Floods and health
- River and coastal flooding have affected millions of people in Europe in the last decade. They affect human health through drowning, heart attacks, injuries, infections, exposure to chemical hazards, psychosocial consequences as well as disruption of services, including health services.
- Observed increases in heavy precipitation and extreme coastal high-water events have increased the risk of river and coastal flooding in many European regions.
- In the absence of additional adaptation, the projected increases in extreme precipitation events and in sea level would substantially increase the health risks associated with river and coastal flooding in Europe.
What are health effects of floods across Europe, and how are they changing?
Number of people affected by flooding per million population in the WHO European Region
Note: Number of people affected by flooding per million population in the WHO European Region (total over the period 2000–2011). ‘People affected’, as defined in EM-DAT, are people who require immediate assistance during a period of emergency, including displaced or evacuated people. EM-DAT/CRED and the Dartmouth Flood Observatory were analysed to determine the flooded countries in the WHO European Region and the impact of these floods.
- Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) provided by Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)
- Health for all Database provided by World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe (WHO/Europe)
Most regions in Europe exhibit an increasing trend in heavy precipitation over recent decades, in particular in winter. The number of large floods in Europe has been increasing since the 1980s; however, there is not yet conclusive evidence for a climate change signal in the observed flood trend[i].
Estimates for the WHO European Region based on a combination of data from EM-DAT and the Dartmouth Flood Observatory indicate that coastal and inland floods have killed more than 1 600 people and affected 4.4 million in the period 2000–2011. Figure 1 shows the number of people affected by flooding in each country in the same period. The largest numbers (on a per capita basis) are found in south-eastern Europe, eastern Europe and central Europe. It should be noted that the inclusion criteria are wide and open to interpretation, which limits the comparability of data across countries[ii]. Furthermore, due to the relatively short time period of 12 years the value of the indicator can be significantly affected by a single catastrophic event. Recently, at least 50 people have been killed in massive floods in the Balkan countries in May 2014 (which are not yet included in Figure 1) [iii].
Heavy precipitation events are likely to become more frequent in many regions in Europe, and sea-level rise is projected to accelerate compared to the 20th century under all emissions scenarios. The PESETA project and the ClimateCost project have estimated the economic and health effects of river and coastal flooding under various climate change scenarios, including sea-level rise.
For a medium emissions scenario (SRES A1B) and in the absence of adaptation, river flooding is estimated to affect about 300 000 people per year in the EU by the 2050s and 390 000 by the 2080s; the latter figure corresponds to more than a doubling with respect to the baseline period (1961–1990). The British Isles, western Europe and northern Italy show a robust increase in future flood hazard; these regions also show the strongest increase in the population affected by river floods[iv].
If no additional adaptation measures were taken, the number of people affected by coastal flooding in the EU at the end of the 21st century would range between 775 000 to 5.5 million people annually, depending on the emissions scenario. The number of deaths in the EU due to coastal flooding in the 2080s would increase by 3000, 620 and 150 per year under a high emissions scenario (assuming 88 cm sea-level rise), the SRES A1B “business as usual” scenario and the E1 mitigation scenario, respectively. Two thirds of these deaths would arise in western Europe. Coastal adaptation measures can significantly reduce risks to less than 10 deaths per year in 2080[v]. Further studies of flood-related mortality are available for selected countries and regions.
Flooding is also associated with mental health impacts. Coastal flooding in the EU could potentially cause five million additional cases of mild depression annually by the end of the 21st century under a high sea-level rise scenario in the absence of adaptation[vi].
[i] O Zolina et al., ‘Changing Structure of European Precipitation: Longer Wet Periods Leading to More Abundant Rainfalls’,Geophysical Research Letters 37 (2010): 1–5; Zbigniew W. Kundzewicz, Iwona Pińskwar, and G. Robert Brakenridge, ‘Large Floods in Europe, 1985–2009’,Hydrological Sciences Journal 58, no. 1 (January 2013): 1–7, doi:10.1080/02626667.2012.745082; Øystein Hov et al.,Extreme Weather Events in Europe: Preparing for Climate Change Adaptation (Oslo: Norwegian Meteorological Institute, 2013), http://www.dnva.no/binfil/download.php?tid=58783.
[ii] WHO and PHE,Floods in the WHO European Region: Health Effects and Their Prevention.
[iii] Ed Holt, ‘Disease Outbreaks Predicted in Flood-Ravaged Balkans’,The Lancet 383, no. 9933 (June 2014): 1959, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60940-5.
[iv] R. Rojas et al., ‘Assessment of Future Flood Hazard in Europe Using a Large Ensemble of Bias Corrected Regional Climate Simulations’,Journal of Geophysical Research 117 (2012): D17109, doi:10.1029/2012JD017461; Rodrigo Rojas, Luc Feyen, and Paul Watkiss, ‘Climate Change and River Floods in the European Union: Socio-Economic Consequences and the Costs and Benefits of Adaptation’,Global Environmental Change 23, no. 6 (December 2013): 1737–51, doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.08.006; J. C. Ciscar et al.,Climate Impacts in Europe: The JRC PESETA II Project, JRC Scientific and Policy Reports (European Commission – Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, 2014), http://ipts.jrc.ec.europa.eu/publications/pub.cfm?id=7181.
[v] J. C. Ciscar et al., ‘Physical and Economic Consequences of Climate Change in Europe’,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 7 (31 January 2011): 2678–83, doi:10.1073/pnas.1011612108; S Kovats et al.,The Impacts and Economic Costs on Health in Europe and the Costs and Benefits of Adaptation, Results of the EC RTD ClimateCost Project, Technical Policy Briefing Note 5:, 2011.
[vi] Francesco Bosello et al., ‘Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Europe: Sea-Level Rise’,Climatic Change 112, no. 1 (23 November 2011): 63–81, doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0340-1; Paul Watkiss and Alistair Hunt, ‘Projection of Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Sectors of Europe Based on Bottom up Analysis: Human Health’,Climatic Change 112, no. 1 (2012): 101–26, doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0342-z.
Indicator specification and metadata
- Number of people affected by flooding per million population in the WHO European Region
- People per million population
Policy context and targets
In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package (http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation/what/documentation_en.htm). This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change /* COM/2013/0216 final */ and a number of supporting documents. One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which should occur through Bridging the knowledge gap and Further developing Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Further objectives include Promoting action by Member States and Climate-proofing EU action: promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors. Many EU Member States have already taken action, such as by adopting national adaptation strategies, and several have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation.
The European Commission and the European Environment Agency have developed the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT, http://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/) to share knowledge on observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health; on relevant research; on EU, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans; and on adaptation case studies.
No targets have been specified.
Related policy documents
Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later. This webportal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
EU Adaptation Strategy Package
In April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it will enhance the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
Methodology for indicator calculation
‘People affected’, as defined in EM-DAT database, are people who require immediate assistance during a period of emergency, including displaced or evacuated people.
Methodology for gap filling
- WHO and PHE (2013): Floods in the WHO European Region: Health Effects and Their Prevention World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe; Public Health England, UK
Data sets uncertainty
Attribution of health effects to climate change is difficult due to the complexity of interactions, and potentially modifying effects of a range of other factors (such as land use changes, public health preparedness, and socio-economic conditions). Criteria for defining a climate-sensitive health impact are not always well identified and their detection sometimes relies on complex statistical or modelling studies (e.g. health impacts of heat waves). Furthermore, these criteria as well as the completeness and reliability of observations may differ between regions and/or institutions, and they may change over time. Data availability and quality is crucial in climate change and human health assessments, both for longer term changes in climate-sensitive health outcomes, and for health impacts of extreme events. The monitoring of climate-sensitive health effects is currently fragmentary and heterogeneous. All these factors make it difficult to identify significant trends in climate-sensitive health outcomes over time, and to compare them across regions. In the absence of reliable time series, more complex approaches are often used to assess the past, current or future impacts of climate change on human health.
Further information on uncertainties is provided in Section 1.7 of the EEA report on Climate change, impacts, and vulnerability in Europe 2012 (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-impacts-and-vulnerability-2012/)
No uncertainty has been specified
Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT)
provided by Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)
Climate change (Primary topic)
Environment and health
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CLIM 046
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
EEA Management Plan2014 1.4.1 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe's environment.
PDF generated on 27 Jul 2016, 04:39 PM