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Towards better environmental options in flood risk management

Willow barrier with water March 2009 (Small)Reducing human casualties and damage to economic activity and the environment are key objectives shared by all EU countries and implementation of the 2007 Floods Directive has an important role in making this happen. Traditional measures to reduce negative impacts of floods include constructing new or reinforcing existing flood defence infrastructure such as dykes and dams. There are, however, other and potentially very cost-effective ways of achieving flood protection which profit from nature's own capacity to absorb excess waters. Such green infrastructure measures can play a major role in sustainable flood risk management in Europe. Win-win solutions need to be the focus of flood risk management.

Floods are the most common and most costly natural disasters in Europe which has severe floods with devastating effects happen every year, and such flood events are likely to become more frequent with climate change. In parallel, Europe's biodiversity is under severe pressure from many forms of human activities while other issues such as water scarcity and droughts are becoming more pronounced. Integrated flood risk management must focus on sustainable water management and measures which work with nature are becoming more important, as they contribute to the strengthening of the resilience of nature and society to extreme weather events.

Why do we need better environmental options?

EU environmental legislation asks for the evaluation of better, feasible environmental options to the proposed structural changes to rivers, lakes and coasts, if these changes could lead to a deterioration of the status of these waters. The Water Framework Directive, Habitats Directive, Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive set out such requirements, and strive to balance maintaining human needs whilst protecting the environment with the ultimate goal of achieving a sustainable approach to water management.

Why do we need natural flood management?

As our understanding of the interplay between rivers and the landscape has grown, effective solutions which work with nature, rather than against it, are becoming more important than ever. Flood risk management can go hand in hand with nature protection and restoration, and deliver benefits for both people and nature. Some traditional flood risk management measures have a negative impact on the quality and quantity of waters, or on biodiversity-rich areas. Examples can be the building of new dams or dikes which change the river flow, by reducing water for related ecosystems in the area or which accentuate problems in dry seasons by altering the natural flow of the river. Measures which improve the storage capacities of flood water temporarily during flood events, can be effective in protecting against flooding, as well as also provide other benefits deriving from ecosystem services, such as for leisure activities and nature protection.

What is natural flood management?

Natural flood management considers the hydrological processes across the whole catchment of a river or along a stretch of coast to identify where measures can best be applied, with a focus on increasing water retention capacities. Examples of such measures are:

  • restoring natural flows by realignment of coastal areas, or re-connection of rivers with their floodplain.
  • restoration of wetlands which can store flood water and help “slow the flow” of flood waters.
  • reservoirs in agricultural areas which can store flood water during flood events, and otherwise be high nature value areas.
  • urban Green Infrastructure such as green spaces, sustainable urban drainage and green roofs.

What are the multiple benefits of such measures?

Flood prevention measures entailing a more natural flood management approach achieve typical benefits such as avoided costs of damage to society, human health, economic activities, infrastructure, cultural heritage and the environment. However, this approach often allows the same piece of land to deliver multiple benefits and measures typically have additional benefits, such as:

  • maintaining and restoring biodiversity, by strengthening the functionality of ecosystems.
  • provision of nature protection areas which can also be valuable for recreation and increasing life quality.
  • improving water quality and restoring water resources.
  • contributing to the development of a green economy by providing jobs and business opportunities in addition to environmental advantages.

Although such additional benefits may not always be quantified or monetised, their advantages are important and compare favourably against traditional measures.

Information Package Documents

An information package on "Towards Better Environmental Options in Flood Risk Management" was developed by DG Environment in March 2011 to assist in raising the issue of the need to increase the use of natural water retention measures in flood risk management. This information package consists of three elements:

  1. A Note on Towards better environmental options in flood risk management discusses a series of aspects on this topic such as legal requirements, the need to identify better environmental options for new physical modification to water bodies, the role of measures which work with nature such as green infrastructure, stakeholder involvement, the multiple benefits of win-win measures, and possibilities to fund such measures with EU funds.
  2. An Annex to Note on Towards better environmental options in flood risk management provides further information on best practice examples, which have been implemented for natural flood risk management in Europe, and gives relevant background on methodologies which have been used to put the principles of ecosystem-based approaches and Green Infrastructure for flood risk management into practice.
  3. A Power Point Presentation to assist in summarising the information and facilitate stakeholders presenting the approach.

Other sources of information

Relevant information on the European Commission’s DG Environment website:

Contact information

If you have any questions about better environmental options in flood risk management, or if you have any further knowledge which would improve this site, please send us an email to the Water Mailbox of DG Environment.