The European Union is working on finding the answers to preventing and limiting floods. Experts are meeting in Vienna this week to tackle the issue. But is the European response to the challenge of floods sufficient?
Eastern Germany has been particularly hard hit by floods in recent years
Disastrous flooding is hitting Europe on a regular basis. This spring once again, swelling rivers in central Europe displaced thousands of people.
"Catastrophic floods endanger lives and are likely to cause human tragedy, as well as heavy economic losses," Stavros Dimas, the European commissioner for the environment, said in a statement.
Experts are meeting in Vienna this week for the European Conference on Flood Risk Management, which kicks off on Wednesday. They will be discussing various flood strategies and outlining suitable risk management based on experiences of recent floods.
According to the European Commission, Europe suffered over 100 major damaging floods between 1998 and 2004, including the catastrophic floods along the Danube and Elbe rivers in the summer of 2002. Since 1998, floods in Europe have caused some 700 deaths and about half a million people have been forced to leave their homes. The bill? At least 25 billion euros ($32 billion) in insured economic losses, the commission said.
Shari n g the burde n across Europe
A major problem in flood management, though, is that most of Europe's river basins, such as the Elbe and Danube, are shared by more than one country.
"In the case of international river basins, steps must be coordinated between the member states concerned to prevent problems being passed from one area to another," said Sergey Moroz from the conservation organization WWF's European policy office in Brussels.
Dresden's famous Zwinger Palace was severely damaged in the 2002 floods
Officials at the German environmental protection non-governmental organization BUND said too many countries and regions were just looking out for their own interests.
"International coordination is very important," said Christian Schweer from BUND's water policy unit. "The sectionalism in Europe has to stop."
Cross-border cooperation is a major element of the European Commission's Flood Action Program to improve damage prevention and reduction across member states.
"This new directive will help member states choose the right tools with which to reduce the likelihood of floods and limit their impacts," environment commissioner Dimas said. "In particular, it aims to ensure that member states cooperate in shared river basins and coastal areas to improve flood protection all over Europe."
E n viro n me n tal factors must be part of floodi n g solutio n s
The commission said Europe is likely to see a higher flood risk and greater economic damage in the future. Climate change is expected to increase the scale and frequency of floods, it said.
"Floods have always existed, but in recent years, they became disasters because of human mismanagement of rivers, floodplains and catchments and inadequate land use," Moroz said.
Urban development has come too close to rivers
According to Schweer, 80 percent of the original floodplains along the Elbe and Rhine rivers, for example, have been lost due to urban development and agricultural use.
"Flood protection cannot exclude environmental concerns," Schweer said.
Although the commission program does not explicitly name ecological flood control measures, the European parliament's environment committee has put clear environmental objectives in its proposal for the directive.
"It is important that rivers be given more room," Schweer said.
Member states will assess a n d ma n age floods
The new directive proposed earlier this year builds on the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), the cornerstone of the EU water protection policy.
It will require member states to carry out preliminary assessments of their river basins and associated coastal areas at risk of flooding. Where flood damage risks exist, member states will develop flood risk maps.
Finally, flood risk management plans must be drawn up for these zones. These are to include measures to reduce the probability of flooding and its potential consequences, such as prevention, protection, early warning, emergency response and recovery.
"The current proposal is a step in the right direction," Moroz said. "It coordinates flood management with ecological water management as required under the WFD and has the potential to mark the beginning of a new and transparent flood management approach."
Even sand bags couldn't hold up the water
But he said a further challenge will be striking the right balance with respect to the EU Solidarity Funds, an instrument set up after the catastrophic floods in Europe in the summer of 2002. It covers reconstruction after flooding events, plus other major catastrophes.
"EU financial support has to ensure long-term solutions to resolve the inadequate land use and water management policies that have contributed to these catastrophic flood events," Moroz said. Rebuilding existing dikes or making them higher would only worsen the situation, he said.
"Hence, we call on the European Commission to make sure its money does not contribute to aggravating existing problems," Moroz said.