Last Update: 25 May 2016
Water resources are directly impacted by climate change, and the management of these resources affects the vulnerability of ecosystems, socio-economic activities and human health. Water management is also expected to play an increasingly central role in adaptation. Climate change is projected to lead to major changes in water availability across Europe with increasing water scarcity and droughts mainly in Southern Europe and increasing risk of floods throughout most of Europe.
A key objective of the EU adaptation strategy is to mainstream climate change in European policies. The Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources reinforces key EU water management policies, in particular the Water Framework Directive, the Floods Directive and the Water Scarcity & Droughts (WS&D) policy.
Successful adaptation to the impacts of climate change on water depends both on effective national and European water legislation, and on mainstreaming adaptation into related policies.
The main EU policy instrument in which climate adaptation is mainstreamed is the Water Framework Directive (WFD), aiming at long-term sustainable water management based on a high level of protection of the aquatic environment. It is due to be implemented with a 6-yearly review cycle, which will assist adaptation over time. The general objective is to achieve good ecological and chemical status in all surface water bodies and good quantitative and chemical status in groundwater bodies by 2015. In addition, climate change must also be integrated in the implementation of the Floods Directive.
The first WFD River Basin Management Plans for 2009-2015 were submitted in 2009/2010. The river basin management plans, particularly the second in 2015, should take into account the impacts of climate change, using guidance published in 2009. The Floods Directive requires Member States to first carry out a preliminary assessment by 2011 to identify the river basins and associated coastal areas at risk of flooding. For such zones they will have needed to draw up flood risk maps by 2013 and establish flood risk management plans focused on prevention, protection and preparedness by the end of 2015.
The main overall objective of EU water policy is to ensure access to good quality water in sufficient quantity for all Europeans, and to ensure the good status of all water bodies across Europe. Therefore, policies and actions are being set up in order to prevent and mitigate water scarcity and drought situations, with the priority to move towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy. The July 2007 Communication on addressing the challenge of water scarcity and drought in the EU sets out a number of policy options for addressing water scarcity, including the important roles played by water pricing and land-use planning in incentivising efficient water use. As a follow-up on the Communication, three annual follow-up reports were presented. The Commission also developed a Report on the Review of the European Water Scarcity and Droughts Policy, and financed several tailored studies, for instance on leakages and distribution networks efficiency or on specific measures in river basin management plans. A European Drought Observatory acts as early-warning system to increase drought preparedness and to foster the integration of drought management in RBMP's. Furthermore, the building of water balances at EU level has paved the way for a more precise quantification of pressures on water resources and of sectoral/geographical variations. In this context, a specific guidance document on the application of water balances has been adopted.
The Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources is a communication adopted in November 2012 that outlines actions on better implementation of current water legislation, integration of water policy objectives into other policies, and filling the gaps in particular as regards water quantity and efficiency. The objective is to ensure that a sufficient quantity of good quality water is available for people's needs, the economy and the environment throughout the EU. It addresses the evolution of water resources, including water's vulnerability to climate change and anthropogenic pressures (i.e. land use management). It focuses on different water resource management aspects that are related to adaptation (land use management, indicative water efficiency targets, economic instruments, innovation, governance and knowledge base).
The Communication also indicates how climate change or other man-made pressures such as agriculture in water resources can be prevented or mitigated. Natural water retention measures (NWRM) are measures that aim to safeguard and enhance the water storage potential of landscape, soil, and aquifers, by restoring ecosystems, natural features and characteristics of water courses using natural processes. They can therefore reduce and prevent floods, while at the same time contributing to water quality and biodiversity enhancement. They are adaptation measures that support Green Infrastructure. As a follow-up f of the Blueprint, the Member State authorities and the Commission adopted a Policy document supporting the uptake of NWRM.
Additionally, the Communication highlighted water reuse as a concrete and valid alternative supply option that could alleviate water scarcity issues and over-exploited water resources . With maximisation of water reuse as a specific objective, the Commission identified the opportunity to develop a legislative instrument for water reuse. With the new circular economy package presented in December 2015, the European Commission committed to develop a number of actions to promote further uptake of water reuse at EU level. These actions will focus on overcoming the main barriers to the untapped potential for water reuse wherever it is cost-efficient and safe for health and the environment as identified in the policy context.
The time horizon of the Blueprint is closely related to the EU's 2020 Strategy and, in particular, to the 2011 Resource Efficiency Roadmap, of which the Blueprint is the water milestone. However, the analysis underpinning the Blueprint covers a longer time span, up to 2050, and is expected to drive EU water policy over the long term. The Blueprint mentions that efforts must be enhanced to deal with water pollution, water abstraction for agriculture and energy production, land use and the impacts of climate change. More information on further activities can be found on DG Environment's page on adaptation to global change.
Improving the knowledge base
Climate change aggravates existing pressures on water resources from, inter alia, pollution, overuse and population increase. Although the share of losses attributable to climate change is difficult to determine accurately, it is likely to increase in the future, since the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are projected to grow.
To adapt water resources to climate change, Europe and the member states are collaborating to improve the knowledge base. Many of the information sources are combined in WISE, the Water Information System for Europe.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) identified the main water adaptation issues in Europe in a 2007 report. Furthermore, the EEA has combined relevant information on climate change impacts in Europe in the Climate Change Impacts and Vulnerability report 2012 as well as the "Water Resources in Europe in the context of Vulnerability" report 2012, supporting the Blueprint.
Environmental indicators, regularly updated by the EEA on its web site, provide information relevant for the understanding of climate change impacts on water in Europe, e. g. covering the changes in river flows, water availability for irrigation across Europe, Cumulative net mass balance of European glaciers.
The Joint Research Center (JRC) has analysed the impact of climate change on water resources concluding that annual river flow is projected to decrease in southern and south-eastern Europe and to increase in northern and north-eastern Europe. In addition, strong variability of water resources is to be expected. The JRC presents in its Flood portal the impacts of climate change on floods in Europe concluding that the magnitude and frequency of floods will increase in Europe's major rivers. A Decrease of flood hazard is expected in areas with seasonal snow cover. The JRC furthermore analysed the impact of climate change on streamflow droughts and concludes that droughts will occur in many regions of Europe, in particular southern parts of Europe. Furthermore, the JRC has developed the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) which provides a probabilistic flood alert information more than 48 hours in advance. This portal is used by emergency managers across Europe.
In order to improve the knowledge on NWRM and support the implementation of NWRMs in the integrated management of water resources in Europe, the Environment Directorate General (DG ENV) of the EC launched a specific Pilot Project dedicated to these measures. The project had two complementary operational objectives: (i) to develop a sound and comprehensive knowledge base on NWRM, and (ii) to contribute to the development of the European NWRM "community of practice". More information can be found on the Natural Water Retention Measures platform.
With help of the EU-funded programmes FP7, H2020, Life and LIFE+ and the INTERREG Europe Programme, many Member States are improving the knowledge base on water-related adaptation strategies, policies and measures.
AMICE, Danube Flood Risk and LABEL are a few of the INTERREG-funded projects on river adaptation strategies related to floods. SILMAS is a project that considers the adaptation of water management of Alpine lakes. The CC-WaterS-project and the Refresh-project address adaptation of fresh water resources to secure drinking water and economic growth. Adapt2Change is one of the recent projects on adapting agricultural production to limited water supply.
The GRaBS project also aimed to improve the knowledge base for policymaking on Green Blue Space Adaptation in Urban Areas and Towns. The transferable strategic planning methodology helps local communities to adapt to climate change. The Climsave project is developing methods and a common assessment platform to support adaptation in many sectors, including the water sector. Furthermore, there are also some knowledge projects that concern improving policy and better governance. For instance, the project Climate Water has increased knowledge on how connecting climate change adaptation strategies and European water policies. The Starflood project is developing design principles for appropriate and resilient Flood Risk Governance. The Coastal Communities 2150 project has developed stakeholder engagement strategies to activate local actors to adapt to climate change. Further information on past and on-going projects is to be found on the WISE portal.
Supporting investment and funding
EU funding of adaptation covering the water sector is available through the LIFE Climate Action Sub-programme, which co-finances actions to support the development or implementation of adaptation strategies, encouraging projects with a high innovation, demonstration, and transferability potential. The LIFE financial instrument, the Natural Capital Financing Facility is a pilot facility with the aim of transforming the water resource management option into a business case.
Funding is available through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), which is one of the five European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF).
Furthermore, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), also part of the ESIF funds, and LIFE funding are available to fund water resources management practices.