Serious Situation Regarding European Floods
Europe’s flood problem is about to get much worse. The good news is there is a solution, says a new report from the European Environment Agency – the first assessment to cover the whole of Europe. The floods just keep coming and Europe’s citizens are suffering. There have been more than 3500 floods since 1980, says the report, and the trend is upwards. In 2010, no fewer than 27 countries were affected by 321 floods.
“The recent flood problems in the UK are adding to evidence of worsening flood problems in Europe,” says co-author Beate Werner. Cut off from floodplain One cause is more rainfall, such as the record December precipitation in parts of the UK. But much of the actual damage arises because rivers have been cut off from their natural floodplains.
On many major European rivers – including the Danube and Rhine – more than 80 per cent of the low-lying land, where rivers naturally spread during high flows, has been barricaded by flood defences, drained and built on, says the report. In Hungary, for example, almost a fifth of the population lives on floodplains.
Besides being bad for natural ecosystems such as wetlands, corralling rivers within their banks increases the risk of flooding, says the report. This is because the barriers raise river levels higher during floods. Somewhere, they will inevitably burst their banks, flooding homes and streets.
The report predicts a five-fold increase in flood damage by 2050. One cause is climate change, which stimulates extreme weather and is thought to be largely responsible for recent record rains in the UK. The report estimates that more intense rains in a warmer world will be responsible for around a fifth of the predicted increase in flood damage across Europe.
Let rivers flow free
But the remaining four-fifths will come from covering floodplains with buildings and infrastructure like roads and railways. So what can we do about it? Build less on floodplains and encourage rivers to flood them, where no people are at risk, so that peak flows can be harmlessly dissipated. “We need to free up areas for a more natural way of flood protection, giving room for the river,” Werner says. This is not a new message. After the massive floods on the Rhine in 1995, both Germany and the Netherlands tore down defences in rural areas where few properties would suffer – so reconnecting rivers to their floodplains.
But the new report says other countries now need to adopt the same approach. That includes the UK, where the House of Commons just announced an enquiry into flood prevention. Conservationists welcomed the argument that reviving natural floodplains can also protect people. “Damaged ecosystems, like the destruction of floodplains, are the hidden hand behind many supposedly natural disasters,” says Jane Madgwick of Wetlands International, a Dutch-based NGO. “They can be what turns extreme weather into human calamity.”