Climate Change and Water – Assessments and Responses in EU Member States – An Overview

Speech Published 15 Feb 2007 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Speech by Professor Jacqueline McGlade - Time to Adapt – Climate Change and the European water Dimension: Vulnerability – Impacts – Adaptation, 13 February 2007, Berlin

Introductory Remarks

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today I would like to use this opportunity to present our latest technical report on “Climate Change and Water Adaptation Issues”, which has been prepared in cooperation with the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, with support from Eionet – the European Information and Observation Network of the EEA and Ecologic.

We had three objectives when undertaking this work:

  1. to examine progress and activities relating to climate change adaptation across Europe;
  2. to evaluate the implications for water resource policy and regulation across Europe of the need to adapt to climate change; and
  3. to assess the strengths and weaknesses of current policies and regulations.

In the process we also wished to identified information gaps, uncertainties and where future challenges and priorities might lie.

So what did we conclude?

That at a national level awareness of climate change is generally high, policy-makers are well-informed about the latest scientific research, and that countries expect significant changes in water resources to occur in the coming decades in terms of precipitation, extreme events such as flooding and droughts and general hydrology. However, many adaptation activities are focussed on flood management and defence, whilst measures relating to drought and water scarcity are not yet widespread.

That climate change adaptation policies are being planned and developed, but are insufficiently embedded in the developments of other sectoral areas that will be most affected such as agriculture, energy, forestry, tourism, health, recreation, biodiversity, land-use, navigation and infrastructural developments.

That successful implementation of climate change adaptation strategies will take time and will require co-ordination between local, national, regional and European levels as well as participation by civil society and the development in some cases of new institutions. Many countries, whilst recognising the need for flexibility and for subsidiarity in this domain also see the need for more EU co-ordination in trans-boundary issues and key sectoral policies.

That in Europe, there are already tools and measures that support climate change adaptation, awareness-raising and co-ordination, and that the Green Paper to be published in 2007 will enable support for adaptation from the EU’s direct funding programmes such as Structural, Cohesion and Solidarity funds, Agriculture and Rural Development funds and the LIFE+ instrument. The Water Framework Directive is well-suited to address climate change adaptation through its step-wise and cyclical approach, but its success in this area will depend on the extent to which a longer-term perspective is included in the river basin management plans.

Other key policies regarding climate change adaptation are the proposed Marine  Strategy Directive, the Maritime Policy Green Paper, and the proposed directive on Assessment and Management of Floods as well as the recently adopted Inspire Directive on the provision of spatial environmental information

Although this analysis did not cover mitigation of greenhouse gases explicitly, it was clear that more needed to be done to link the two areas. For example the provision of additional water supplies is likely to involve more energy use, such as through desalinisation or pumping for water transfer schemes. Similarly, hydroelectric power schemes will be directly affected by water availability. Water quality and the consequences of changes in land management for flood defence and adaptation on emissions also need to be carefully considered in the wider context of mitigation.

There was also a wide recognition of the need for more research and production of information about past and current climate change on a regional and local scale, more information on vulnerable regions, and more detailed knowledge about hydrology and groundwater especially in terms of hydrological and coupled modelling. Countries recognised the need to maintain observation networks but cited the need for more inputs from remote sensing in hydrological monitoring.

Finally, it was widely accepted that developing countries will experience the most adverse effects from climate change, and that they have the least economic capacity to adapt. Yet all of us will need to adapt to climate change. The adoption of the “five year programme of work on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change” at the UN conference on climate change in Nairobi last November was seen as an important step in that direction.

In Europe today, we consider that we are leading the world in setting targets and establishing policies for mitigation, but we also now need to lead on adaptation if we are to help the world’s inhabitants – humans and other living organisms alike - make a successful transition to a changed world and secure a safe and secure future.

So now let us look in a little more detail at the report.

What is the climate change issue in Europe?

The new findings from the IPCC are sobering. The recent observations and measurements reflected dispel any doubts that the global climate is changing and that human activities have caused most of the observed changes in the past 50 years. International action is needed to address climate change by both enhanced mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Yesterday we heard about the key challenges that climate change presents to Europe.

As the IPCC has reported, large temperature increases have occurred in Southern Europe and North-western Russia, while the largest increases in temperature were in the arctic regions. Temperature increase is projected to continue in the future.

Precipitation, through rain and snow, is projected to increase in Northern Europe, especially in winter, and decrease in the Mediterranean region. Sea levels have risen and are projected to rise further in future.

However, extreme events will have the most profound effects on natural resources and the economy. Over recent decades Europe has experienced an increase in heat waves. A succession of floods and droughts has occurred in recent years with substantial economic losses, and health and ecosystem impacts. Although these are not only due to climate change, they could be an indication of what may happen more frequently in the future.

Although projections for such extreme events are uncertain, in most models and scenarios warm periods are projected to be more intense, more frequent and longer lasting. Many parts of the Mediterranean may experience further reduced rainfall and longer drought periods.

In Europe in general, mountain regions, coastal zones, wetlands and the Mediterranean region are particularly vulnerable.

Global temperature may go beyond thresholds that would trigger potentially irreversible climate change with major effects also for Europe.

The water example

Let me now turn to water.

There are many different human activities that lead to pressures on water resources. These pressures include pollution from industry and agriculture, management of rivers, building of houses in areas with flood risk, and, around the Mediterranean, a large increase in housing in the coastal zone due to migration of many elderly people from North-western Europe. Climate change is one more additional pressure.

In the south, there is a large variation in river flow due to wet winters and long and dry summers. In North-western Europe river flows remain almost constant throughout the year. In the north and east and in mountainous areas, maximum river flow occurs during the snow melting period in spring. One result of climate change could be that the greatest flood risk shifts from spring to winter.

Climate change is also likely to lead to a reduction of groundwater recharge and hence lower groundwater levels in southern and south Eastern Europe, and at the same time, increasing the demand for water for domestic, energy and agricultural use.

Water availability is projected to increase in northern Europe and decrease in southern Europe, whilst in Western Europe, extractions could decrease due to a saturation of demand and increasing efficiency of water use.

Furthermore, higher water temperatures and lower river flows in summer can lead to a decrease of water quality. Increases in extreme rainfall events and flash floods will increase the risk of pollution from, for example, storm water overflow and emergency discharges from waste water treatment plants. Large investments have taken place in such plants and climate change will lead to a need for even further investments. It will therefore be essential to reduce the inflow in waste water treatment plants, by changing the behaviour of people in order to make water-use more efficient.

The problem of increasing and competing demands for water will thus be exacerbated by climate change.

What could be done within the framework of the EU Water Framework Directive?

The objective of the Water Framework Directive is to protect inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater. Achieving good ecological status is the key means by which water quality will be assessed.  Member States must achieve good ecological status in water bodies by 2015.

A major innovation of the Directive is that it starts with ecological boundaries i.e. river basins, rather than administrative boundaries. It requires cross-border co-operation for cross-border river basins. For each river basin in Europe a first River Basin Management Plan must be delivered by 2009. By 2010 operational programmes of measures in each river basin district must be ready. Plans will be reviewed and updated in 2015 and every 6 years thereafter.

Flooding is specifically addressed through the proposal for a Directive on flood risk management of early 2006. The proposal requires Member States to draw up flood risk management plans for flood risk zones and stipulates that projected climate change should be taken into account in the assessment of future flood risk and of its consequences.

The 6-year review process within both Directives can be very helpful to allow for a climate change adaptation which can be reviewed and amended in the light of latest evidence.

What is happening in the EU Member States?

It is clear that there are high levels of awareness about the overall challenges, the broad trends and the likely impacts. There is also a good understanding about the uncertainties involved.

Recent research initiatives are already leading to action, for example in Austria the Flood Risk project has resulted in a more integrated approach to the management of floods and new planning guidelines are being prepared.

Hungary has prepared a National Climate Change Strategy following a major research project. In Greece, research on desertification has led to new mapping of vulnerability of soils to climate change which will be used for the implementation of new agricultural policy.

In some EEA member countries adaptation measures are taking place at sub-national or local level, and have been driven by the need to cope with climate variability. In southern Europe the water scarcity issue is very important, for example in Cyprus new demand management and water recycling measures are being developed and some new desalinisation plants are being built. Also new institutions are being created in Cyprus to deal with the increased challenges.

Drought however is a Europe-wide issue, for example, Finland has implemented new policies after the 2002/3 drought. France enacted major legislative change with a new water Act of 2006 providing a better balance between supply and demand.

In Northern Europe, increased sea level rise, storminess (for example in Latvia) and impacts on hydropower are identified as the most significant issues. Norway has concerns for the impacts of storms on oil extraction operations and shipping, and Iceland has raised standards for harbour design to address sea level rise.

The survey shows that existing adaptive measures are concentrated in flood defence which has enjoyed a long tradition of dealing with climate extremes. But these strategies for coping with current vulnerability are being given a new impetus and are being modified to take into account climate change. Denmark has started to plan for a half a metre of sea-level rise, The Netherlands is developing innovative policy making space for rivers. Changes to building and spatial planning, and regulations have taken place for example in Flanders and the UK.

There are still however many gaps and therefore opportunities to advance adaptation planning and implementation in other areas including public health and management of ecosystems, and to develop integrated approaches.

What should be happening in the Member States?

The challenge is to mainstream climate change into existing strategies and policy for water availability, flooding and water quality. One basic building block is the Water Framework Directive with its stepwise and cyclical approach. Guidance needs to be urgently developed to gain coherence across Europe on how and when climate change should be taken into account, possibly using some sensitivity testing of proposed measures in the first cycle to climate change over their lifespans.

More strategically some comprehensive National adaptation frameworks have emerged: Finland, Portugal and Spain and in places such as France, Norway and the UK and are well underway.

However more action and consistency is needed on National Adaptation Frameworks. Europe is not leading in the world  – several  developing countries have already prepared their National Adaptation Plans of Action under the UNFCCC (including Bangladesh, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger and Samoa). And, some of the European National Frameworks are not so much about implementation as about how the issue will be tackled in the future, including through research.

This is an area where a clearer understanding amongst European countries is important, if only to give stronger signals to European business. The public and private sector, and the general public need to be more involved. Sufficient resources for capacity building and awareness raising should be made available

What we do should be sustainable and be consistent with mitigation strategies. Increasing water supply and improving water quality with increased energy inputs is not sustainable. We have to aim to reduce the vulnerabilities of people and societies to increased climate variability, and extreme events. Sustainable integrated solutions will protect and restore ecosystems that provide critical land and water resources and services. It is also vital to close gaps between water supply and demand by enhancing actions which reduce demand. We will need new financial incentives to drive the agenda. We will need to monitor whether we are successful and ultimately we will probably need new institutions to ensure that changes occur.

We cannot afford to be complacent. New large infrastructure projects take a generation to plan and build- for example the existing Thames Barrier only became operational in 1983, some 30 years after the 1953 east coast floods, to which it was a planned response. Work has already been underway for five years on ensuring that London’s protection is maintained from 2030 to 2100. In the EU, we all know too, that organising legislative and regulatory change can take years and then take more time for the change to become translated into effective action on the ground. We cannot afford for climate change to take us by surprise.

We know enough to act but we discussed yesterday about the significant research agenda we still have to address. Further efforts are required to reduce uncertainties in climate scenarios at scales relevant to adaptation, to advance understanding of good practice, to evaluate costs and benefits and to prioritise adaptation options.

In conclusion, there is both a need and an opportunity to integrate climate change adaptation measures in water management. This could be done by means of the Water Framework Directive and its six year periodic cycle allows for a long-term strategic adaptation process.

However there is also a need to integrate climate change in all main EU policies. Measures should be enhanced in all water related sectors, in particular agriculture, energy, navigation and tourism. Furthermore, inclusion of climate change in spatial planning is important. There is also a need to reduce or at least limit water demand, since in future competition between the different users is expected to increase, exacerbated due to climate change.

Leadership is expected from the European Union; responding on an appropriate time scale, learning from past mistakes, and opening up new institutional avenues are part of the future.  But urgency and commitment is also needed today. Our report suggests that whilst European countries are aware of the problems surrounding climate change they have still a great deal to do to ensure we are able to adapt.

Thank you for your attention.



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