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Natural water retention measures

Natural water retention measures are 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 and using natural processes. They support Green Infrastructure by contributing to integrated goals dealing with nature and biodiversity conservation and restoration, landscaping, etc. They are adaptation measures that use nature to regulate the flow and transport of water so as to smooth peaks and moderate extreme events (floods, droughts, desertification, salination). They are a better environmental option for flood risk management. They reduce vulnerability of water resources to Climate Change and other anthropogenic pressures. They can also improve water quality. They are relevant both in rural and urban areas.

NWRM can be classified as follows, and include:

Type Class NWRM Measure

Direct modification in ecosystems

Rivers and connected wetlands

Restoration and maintenance of rivers, basins, ponds, and wetlands; floodplain reconnection and restoration, reconnection of hydraulic annexes, elimination of riverbank protection…

Lakes and connected wetlands

Restoration of lakes


Aquifer restoration

Change & adaptation in land-use & water management practices


Restoring and maintaining meadows and pastures, buffer strips and shelter belts, soil conservation practices (crop rotation, intercropping, conservation tillage...), green cover, mulching…

Forestry and pastures

Afforestation of headwater areas/mountainous areas/reservoir catchments, targeted planting for “catching” precipitation, land-use conversion for water quality improvements, continuous cover forestry, maintenance of riparian buffers, appropriate design of roads and stream crossing, urban forests…

Urban development

Green Roofs, rainwater harvesting, permeable paving, Sustainable Drainage Systems: swales, soakaways, infiltration trenches, rain gardens, detention basins, retention ponds, urban channel restoration…

For more information on the measures please visit the following catalogue of measures. Measures are divided into the following categories: urban, forest, agriculture, and nature fields.

Natural water retention measures are already being implemented or planned in various EU river basins. However, the potential impacts of climate change or of other man-made pressures may trigger the need for implementing these measures in other locations, or to modify the scope or the intensity of these measures.

In the context of the impact assessment for the Communication ''The Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources'' a Commission funded literature review on Natural Water Retention Measures was conducted: Costs, benefits and climate proofing of natural water retention measures and the measures were assessed for their hydrological impact in a study based on Pan-European modeling: Evaluation of the effectiveness of Natural Water Retention Measures.

In line with the Blueprint proposals in the 2013-2015 CIS Work Programme, the Water Directors adopted a policy document in 2014: EU policy document on Natural Water Retention Measures. This policy document explains the policy relevance and promotes its uptake in water management.

To support this DG ENV has also procured a Pilot Project on NWRM which provides abundant information on these measures through: a catalogue of measures (with information on impacts, benefits, costs, design parameters, etc.), 125 case studies, a practical guide for their implementation and other useful material.

A parallel study on Integrating Ecosystem Services with Water Framework Directive and Floods Directive Implementation (Report and Annexes) also provides input to the pilot project.

In relation to funding, different options at EU level are available such as the LIFE programme, Structural and Cohesion Funds, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, Horizon 2020 calls and the Natural capital Financing Facility.

For more information:

  • CC-02-2016-2017: Demonstrating innovative nature- based solutions in cities: NBS for climate and water resilience in cities
  • SCC-03-2016: New governance, business, financing models and economic impact assessment tools for sustainable cities with nature-based solutions (urban re-naturing)
  • SC5-09-2016: Operationalising insurance value of ecosystems
  • SC5-10-2016: Multi-stakeholder dialogue platform to promote innovation with nature to address societal challenges
  • SC5-08-2017: Large-scale demonstrators on nature-based solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction

Background: Water and adaptation to climate change

The role of natural approaches for protecting water resources and managing related risks (including floods and droughts) has been highlighted by DG ENV and has been the objective of several policy initiatives and communications:

Benefits and Costs

Although they are primarily designed to regulate the water cycle these measures will be a key contribution to EU green infrastructure by improving connectivity between existing nature areas and enhancing landscape permeability. In addition, the areas benefiting from these measures will often be multifunctional, allowing farming, forestry, recreation and ecosystems conservation to operate together in the same space. They can also provide additional benefits including water depollution and purification, cleaner air and reduced temperatures in urban areas, energy efficiency in buildings or water treatment, climate change mitigation (reduced energy demands and carbon sequestration by vegetation), increased property values, and impacts on job creation and innovation. Their multi-functionality contributes to their cost-efficiency and renders them good candidates for sustainable climate adaptation measures. Quantification and Valuation of these ESS is important for carrying out effective Cost Benefit Analysis related to these measures.

On the cost side, particular attention needs to be paid to the opportunity costs linked to the land-use requirements of the measure. These costs can be translated either into land acquisition, or into compensation/service payments. A proper knowledge of the cost savings in hard infrastructure for flood protection and water supply will also be needed. It is increasingly recognised that attempts to control rivers through hard engineering alone may be counterproductive, and that natural water retention measures may offer the best return in terms of societal benefits from flood control and other ecosystem services such as water quality regulation and water provisioning, food or material production, biodiversity protection, recreation, air quality and climate regulation. Most strategies and projects for water management, disaster prevention and climate change adaptation mix both approaches, but a better understanding of costs and benefits is needed.

Other sources of information:

The EEA: the following studies may also be of interest