'Directive on the assessment and management of flood risks', better known as the 'Floods Directive'. The EEA's 'Flood risks and environmental vulnerability' report provides an overview of floods since 1980 and the related social, economic and environmental impacts. This report improves the knowledge base on the subject as a European flood impact database had not existed prior to the publication of the EEA report. The report combines the information from the Floods Directive, mainly from the preliminary flood risk assessments, with information from global databases, as well as an analysis of a questionnaire completed by national authorities. The result is a more complete overview of significant floods events and impacts.

The need for data on the impact of flooding
An essential element of the Floods Directive is the combined reporting on environmental, economic and social issues. While many detailed local and national inventories of previous floods and their impacts are available, quantitative information on flood impacts is scarce and hardly comparable on a European scale. Environmental impacts are underrepresented in global databases on floods or natural hazards.

Meanwhile, significant differences remain in the way countries report on previous flood events. The next reporting cycle for the Floods Directive (2016–2021) could benefit from additional guidance in order to obtain more homogeneous information on the impacts of past flood events across Europe. Through the Floods Directive it is expected that for future flood events more information on the environmental impacts (both negative and positive) will become available. Data sources, such as the applications for major floods in the European Solidarity Fund, can further improve the database on past floods in Europe.

Significant data gaps remain on the European scale, such as on floodplain delineation, land use in floodplains, or the economic benefits from ecosystem services. However, the knowledge currently available allows progress to continue on the implementation of sustainable flood risk management practices, including building synergies with other relevant environmental legislation such as the Water Framework Directive and the Birds and Habitats directives.

Floodplain management and restoration
Floodplain management and restoration does not only focus on reducing flood risk but also on promoting environmental, societal and economic benefits. Sustainable flood risk management combines elements to:

  • reduce the exposure to flooding;
  • lessen the vulnerability of people and property;
  • execute a sensible management of land and the environment;
  • improve preparedness and early warning for adverse events.

Dikes, dams and other human-engineered solutions are examples of infrastructures that continue to prevent and protect many former floodplains from flooding. Meanwhile, green infrastructure, a network of natural and semi-natural areas designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystems services, also assists flood protection. Floodplain restoration is an important measure which gives more room to rivers, develops ecological beneficial hydrological regimes and enhances floodplain and wetland habitats.

There are many examples where 'hard' infrastructure can be adapted to make better use of the natural habitat and of the landscape ecology. Even when human developments that need to be protected against flooding make it (almost) impossible to go back to a complete natural state, natural water retention measures (NWRMs) can contribute to reduced flood risk, less soil erosion or water purification and nutrient recycling. To manage floodplains and to assist in the restoration of wetlands and alluvial areas by promoting NWRMs, synergies between different policy fields have to be explored.

Synergies in water, nature and sectoral policies
In 2012 the European Commission published 'A Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources' (the Water Blueprint) to tackle the obstacles which hamper action to improve the status of EU waters. Synergies between managing flood risk, reaching or maintaining a good ecological status, and safeguarding the nature or ecosystem services in floodplains can be very complex. Some form of prioritisation needs to take place at least on the level of river basin management planning. Interactions along rivers need to be taken into account, as well as targets such as the 15 % restoration of degraded ecosystems by 2020 from the Biodiversity Strategy.

To recognise the synergies between water and nature policies, the aims and working methods of the Floods Directive should also be taken into account when developing actions for the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Birds and Habitats directives. Although the WFD does contribute to mitigating the effects of floods; managing and reducing flood risk is not one of its principal objectives. The restoration of healthy ecosystems, e.g. through the Natura 2000 networks, is often a very effective way of preventing and mitigating floods. 'Green' flood prevention measures, through the restoration of floodplains, are also beneficial. Currently, synergies between water and nature policies are underexploited as well as the links to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Early cooperation, negotiation and flexibility can avoid any crossover work between the various programmes emanating from the different directives.

The EEA's 'Flood risks and environmental vulnerability' report, together with the recent EEA report on 'Water‑retention potential of Europe's forests', are among the publications the EEA will make on synergies between policies. Reports are also planned to come out in the 2017–2018 period on the synergies between floods, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction; and on the synergies between the WFD and environmental policies, including floods.

Climate change and land use planning
Over time, climate change and adaptation have become more prominent in water and nature policies. In the Water Blueprint, climate change, together with land use and economic activities, are depicted as having a negative impact on Europe's water status. Climate change adaptation and building resilience to disasters are key activities for sustainable water management. River basin and flood risk management, as well as reporting obligations from the Birds and Habitats directives, are updated once every six years. New knowledge on climate change and adaptation can therefore be built into these plans.

Extreme floods (and droughts) are likely to be the biggest challenge for adaptation and likely to be the cost drivers for adapting the infrastructure. While strategies for flood risk management require locally adapted measures, including sustainable land management and spatial planning, using a river basin management approach — congruent with ecosystembased management principles — avoids passing on negative consequences further downstream.

Financing and governance
Measures that work with natural processes, such as the maintenance or restoration of floodplains, have a multitude of benefits. An ecosystem services approach is important which would highlight any benefits and makes the cost effectiveness of these measures more explicit.

Most of the nature-based solutions for flood risk management are related to the prevention of and protection against flooding. In addition, the Floods Directive also focusses on preparedness measures such as flood forecasting and warning. While many of them are financed from national funds, the EU LIFE programme is an important financial instrument to support environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects, such as NWRMs. Other sources to prevent flood damage based on natural processes are the EU's rural development programmes or the Cohesion Funds.

Financial instruments also need to be in place for response during and recovery after a flood event, such as insurance mechanisms or the EU Solidarity Fund. Unfortunately due to the need to make decisions quickly little attention is paid to ecosystem services during periods of response and recovery.

The better the coordination across the various levels of planning and management, the more attention can go to reduce vulnerability and integrated measures which will be sustainable over the long term. Combining efforts on the WFD and the Floods Directive may prove to be beneficial. However, these processes can only be driven at the European level and yet need to be implemented at the river basin level.

Successes in nature, water and marine policies invariably depend on progress across various sectors. A coordinated implementation of the WFD, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Birds and Habitats Directives, the Biodiversity 2020 strategy and the Floods Directive would help achieve a higher quality environment by using integrated solutions and, through coherent measures and actions, enhance the effectiveness of the policies. As the objectives of water and nature legislation do not contradict themselves no obvious obstacles should exist for efficient collaboration, as shown by many examples across Europe, some of which are presented in this report.

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