Water management

Image credits: Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash, 2015

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

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, which has to be coordinated with the Floods Directive 2007/60/CE (FD), on the assessment and management of flood risks.

The WFD 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 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 RBMPs from the second planning cycle onwards (2009-2015 and 2015-2021). 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. In the document An European Overview of the second River Basin Management Plans it is stated that most Member States have reported to have used the guidance document, to have done a climate proofing of the programme of measures and to have a national climate change strategy in place. However, the report states as well that “the effectiveness of the climate proofing methodologies is unclear, and in general, green infrastructures and water retention measures are underused. Thus, it remains important that technical measures and planned infrastructures duly take into account climate change predictions, especially for the occurrence of extreme phenomena and changes in river flows”. Adapting to climate change impacts will therefore still be an important task in the next cycle of River Basin Management Plans.

Climate change must also be integrated in the implementation of the Floods Directive (FD) that was introduced by the European Commission with the aim to asses and manage floods in a coherent way in all of the EU Member States. The Directive takes a three-step cyclical approach to flood risk management by requiring Member States to:  undertake a preliminary flood risk assessments (PFRA) that was finalised in 2011, to prepare flood hazard and risk maps (FHRM) that were published in 2013 and to prepare Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMP) by December 2015 which integrate the effects of climate change. The 5th Water Framework Directive Implementation Report includes an assessment of the first Flood Risk Management Plans. In the related document A European Overview of the first Flood Risk Management Plans it is stated that in 24 out of the 26 Member States considered (2 Member States did not report in time) “at least some aspects of climate change” were included in the FRMPs. 10 Member States provided strong evidence for considering climate change effects and 14 Member States included future climate change scenarios in their FRMPs. Less than half of the FRMPs assessed refer to the national adaptation strategies that were prepared under the EU Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. According to Article 14(4) of the FD the consideration of climate change impacts will become mandatory with the second cycle of FRMPs.

In order to facilitate the implementation of both, 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. Furthermore, 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.

The impacts of climate change have led to increasingly frequent water scarcity and drought issues in the European Union. 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 7 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. This Communication is still in place to  address water scarcity in the European Union.  As a follow-up three annual reports were presented. In 2011 the European Drought Observatory was set up: it acts as early-warning system to increase drought preparedness and to foster the integration of drought management in RBMP's. 

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, and is meant to encourage 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 “Report on the Review of the European Water Scarcity and Droughts Policy” includes policy recommendations for the implementation the WFD after 2012. Several tailored studies were financed that are supposed to help bridge the important knowledge gaps.

The Water Blueprint 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 green Infrastructures. 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. 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. This can be very beneficial to farming activities that can rely on reliable continuity of water supply during the irrigation period, consequently reducing the risk of crop failure and income losses. Appropriate consideration for nutrients in treated wastewater could also reduce the use of additional fertilizers resulting in savings for the environment, farmers and wastewater treatment. In May 2018, the European Commission proposed new rules to stimulate and facilitate water reuse focusing on agricultural irrigation.

The Water Blueprint also initiated the building of water balances at EU level 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.

The analysis underpinning the Blueprint covers a time span up to 2050 and is expected to drive EU water policy over the long term. 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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