As the European Commission is preparing a new EU Directive on flood risk management, WWF asks that lessons be learnt from the repeated catastrophic flood events across Europe.

While only 20 per cent of Europe’s natural floodplains are estimated to be still functional and thus able to store water, the global conservation organization says that the only sustainable solution to reduce the risk of further devastating floods is to work with nature, rather than against it.

Parts of Europe were flooded once more this summer and WWF deeply regrets the suffering this has caused, in particular in the Alps and the lower Danube region. Floods are a natural phenomenon that cannot be avoided, but their frequency and intensity is growing due to global warming and climate change. Still, the damage they inflict can be limited, but traditional old-fashioned, engineering solutions for flood protection have proven not to work without additional measures.

“The latest events clearly demonstrate that we cannot control floods of such magnitude with technical means alone,” said Tatjana Brombach, ecoregional leader with WWF’s European Alpine Programme.

“Building in areas at flood risk just increases the danger of future flooding as even recent flood defence engineering works, such as the Pflach dam in the Austrian Alps that broke this summer, have been shown to be alarmingly vulnerable. The only long-term solution is to reconsider the value of nature to help dealing with torrential rains.”

Land and water have a “natural” role to play in flood risk management via, for example, water retention by floodplains and wetlands. These can act as sponges, absorbing and retaining floodwaters to slowly release them afterwards. However, having been disconnected from their rivers, drained and in many cases used intensively by humans, floodplains and wetlands do not play this role anymore. Broad riverbeds can absorb high water flows, but rivers are now narrower because they have been turned into canals. Consequently, flooding impacts are exacerbated, as floodwaters have nowhere to go and rise above the level of artificial riverbanks and/or break through dykes, causing enormous damage.

For years now, WWF has called on the EU and its Member States to change their strategy for flood risk management and work with nature. The EU already has laws that could promote natural flood risk reduction, in particular the 2000 Water Framework Directive. Its implementation requires the joint management of all land and waters making up a river basin, including in cross-border regions, to improve upon its ecological condition.

This would demand improved land-use and forest management, providing more space for riverbeds and making upland wetlands and lowland floodplains functional again, thus reducing flooding.

The European Commission is now developing a Directive dealing specifically with the risks of flooding.

“But natural flood control will not be promoted unless new flood risk reduction measures are part of the Water Framework Directive river basin management plans,” said WWF European Water Policy Officer Eva Royo Gelabert.

“Unfortunately, preparatory documents indicate that this level of integration between the two Directives is not foreseen, there is not even compatibility in their implementation timetables.”

WWF is asking the Commission to reconsider this in order to ensure legal consistency between these Directives, avoid doubling administrative efforts, save money, and then effectively protect people.

Furthermore, WWF calls for EU financial support to the affected regions through, for example, the EU Solidarity and Rural Development Funds to also ensure long-term solutions to resolve the inadequate land-use and water management policies that have contributed to these terrible flood events.

Original press release: Work With Nature, Not Against it to Reduce Risk of Floods in Europe (WWF)