Arresting the tide
Two of the last five years have sizzled in as the warmest on record. Global warming appears to be making seasonal patterns more volatile, and extreme weather events more frequent.
As Europe is becoming warmer, some areas, particularly in the north, are getting wetter, while others, such as the Mediterranean, are getting drier. Higher rainfall has strained the capacities of river systems and widespread flooding has been a major problem in recent years. Deforestation and the increasing urbanisation of flood plains have exacerbated the situation.
Although ancient spring festivals celebrate the inundation of rivers, modern society greets floods with trepidation. As was demonstrated so clearly in the summer of 2002, floods wreak havoc – they are a menace to public safety, disrupt people’s daily lives, threaten our cultural heritage, and inflict enormous economic and environmental losses.
Floods are, of course, a natural phenomenon, but they are also a river management issue. They cannot really be prevented, they can only be managed. To tackle this issue effectively, and to address the rising tide of public concern, requires a concerted effort at the European level.
The European Union has been following several avenues of research as part of a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the devastating impact of floods. There are two main approaches: forecasting and managing flood risk, and managing water resources in an integrated way at the river basin or catchment level.
The Union has invested heavily in developing forecasting technologies to provide early warning of when and where floods will hit, and to model the long-term behaviour of weather patterns.
The traditional solution to flooding has been heavy structural intervention – dams, dykes and barriers. Research into water resources is generating valuable information on how rivers behave, which is guiding experts and policy-makers towards more sustainable remedial and management strategies for dealing with floods.
Research has also focused on improving the decision-making process and integrating flood-risk assessment into town and regional planning strategies.
Counting the costs Several European rivers burst their banks in 2002, causing some of the continent’s worstever flooding, leaving extensive damage and destruction in their wake. Dozens of people died and thousands were evacuated from their homes. A particularly warm and wet summer caused the Elbe and the Danube rivers to overflow, and southern France saw almost half of its normal annual rainfall pour down in just one day.
When the waters subsided, many were left counting the costs to their properties and businesses. The economic fall-out of the floods was estimated to be billions of euros. Germany, one of the worst hit areas, incurred more than €9 billion of damages. Hundreds of years of priceless cultural heritage also came under threat.