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Adaptation option

Integration of climate change adaptation in drought and water conservation plans

Europe is facing an increasing risk of water scarcity and droughts, especially in the Mediterranean regions. These risks are usually addressed by drought management plans and water conservation plans or by combined plans that incorporate drought management and water conservation together. The purpose of a drought management plan is to prevent and mitigate the impact of droughts on the environment, society and the economy. They are regulatory instruments that establish priorities among the different water uses and define more stringent constraints on access to publicly provided water during droughts.

Drought management plans aim to guarantee water availability in sufficient quantities to meet essential human needs to ensure a population’s health and wellbeing, to avoid or minimize negative drought impacts on the status of water bodies, and to minimize negative effects on economic activities. They should be prepared in advance before they are needed. A water conservation plan is a strategy or combination of strategies to preserve and control (surface and ground) water resources. The aim of a water conservation plan is to reduce water consumption, minimise the loss and waste of water, improve water use efficiency and improve water recycling and reuse. A more efficient use of existing water supplies does not only contribute to the conservation of water resources and the improvement in the efficiency of water distribution, but also reduces environmental impacts (e.g. due to the reduction in quantity of wastewater that needs to be treated) and costs associated with the development of new supplying sources. Drought management and water conservation plans can also be combined into Drought and Water Conservation Plans that include guidelines and requirements governing water conservation and drought contingency for public water suppliers.

Drought management and water conservation plans can become climate change adaptation measures to the extent that they are able to include considerations regarding future climate change scenarios and projected impacts. Potential effects of climate change that need to be considered relate to changes in the natural regime of water bodies, in their ecological status (affecting the quality of the water resource) and in water demand (e.g. irrigation, urban and industrial water supply). Significant changes require adaptation actions that can be included in such plans. Moreover, as the social impact of drought is typically the occurrence of water scarcity problems, adapted plans should also consider how the possible reduction in water availability and supply due to climate change can exacerbate problems related to increasing water demand deriving from demographic and economic developments. Basic elements and contents of drought management and water conservation plans are:

  • general basin characteristics under normal and drought conditions;
  • history of droughts in the river basin;
  • characteristics of droughts (intensity, frequency, duration, etc.) within the basin;
  • implementation of a drought warning system;
  • programme and actions for water conservation and for preventing and mitigating droughts;
  • organisational and management structure (competent authority, committee or working group to identify drought impacts and propose management options, enlarged group for stakeholders);
  • monitoring system;
  • mechanism for the update and follow-up of the plans;
  • public water supply specific plans.

Ideally, drought management and water conservation plans should contain quantitative and measurable targets and a set of measures to achieve these targets, prioritised according to agreed and shared criteria (e.g., performance, implementation costs, expected benefits, etc.).

Drought management and water conservation plans can be developed at various administrative (municipal, irrigation district, provincial, regional or even national) levels and for different economic sectors. In any case they should be connected to the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), defined according to the EU Water Framework Directive. At the national level, drought management and water conservation plans normally describe the normative framework, organisational structure and policy instruments (such as water abstraction licensing and pricing) to address drought and water scarcity problems, as well as drought emergency declaration procedures, high-level policy targets and available resources. At the regional or river basin level, drought management and water conservation plans tend to go into more details. They can provide information on regional drought drivers and indicators, drought risk and vulnerability, long‐term interventions for reducing drought vulnerability, drought risk mitigation options per sector and drought severity level, allocation of tasks among regional actors, criteria for developing drought management plans at the water supply system level, cooperation schemes with the civil protection agency, and processes for plan review.

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Institutional: Law and regulations

Stakeholder participation

Essential for a drought management and/or water conservation plan is the identification of relevant stakeholders having a stake in water supply, drought planning and water conservation. These stakeholder groups must be involved and fairly represented in an early stage of the plan development. Participation in the planning process gives stakeholders an opportunity to develop an understanding of one another's viewpoints, and to generate collaborative solutions. Local stakeholders have the best knowledge of the different water use sectors and components of the hydrological cycle and can ensure that targets are coherent and are implemented where the socio-economic costs are the lowest. Active participation contributes to achieving a balanced management of the water sources minimising conflicts among different uses and impacts on the environment.

A good approach is to establish working groups or fora that gather identified interested parties, experienced and recognized experts in the water field that can advise and consult during the development of the plans. In addition, sectoral tables where discussions can be more fluent, and small groups of stakeholders can be considered as useful tools to promote public participation. Public information and consultation can follow regulated or legislated procedures (e.g., official bulletins) or broad and easily accessible publications and electronic means of information, being the later more commonly used by society.

Success and Limiting Factors

A major success factor for the design and implementation of drought management and water conservation plans is the availability of in-depth knowledge about:

· the pattern of water uses and their contribution to welfare;

· the hydrological conditions of water bodies and related medium- to long-term climate change projections;

· the drivers influencing water demand in the water-intensive economic sectors and public water consumption.

For a successful drought management and water conservation plan an active stakeholder involvement and a good dialogue between science and policy makers are necessary during the entire planning process. Furthermore, the drought management and water conservation plan should be included in or coordinated with river basin management plans (RBMPs) required by the EU Water Framework Directive. The establishment of effective drought warning systems further contributes to the success of the drought management and water conservation plan implementation.

Conflicts between social, economic, and environmental values and interests can hamper the needed collaboration during the plan design and implementation, in particular when water resources become scarcer. Legal constraints during the planning process relate to water rights, existing public trust laws, requirements for public water suppliers, liability issues, amongst others.

Costs and Benefits

The costs associated with the development of a state-level drought management and water conservation plan can be estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 euro. Implementation costs vary considerably, depending on the considered scale, the severity of the problem, the local characteristics of the water bodies and water uses, and the set of planned measures. The costs must always be weighed against the losses that would occur in case no plan was in place.

The benefit is that all economic sectors can continue activities in an organised way, but with reduced water levels, meaning that there is less economic and environmental disruption compared to an unmanaged drought situation.

Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation

In order to address the issue of water scarcity and droughts in the EU, in 2007 the European Commission issued a Communication “Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union”. The communication lists a set of policy options, implementable as a concerted EU action to increase water efficiency and water savings and to improve drought preparedness and risk management. The Water Framework Directive, the flagship of the EU Water Policy, recognises droughts as potential threats which may undo the efforts to achieve good ecological status of the Community water bodies. In November 2012 a Policy Review for water scarcity and droughts was completed and integrated in the "Blueprint for Safeguarding European Waters". The review concluded that there had been progress in implementing the policy instruments suggested in the EC communication of 2007, but that the overall objective of reverting water scarcity and drought trends had not been achieved. The “Blueprint” encouraged Member States to better integrate drought risk management in their future River Basin Management Plans to ensure consistency in the management of water resources. In 2020, the European Commission released a new “Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation” which is relevant for water conservation and sets out the rules for minimum requirements for the safe reuse of treated urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation.

The increasing severity of droughts in the European Union and the need for action has been recognised by the “new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change”, adopted in February 2021. The strategy proposes a wider use of drought management plans and measures to increase the water retention capacity of soils and safe water reuse.

Implementation Time

The implementation time for drought management and/or water conservation plans depends on several factors such as the size of the affected area, the different stakeholder interests, and legal and social implications. Typical implementation times lie between 1 to 5 years.

Life Time

If properly developed and implemented, drought management and water conservation plans are usually medium-term measures (> 5 years). To ensure their viability over a long time, they should be regularly evaluated taking climatic and social changes, new technologies and new laws into account. Evaluation and adaptation after drought events also plays an important role.

Reference information


EC (2007). Drought management plan report, including Agricultural, Drought Indicators and Climate Change Aspects. Water Scarcity and Droughts Expert Network, Technical Report, 023

Wilhite D.A., M. Sivakumar, R. Pulwarty, (2014). Managing drought risk in a changing climate: The role of national drought policy. Weather and Climate Extremes, volume 3, pages 4-13.

Spinoni, J., et al., (2016). Meteorological droughts in Europe: events and impacts: past trends and future Projections. JRC technical report. Fatulová E., et. al., (2015). Guidelines for preparation of the Drought Management Plans. Development and implementation in the context of the EU Water Framework Directive. WHO and GWP.

Published in Climate-ADAPT Aug 31 2016   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Dec 12 2023

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