Between 1998 and 2002, Europe suffered over 100 major damaging floods, including the catastrophic floods along the Danube and Elbe rivers in 2002. Between 1998 and 2004, floods caused some 700 fatalities, the displacement of about half a million people and at least € 25 billion in insured economic losses (European Environment Agency, Mapping the impacts of recent natural disasters and technological accidents in Europe ). Severe floods in the Danube river in 2005 caused further damage (DanubeWatch 2005/4). A 2011 EEA report "Mapping the impacts of natural hazards and technological accidents in Europe" reported that between 1998-2009 flooding and storms were still the most costly hazards, and that by 2009, the number of fatalities had reached 1126 in 213 recorded flood events. The overall losses recorded for this period now added up to about EUR 52 billion for floods and EUR 44 billion for storms.
The assets at risk of flooding can be enormous. For example, more than 10 million people live in the areas at risk of extreme floods along the Rhine, and the potential damage from floods amounts to € 165 billion. Coastal areas are also at risk of flooding. The total value of economic assets located within 500 metres of the European coastline, including beaches, agricultural land and industrial facilities, is currently estimated at € 500 to 1,000 billion (EUrosion ).
In addition to economic and social damage, floods may have severe environmental consequences as for example when waste water treatment plants are inundated or when factories holding large quantities of toxic chemicals are also affected. Floods may also destroy wetland areas and reduce biodiversity.
Floods are natural phenomena which cannot be prevented. However, human activity is contributing to an increase in the likelihood and adverse impacts of extreme flood events. Firstly, the scale and frequency of floods are likely to increase due to climate change - which will bring higher intensity of rainfall and rising sea levels - as well as to inappropriate river management and construction in flood plains which reduces their capacity to absorb flood waters. Secondly, the number of people and economic assets located in flood risk zones continues to grow.
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA) State of the Environment Report in 2010, a further major potential impact of climate change, in combination with land-use changes and water management practices, is the intensification of the hydrological cycle — due to changes in temperature, precipitation, glaciers and snow cover. In general, annual river flows are increasing in the north and decreasing in the south, a trend that is projected to increase with future global warming. Large changes in seasonality are also projected, with lower flows in summer and higher flows in winter. As a consequence, droughts and water stress are expected to increase, especially in southern Europe and particularly in summer. Flood events are projected to occur more frequently in many river basins, particularly in winter and spring, although estimates of changes in flood frequency and magnitude remain uncertain.
Many Member States are already taking flood protection measures but concerted and co-ordinated action at the level of the Community would bring a considerable added value and improve the overall level of flood protection. Given the potential risk to human life, economic assets and the environment, we cannot afford to do nothing; Europe’s commitment to sustainable development could be severely compromised if appropriate measures are not taken.