Water management

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Water management includes water quality and quantity management as well as hydromorphology. Freshwater management of rivers, lakes and groundwater, but also flood zones or infiltration areas are crucial elements for ecosystems, drinking water supply, wastewater management, agriculture and many economic processes. Climate change affects water management in multiple ways, ranging from changes in seasonal and annual patterns in floods, water availability or dilution capacity and impacts on our health, the economy (including hydropower capacity and cooling water availability) and freshwater dependent ecosystems.  

Policy framework

Europe is increasingly facing situations of either too much or not enough water and this situation is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Successful adaptation to climate change depends both on effective national and European water legislation, and on mainstreaming climate change adaptation into related policies. The 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change highlights the importance of ensuring that freshwater is available in a sustainable manner, water use is sharply reduced and water quality preserved. The main EU water policy instruments for mainstreaming these ideas are the Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC), the Floods Directive (Directive 2007/60/EC), the different communications and regulations referring to drought management and the revised Drinking Water Directive (Directive 2020/2184).

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims at long-term sustainable water management based on a high level of protection of the aquatic environment by achieving a good ecological status in all waterbodies. The directive itself does not explicitly refer to adaptation to climate change, although Annex II refers to the need to identify ‘significant pressures’ affecting water bodies. In 2009, EU Member states agreed during the drafting of the Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) guidance document No. 24 “River Basin Management in a Changing Climate” that climate-related threats and adaptation planning have to be incorporated in the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs). As a minimum, the plans have to demonstrate i) how climate change projections have informed the assessment of pressures and impacts, ii) how the monitoring programmes are configured to detect climate change impacts, and iii) how selected measures are robust to projected climate conditions. The last update about the RBMPs is described in the 5th Implementation Report of the European Commission adopted in February 2019 which states that accounting for climate change impacts remains an important challenge in the next cycles of implementation of the WFD. Although most Member States have taken climate change into account when developing the last RBMPs, the effectiveness of the climate proofing methodologies is unclear, and in general, green infrastructures and water retention measures are underused. Such nature based solution (NBS) are strongly promoted by the 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change as they are particularly well suited to increase climate resilience to water impacts. Enhancing the implementation of the WFD and achieving a good ecological status of all water bodies will also contribute to preserving water quality by ensuring minimum environmental flows.

A major challenge in water management regarding climate change is the expected increase in extreme events. The 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change stresses the risk of increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events that lead to droughts and floods and consequently to extensive economic damage. The consideration of climate change in the associated directives is therefore of particular importance.

The EU Flood Directive (FD) integrates the consideration of climate change impacts directly in its implementation. The directive was introduced by the European Commission with the aim to asses and manage floods in a coherent way across the EU.  Member States need to assess the flood risk within their territory, coordinate flood risk areas of transboundary basins with neighbouring countries and prepare Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMP) that include a Programme of Measures to address and reduce flood risks. The directive requires the consideration of climate change in the flood risk assessment and for the Flood Risk Management Plans  . In the first implementation cycle of the FD this has only been partially achieved. For future flood risk management in the EU, the 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change promotes a stronger focus on nature-based solutions to reduce flood risks.

European regions are already facing more frequent, severe, and longer lasting droughts and situations of water scarcity due to the impacts of climate change.  In order to tackle this issue, the European Commission has released the Communication Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union in 2001 proposing policy options with the aim to prevent and mitigate water scarcity and drought situations, and to move towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy. 

In 2012, the Communication Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources including a Review of the EU policy on water scarcity and droughts was published. The “Blueprint” encourages Member States to better integrate drought risk management and climate change aspects in their future RBMPs and when developing cross sectoral and multi hazard risk management plans.  It indicates how climate change impacts on water resources can be prevented or mitigated. Natural water retention measures (NWRM) are promoted as 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. The "Review of the EU policy on water scarcity and droughts” states that the overall objective of reverting water scarcity and drought trends in the EU has not yet been achieved and outlines actions that concentrate on better implementation of the EU water legislation, integration of water policy objectives into other policies, and filling the gaps in particular as regards water quantity and efficiency.  .

The latest action of the European Commission to alleviate water scarcity is the new Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse that was adopted in 2020.  This regulation sets new rules to stimulate and facilitate water reuse focusing on agricultural irrigation. Reuse of treated wastewater can be considered a reliable water supply, quite independent from seasonal drought and weather variability and able to cover peaks of water demand. The new rules will apply from 26 June 2023 onwards.

The 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change recognises the increasing problems related to droughts and water scarcity and suggest a strong reduction in water use. To that end, the European Commission will to help reduce water use by raising the water-saving requirements for products, encouraging water efficiency and savings, and by promoting the wider use of drought management plans as well as sustainable soil management and land-use.

The Adaptation Strategy also refers to the fact that climate change threatens water quality by increasing the risk of contamination and acute pollution of freshwater due to impacts such as low river flows, increased water temperatures, flooding, and forest loss. The strategy suggests including climate impacts in the risk analyses of drinking water management plans to secure drinking water supply. This is also foreseen by the revised Drinking Water Directive that includes the consideration of climate change impacts in the risk assessment of supply systems Water quality problems related to minimum river flows are addressed in the implementation of the WFD.


Improving the knowledge base

Climate change aggravates existing pressures on water resources from, inter alia, pollution, overuse and population increase. The IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5 °C has addressed the incremental risks, impacts and vulnerabilities in the water sector associated with global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C. 

To adapt water resources to climate change, the European Commission and Member States are collaborating to improve the knowledge base. Many of the information sources are combined in WISE, the Water Information System for Europe. In order to facilitate the implementation of the WFD and FD, the European Commission has set up an internet-based platform called CIRCABC to enable information exchange between Countries, European institutions, various stakeholders and the interested public.  Under the Water Blueprint the building of water balances at EU level was initiated  that have 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. Furthermore,  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 has developed a knowledge base on NWRM.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has combined relevant information on climate change impacts in Europe in the Climate Change, Impacts and Vulnerability report 2016 as well as the Flood risks and environmental vulnerability report 2016, supporting the Blueprint. EEA has also published a report on European Floodplains in 2020 to showcase that natural floodplains support achieving multiple EU policy objectives.

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. The JRC has also 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. In support of the Blueprint, the JRC has evaluated the effectiveness of Natural Water Retention Measures. 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. JRC has recently also analysed a multi-criteria optimisation of scenarios for the protection of water resources in Europe.

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 through different projects: 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. 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. ADWICE project has studied the impact of climate change on drinking water resources across Europe. 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 part of the Rural development pillar of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) that financed the Interreg programmes. 

Highlighted indicators

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