Water management

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Key messages

  • Climate change affects water management in multiple ways, ranging from changes in precipitation and therefore seasonal and annual patterns in floods and droughts, water availability or dilution capacity and has impacts on our health, the economic activities and (fresh)water dependent ecosystems.  
  • The EU has well-developed water management policies covering both water quality and quantity management. Their implementation, closely linked to Ecosystem-based Adaptation and Nature-based solutions, is supported by instruments like the Natural Water Retention Measures tool.
  • Regular evaluation of the progress in water management are made at European level, based on nationally reported information. These evaluations include climate change (adaptation) aspects as well, but conclude that additional efforts are needed on this.

Impacts and vulnerabilities

Water management includes water quality and quantity management as well as hydromorphology and sedimentology. Freshwater management of rivers, lakes and groundwater, estuarine waters, but also flood zones or infiltration areas are crucial elements for ecosystems, drinking water supply and wastewater management, and many economic sectors and systems including agriculture, transport and energy.

Climate change affects water management in multiple ways, ranging from changes in precipitation and therefore seasonal and annual patterns in floods and droughts, water availability or dilution capacity and has impacts on our health, the economic activities  and (fresh)water dependent ecosystems.  

More details on coastal water management can be found in the page on Coastal areas.

 

Policy framework

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 and stresses the risk of increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events that lead to droughts and floods and consequently to extensive economic damage. Considering the effects of climate change in the EU water related policies is therefore of particular importance.

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) adopted in 2000, the first cornerstone of EU water policy, 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 the adaptation to climate change. However, in 2009, EU Member states agreed that climate-related threats and adaptation planning have to be incorporated in the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) elaborated under the WFD.

The EU Floods Directive (FD), adopted in 2007, aims to assess and manage floods in a coherent way across the EU and integrates the consideration of climate change impacts directly in its implementation.  Member States need to assess the flood risk within their territory and prepare Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMP) accounting for the impacts of climate change.

Issues regarding water scarcity and droughts, were first addressed in the European Commission (EC) Communication Addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union (2007) with the aim to move towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy. In 2012, the Communication Blueprint to safeguard Europe's water resources  was published that 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. The latest action to alleviate water scarcity is the new Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse adopted in 2020 that sets new rules to stimulate and facilitate water reuse focusing on agricultural irrigation. Furthermore, following the new Adaptation strategy, the EC plans to help reducing 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. In order to secure drinking water supply, the revised Drinking Water Directive includes now the consideration of climate change impacts in the risk assessment of supply systems.

 

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 EC and Member States are collaborating to improve the knowledge base. Many of the information sources are combined in the Water Information System for Europe (WISE). 

The European Environment Agency has combined relevant information on climate change impacts in Europe in several reports. The Climate Change, Impacts and Vulnerability report 2016  looks at past and projected climate change impacts on ecosystems and society including impacts on the water sector. The Flood risks and environmental vulnerability report 2016 focuses on the role of floodplains in flood protection, water management and nature protection. Similarly, the 2020 report on European Floodplains  showcases that natural floodplains support achieving multiple EU policy objectives. The report Nature-based solutions (NbS) in Europe published in 2021 contains a chapter related to water management.

The Joint Research Center (JRC) has published a report on Climate change impacts and adaptation in Europe in 2020 including several chapters related to water resources. The report concludes that southern Europe is facing a decrease in water availability and consequently an increase in water scarcity. Droughts will happen more frequent, last longer and become more intense in southern and western parts of Europe and river and coastal floods are likely to increase as a consequence of climate change. This overview report is supplemented by a series of more specific reports providing more detailed information on the different impacts on water resources:

The JRC has also published a conceptual framework for drought risk assessment and management in 2018 and has just recently analysed the effects of water saving measures on Europe’s water resources concluding that an increased level of ambition in water efficiency measures is required to reduce the impact of climate change on water resources. 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. 

With help of the EU-funded programmes such as Horizon 2020, LIFE (environment and climate action) and Interreg, many Member States are improving the knowledge base on water-related adaptation strategies, policies and measures through different projects. The expected increase in hydrological extreme caused by the impacts of climate change is of particular importance here. In the IMPREX project, for instance, project partners developed innovative approaches and to help improve the ability to anticipate and respond to future hydrological extreme events. The OPERANDUM project works on the reduction of hydro-meteorological risks in European territories through co-designed, co-developed, deployed, tested and demonstrated innovative green and blue/grey/hybrid NbS. The RECONECT project aims to rapidly enhance the European reference framework on NbS for hydro-meteorological risk reduction by demonstrating, referencing, upscaling and exploiting large-scale NbS in rural and natural areas. 

Some projects focus specifically on improving the management of floods or water scarcity. The SCOREwater project aims at introducing digital services to improve the management of wastewater, storm-water and flooding events to enhance the resilience of cities against climate change. The LIFE UrbanStorm project facilitates the development and implementation of integrated approaches for climate change adaptation strategies and action plans to increase the climate resilience of Estonian municipalities, especially their ability to manage flash flooding. The SPONGE 2020 project produced a toolbox, a guidance package and a cross-border action plan to support stakeholder engagement and participative actions in climate change adaptation to better manage urban flooding. The problem of water scarcity is tackled for instance by the W2W - Water to Water project that promotes an innovative desalination system to address water scarcity in the Mediterranean region or the DRYvER project that aims at developing strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change effects in drying river networks, integrating hydrological, ecological (including NBS), socio-economic and policy perspectives.

Further information on past and on-going projects is to be found on the WISE portal and the CORDIS database.

 

Supporting investment and funding

In December 2020 the new Multiannual Financial Framework for the years 2021-2027 was published; it provides a number of funding opportunities in the water sector. Research and innovation projects can be funded through the Horizon Europe Programme that includes the new mission area: “Adaptation to climate change including societal transformation”. Further funding is available through the LIFE Programme for Environment and Climate Action that, amongst other goals, focuses on achieving the shift towards a sustainable climate-neutral and -resilient economy and on protecting, restoring and improving the quality of water. The programme includes a subprogramme on “Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation” and finances innovative technologies, development of best practices and activities that support to the implementation of environmental and climate plans developed at regional, multiregional or national levels. Funding is also available through the European Regional Development Fund that supports cooperation activities between regions in different Member States (see Interreg programmes). Another important funding source for the water sector is the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development which is part of the Common Agriculture Policy and encourages a sustainable management of natural resources and climate action and support projects that focus on actions aiming at restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems related to agriculture and forestry with a positive impact on biodiversity, soil, water and air.

 

Supporting the implementation

In support of the implementation of adaptation in the RBMPs of the WFD, a Common Implementation Strategy guidance document “River Basin Management in a Changing Climate” is available to make sure that climate-related threats and adaptation planning are incorporated in the 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. 

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 is available. Moreover, the European Natural Water Retention Measures Platform is a platform that supports the implementation of the European Environmental Policy on green infrastructure as a way to contribute to integrated goals dealing with nature and biodiversity conservation and restoration, landscaping.

Furthermore, the use of NbS and green infrastructure is strongly promoted on EU level. The 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change states that NBS are particularly well suited to increase climate resilience to water impacts and promotes their use in the implementation of the WFD and FD.

 

MRE of adaptation

RBMPs and FRMPs Management Plans prepared based on the WFD and FD need to be revised by European Member States in a 6-years cyclic approach. After each update the European Commission must publish a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the progress of implementation of these Directives. These reports contain information on how climate change impacts have been considered in the drafting of the plans by Member States. The latest report was adopted in 2019 and is the fifth WFD Implementation Report (“assessment of the second River Basin Management Plans”) and the first FD Implementation Report (“assessment of the first Flood Risk Management Plans”). In relation to the implementation of the WFD the European Commission 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.  In the first implementation cycle of the FD a high share of Member States have considered at least some aspects of climate change, but did not address its impacts in depth. The FD requires increased attention to climate change impacts from the second cycle onwards. The report recommends for instance a stronger coordination with national adaptation strategies.

Resources

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