European Floods Legislation Attempts to Manage Risks

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 28, 2007 (ENS) - A law to manage flood risks across Europe is one step closer to being passed after an agreement was reached this week between the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. Climate change is expected to lead to more intense rainfall and to a rise in sea levels. As a consequence, floods risks are likely to increase across Europe.

The European Parliament Wednesday adopted a set of compromise amendments that were agreed with the Council of Ministers on the assessment and management of flood risks.

The harmonized approach to flood risk management was negotiated under the German EU Presidency, which is in place from January 1 to June 30, 2007.

Environmental groups criticized the European Parliament for failing to implement the sustainable management of floods, saying the compromise stopped short of promoting an approach that works with natural defenses like wetlands, floodplains and riverbank woodlands.
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In August 2002 a 100-year flood inundated Dresden, Germany. A week of continuous heavy rains flooded low-lying areas, towns and cities in eight countries. (Photo by Stefan Malsch)
Since 1998, floods in Europe have caused some 700 deaths, the displacement of about half a million people and at least 25 billion in insured economic losses.

The European Commission reacted to the severe floods of 2002 by calling in 2004 for EU legislation on flood risk management.

To prevent and limit floods and their damaging effects on human health, the environment, infrastructure and property, the law, known as a directive, was proposed in 2006 by the Commission.

Although floods are a natural phenomenon, and cannot be entirely prevented, a coherent, long-term strategy for flood risk management can reverse the trend towards increased damage from floods, said the Commission, the executive branch of the EU government.

The new law will require the 27 EU member states to identify the river basins and associated coastal areas that are subject to flood risk. They must draw up flood risk maps and management plans for those zones.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel welcomed the agreement. "This decision avoids a conciliation procedure and establishes the conditions needed for the EU regulations to enter into force before the end of this year," he said.

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German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel (Photo courtesy Government of Germany)
"Flood control is a joint and urgent problem for all the member states and close cooperation is vital, especially on account of the many transboundary rivers," said Gabriel, who now holds the chairmanship of the EU Environment Council.

The directive adopted by the EU Parliament on flood risk management requires that national governments take three steps - a preliminary evaluation of flood risks and the identification of risk areas by the end of 2011, the mapping of hazards and risks in these areas by the end of 2013 and, based on this, the elaboration of plans of measures for reducing flood risks by the end of 2015.

For all three stages, the law provides for intensive transboundary consultation and coordination, and requires that the public be involved and informed.

In specifying targets and measures, the law allows member states flexibility in order to take into account the different conditions and local needs in the various river basins.

Gabriel said the law will not jeopardize programs of action developed in Germany in recent years following the disastrous flooding along the Rhine, Oder, Elbe and Danube rivers. Maps and management plans already in existence will be recognized if they comply with the provisions of the new law.

The European Environmental Bureau, representing 143 member organizations in 31 countries; Friends of the Earth Europe; and the global conservation group WWF said the new law is wrong for still condoning the use of manufactured concrete structures to constrain flooding.

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River Wear in flood in County Durham, northeast England. August 2004. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
Christian Schweer from Friends of the Earth Europe said, "As climate change increases the risk of floods, and water and land keep being used with insufficient consideration for natural ecosystems, it is likely that severe floods will hit Europe more frequently. Sustainable use of the whole river basin - particularly preserving and restoring floodplains - is the only efficient way to manage flood risks, while building concrete barriers to constrain rivers is short-sighted and expensive."

According to the environmental NGOs, the compromise will lead to difficulties in combining the provisions included in the Floods Directive and the Water Framework Directive - the cornerstone of EU water policy.

Pieter de Pous from the European Environmental Bureau said, "Now the EU will end up with two parallel and possibly conflicting planning and reporting processes for the Floods Directive and the Water Framework Directive, increasing bureaucracy and waste administrative and public resources."

But European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the directive makes flood management a key part of river basin management. "It will place more emphasis on non-structural measures like using natural flood plains as retention areas for water during floods," he said.

"Flood risk and the associated economic damage are likely to increase in Europe in the coming decades," Dimas said. "Even if we are successful in limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, climate change will have serious impacts in Europe and elsewhere. The best way to reduce the costs of adapting to climate change is to take early action. The Flood Directive will help the European Union to do so."