Since 2021, the OID sponsored programme ESREI – European sustainable real estate initiative – analyses how different countries manage ESG issues in the real estate sector. The subject of adaptation is covered by the OID’s publication, and the way each European country incorporate the challenge in their national regulations has been addressed in an article in March 2023. This time, the OID focuses on European and national strategies or regulations addressing the water-related natural hazards in Europe.
European Union: bringing global issues to national levels
Member States must apply the European Union (EU) law, due to the primacy of European law. According to this principle, both primary EU law (treaties and associated protocols) and secondary EU law (regulations, directives and decisions) take precedence over the law of the Member States. However, the scope of European law is much narrower and by virtue of the principle of attribution, the EU acts only within the limits of its competences.
Numerous EU directives, strategies or laws, and their implementation in national law, have been studied by the OID. In the regulatory framework, issues of water and natural risks are often addressed simultaneously. Indeed, flooding is the most covered hazards in European regulations, along with the issues of water quality and water resource management. These include the following 3 main directives: EU Water Framework Directive, EU Drinking Water Directive, EU Floods Directive.
Which European and national legislations address the challenge of water and floods issues?
In accordance with the main orientations given by EU directives and strategies, many countries have general regulations about water, such as National Water Strategy (Germany (2021), Italy (2018), United Kingdom (2008)), Water Act (Luxembourg, Netherlands, Czechia), Water Law (Portugal) or regulations with specific names (like the AGUA programme in Spain).
These strategies seek to improve water quality through a reduction of pollution and pollutant discharges, to secure water resources in the event of droughts, to improve the efficiency of resource use through the reuse of wastewater and by limiting the ‘water footprint’ (particularly on agricultural practices, such as in the UK regulation), and to prevent and manage flood risks.
More specifically, countries that are particularly sensitive to the risk of flooding are more equipped with regulations on the management of this physical hazard.
- The Netherlands, with 26% of the country below sea level and 55% of the country located in flood-prone areas, is a great example of integration of water strategies in the legislation. The great flood of 1953 had disastrous consequences, with over 1800 deaths following the storm. Mainly, these consequences were due to faults in terms of prevention and crisis management. After this disaster, a main change happened in the political organisation of water management in the country. The country benefits from an implementation of the European Water Framework Directive and also has a National Water Programme. A major strategy in the country is based on the Room for the River Programme, started in 2007, which redesigned land use planning in view of the major impact of flood risk on the national territory.
- In Denmark, almost 10% of the population is at risk of flooding, and the country has also strongly integrated the EU Floods Directive and created a National Adaptation Plan, which mainly considers the risks of erosion and flooding.
- All major cities in Ireland are in coastal locations subject to tides. Indeed 40% of the population lives near the coast (less than 5km) and 70,000 households live under the risk of coastal flooding by 2050. Thus, any significant rise in sea levels will have major economic, social, and environmental impacts. In Ireland, the EU Floods Directive has also been strongly adapted and the country made national provision for flooding in the National Flood Risk Policy and the Flood Risk Assessment and Management Programme (2004).
- The 3 Belgian regions also have their own specific flood risk management plan (like the L.U.I.E.S plan for Wallonia or plans for water management in the Brussels-Capital region. The country is very sensitive to this natural hazard as it’s the second most exposed European country (after the Netherlands). Indeed, since the end of the 1990’s, there has been an increase in the frequency of floods in the country, the latest of which occurred in the summer of 2021, killing up to 39 people. Furthermore, 15% of Flemish territory is only 5 m above average sea level, making it particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
- Due to its location in the Alpine range and its climatic conditions, Austria is at risk from natural hazards, especially floods (torrential flooding) and landslides. In 2013, a national mapping estimated that approximately 3% of building stock was in the risk areas for 100-year floods. Austria has a flood risk management strategy with regards to water management, spatial planning, building regulation, organisational and awareness-raising measures.
- In France, the Natural Risk Prevention Plans were introduced in 1995. This is a regulatory file that regulates land use according to the natural risks to which it is subject. The regulations can prohibit or impose restrictions on construction and work. These plans cover many types of natural risks, such as flooding. A specific guide for coastal territories has also been established. In 2012, the government adopted the National Strategy for Integrated Coastline Management (SNGITC). This strategy aims to guide all coastal stakeholders towards a more sustainable management for a greater resilience to the effects of climate change, by promoting a better anticipation of coastal evolutions. In addition, the Climate and Resilience Act (2021) contains a section on the coastline aimed at improving knowledge of the evolution of the coastline and providing a framework for land use planning in coastal areas. An application decree was also published in April 2022. It identifies 126 municipalities particularly exposed to the risk of marine submersion.
- Norway has not implemented the EU Floods Directive. The main document describing flood management in Norway is a white paper (Stortingsmelding 15 2011-2012). It states that the main laws related to floods are the Water Resources Act (2000) and the Planning and Building Act (2008). The document also states that the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy is responsible for national flood and landslide management, with the Norwegian Directorate for Water Resources and Energy as the operational authority. Nevertheless, all national authorities have independent responsibility for flood and landslide prevention and management in their area.
An alarming drought that must lead to more powerful adaptive strategies
In March 2023, the European Commission has sounded the alarm about drought. According to the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), most of the Southern and Western countries of the EU are affected by drought. This follows an abnormally warm and dry winter, and the situation could worsen if there is no regular rainfall throughout spring.
According to the JRC, soil moisture and river flows are already showing significant anomalies, particularly in France, Spain and northern Italy. Furthermore, in the Alpine region, snow accumulation has been well below average, which will lead to a strong reduction in the contribution of snowmelt to river flows in this region.
The JRC indicates that Europe, and particularly the Mediterranean region, could experience an extreme summer this year, similar to 2022. The report recommends close monitoring and appropriate use of water as well as the implementation of sectoral adaptation strategies and enhanced cooperation.
With the climate outlook pointing to an increase in the frequency of such events, the EU, and all European countries, must seriously address the issue of water resources. All existing strategies need to be tested against the actual climate situation, and revisions could be considered to cope with the expected extreme events.
National strategies, plans or orientations regarding water-related hazards are found in most countries in Europe. Floods hazard is mostly covered by these documents, but the issue of water quality and water resource is also addressed, both at European and national levels. The critical situation regarding water resources at the beginning of spring 2023 raises fear of a long-lasting drought event and questions the different (European and national) strategies dealing with water issues. On the other hand, the challenge of sea level rise and of extreme weather leading to floods must also be taken into account in European regulations. A common effort must be made to ensure a sustainable future regarding water resources as well as the rising risk of floods.
The ESREI programme is now sponsored by Advenis REIM, AEW, Allianz RE, Amundi Asset Management, Axa Investment Managers, BNP Paribas Real Estate, CBRE Global Investors, Icade, Ivanhoe Cambridge, La Française REIM, Mazars, Ofi Invest and PERIAL Asset Management. Contact the ESREI team at email@example.com if you are interested to join us !