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Water management

Image credits: Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash, 2015

Climate change directly impacts water resources in terms of both water quality and water quantity. 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. The water quality will be affected as well. Water management plays a central role in ecosystems, socio-economic activities and human health.  

Policy framework

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 water policy instrument for mainstreaming climate adaptation is the Water Framework Directive (WFD), aiming at long-term sustainable water management based on a high level of protection of the aquatic environment.

Currently, the second River Basin Management Plans are submitted and (partly) adopted.  These river basin management plans should take into account the impacts of climate change, using Guidance document published in 2009.

In addition, climate change must also be integrated in the implementation of the Floods Directive.

The Floods Directive required Member States to  draw flood hazard and flood risk maps. 16 Member states have included climate change in these maps.

In 2018, the European Commission has launched the updated peer to peer process support for the improvement of Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Floods Directive (FD) implementation with the aim to support exchange between experts and competent authorities.

EU water policy aims 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. This objective is supported with  policies and actions to prevent and mitigate water scarcity and drought situations, with the priority to move towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy. The Communication of July 2007 on addressing the challenge of water scarcity and drought in the EU is still in place to  address water scarcity.  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. 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 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. They have an important role to play in climate adaptation and support the Green Infrastructure.

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. 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. The ClimWatAdapt project has downscaled the climate change scenarios and has concluded that the occurrence of droughts and floods will increase. But, the vulnerability is more dependent on socio-economic development than on climate change.

Water and ecosystems play an important role in the transmission of climate change impacts to the economy and to the society. Ecosystem-based adaptation approaches are therefore potential solutions, as was identified in Impact assessment and Policy paper on Water, Coasts and Marine issues.

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) 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.

Environmental indicators, regularly updated by the EEA on its website, 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. JRC has recently also analysed a multi-criteria optimisation of scenarios for the protection of water resources in 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 has developed a knowledge base on NWRM. The JRC has evaluated the effectiveness of Natural Water Retention Measures.

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. 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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