Water Engineering
(© Water Management Directorate of Romania)

Europe Gets a Flood Directive

Now that the new law has been passed by the EU Parliament, it clears the path for a multilateral approach to floods and their manifold challenges

Between 1998 and 2004, Europe was ravaged by more than 100 major flood events. The floods killed some 700 people and forced another 500,000 to leave their homes. According to the European Commission, the insured economic losses incurred only during this period amounted to at least 25 billion euros. The Danube River Basin is among the most heavily endangered river catchment areas. Aggravated by the climate change taking a rather heavy toll on the Alpine region, the floods not only haunt Austria more often and more intensely. The plain and low-lying areas of Hungary, Serbia and Romania, too, are quite seriously affected.

Apart from the growingly accepted and increasingly also implemented request to give more space to the rivers and thereby keep flood water longer in the landscape, even the European countries between each other began to realise that a rapid “discharge” of floods to downstream areas cannot be a sustainable solution – especially so in a united Europe. Nevertheless, it still took a long time until proven collaboration at bilateral level was eventually supplemented by multilateral initiatives.

Following a series of major flood events between 1998 and 2001, Hungary was among the first to take the initiative and urge the installation of a Flood Protection Expert Group within ICPDR, which has since then been chaired by Hungary. After the disastrous flood of 2002, Hungary launched the “Budapest Initiative on strenghtening international cooperation on sustainable flood management”. In recognition of its achievements, it was one of five countries invited to collaborate on a “Best Practice Document on flood prevention, protection and mitigation”.

The document was approved in 2003 by the water directorates of the EU countries, Norway, Switzerland and the EU acceding states and, according to the Hungarian experts Gyula Holló and Sándor Tóth, is regarded as the spiritual basis of the EU Action Programme on Flood Risk Management. Another legal instrument was created for the latter, currently known as the EU Flood Directive. Heinz Stiefelmeyer from the Austrian Ministry of Environment (BMLFUW) in this context also praises the INTERREG Rhine Meuse Activities (IRMA), with which the EU Commission in the 1980s promoted an integrated programme of area planning, water management and damage prevention in the catchment area of Rhine and Meuse.

In 2004, the European Commission eventually approved a Communication on the necessity of an improved flood risk management, in which also a need to establish relevant community laws was identified. This resulted in the presentation of a flood directive proposal on 18th January 2006. After some slight modifications in April 2007, the Directive on the assessment and management of flood risks (Flood Directive) was finally adopted by the EU Parliament on 18th September 2007 and promulgated as Directive 2007/60/EC in the Official Journal of the European Union on 6th November.

“The Flood Directive clearly requests member states to practise an integrated flood management policy, draw up a prospective risk assessment and consequently look at the most endangered river basins and coastal areas to identify potential hazard zones and depict them in mapping systems”, said EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas in anticipation of the Flood Directive. Basically, however, he suggested that flood control remains a national responsibility of the member states (principle of subsidiarity).

In spring 2006, Austrian Environment Minister Josef Pröll called the Flood Directive a “docking station” for countries that also share the large European river systems but are not yet EU members. As Heinz Stiefelmeyer reports, the Flood Directive makes reference to the environmental objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and is also associated with the latter through the timetable for the second river basin management plan, but also differs from the latter in crucial areas. One particular aspect he mentions in this context is the principle of subsidiarity, which is embodied in the Flood Directive and according to which the protection targets (and the type of measures adopted) in the framework of the flood management plans are largely the responsibility of the member states.

The two directives, however, do conform with each other in the way they are implemented. The Flood Directive, too, follows a threestep process aimed at effectively communicating a relevant flood risk to the affected populations and, in case of damage, keeping the negative consequences of flooding to a minimum. The first implementation step of the Flood Directive consists in identifying flood risk areas. This “preliminary flood risk assessment” (step 1) must be published by 22nd December 2011 and reviewed every six years starting in 2018 (see climate change). Heinz Stiefelmeyer expects that this is mostly based on easily available information such as recordings.

He also says that “assessment” in this context clearly means drawing up appropriately scaled maps of individual river basins, in which the boundaries of catchment areas and partial catchment areas (if applicable also coastal areas) are clearly indicated. Also to be included are topographic data and data on land use, as well as a description of previous flood events, which had a significant impact on humans, economy and environment and are likely to reoccur in a similar manner.

Data on the extent of flooding and relevant discharge paths complete this section. Stiefelmeyer assumes that the “flood hazard maps” and “flood risk maps” (step 2) to be completed by 22nd December 2013, as well as the “flood risk management plans” based on the latter and to be submitted by 22nd December 2015 (step 3), still require further elaboration by the Commission as well as ongoing expert debates. “Especially so as the flood risk management plans should consider all relevant aspects – such as cost and benefit, extent of flooding and discharge paths, potential flood retention areas, soil use, water management, area planning, land use, environmental protection, navigation and port infrastructure”, he says.

Flood risk management plans shall serve as basis for implementing concrete measures. The flood hazard maps and flood risk maps, too, shall be reviewed – for the first time in 2019 and subsequently at intervals of six years. The same procedure applies to the flood risk management plans from 2021. The EU Flood Directive must be incorporated into national law within two years following its entry into force. As far as the incorporation into national law and the first step of implementation are concerned, Hungary and Romania, but also Austria, can already boast several important achievements made in anticipation.

According to Gyula Holló und Sándor Tóth, Hungary has already formulated a relevant governmental decree which also incorporates the ICPDR Flood Action Programme. Work is already under way to raise the budget necessary for implementing all three steps of the Flood Directive. This also applies to the Environment and Energy Operative Programme, which forms part of the New Hungary Development Plan scheduled for the 2007–2013 period. Also in the pipeline is the installation of special task forces entrusted with the supervision and harmonisation of relevant projects, such as the necessary feasibility studies to start with.

Lucia Ana Varga says Romania has also started its Flood Directive implementation process by developing an Action Plan for flood control on medium term (2007–2009) and a Study for the ecological and economical resizing of the Romanian sector of Danube River floodplain. Further initiatives are addressed to the river basins and the legal situation. Varga, who is Secretary of State of the Romanian Environment Ministry’s Water Management Directorate and ICPDR President in 2007, also pinpoints the ample experience her country has meanwhile gathered in citizen involvement, yet another key concern of the Flood Directive.

Examples include flood simulation exercises and information campaigns on which to build all further activities. According to Austrian water law, the installation of flood protection facilities is the sole responsibility of the owners of endangered assets; there is no obligation to take action. Owners may, however, be forced by the public authorities to take action or bear the cost of such measures if there is a third-party interest. To alleviate these financial burdens and above all to guard against recurrent flooding, the law envisages the possibility to establish water cooperatives and water associations.

If flood control and protection systems are built with financial assistance from the government, then those who either benefit from the hydraulic engineering measures taken or are spared a negative impact may, upon local authority request, be compelled to make an appropriate financial contribution. So far, certain precautionary measures such as the development of flood control plans, superordinate protection schemes or hazard zone maps were already carried out at federal level on the basis of the existing legislation. From a legal viewpoint, hazard zone maps (an integral component of hazard prevention) are expert findings which have no (direct) legally binding effect.

To assure their applicability and validity in procedures, also the scale of such maps is of great importance. According to the Water Act (Wasserrechtsgesetz/ WRG), discharge boundaries of specific flood peaks (years) have to be recorded in the water register.

With due consideration of the continuously changing discharge conditions, they serve as a first rough guidance for the citizens and are no precedent for the assessment of an individual case. To account for the growing importance of water management planning, a special section was dedicated to the latter in the 2003 amendment to the WRG, as is also required by the provisions of the WFD. Key items include adequate preparation before planning, efficient coordination of individual planning steps and their due consideration in procedures.

With respect to flood control, there are certain policy rules (= “precursors” of the water management plans to be drafted at national level in accordance with the WFD by 2009 and relating to individual water bodies) which already now partly lay down general principles of enforcement, such as prohibiting negative influences on downstream river stretches or appreciating the installation of retention areas. As regards the obligations of planning, the legal situation in area planning and building construction is somewhat different.

On account of the “protective purpose” of the law, applicants for building permits may rely on the fact that in connection with the development of zoning maps the relevant property is not located in a flood risk or avalanche risk area. Partly in response to the 2002 floods, some provinces have introduced mandatory measures to ensure an appropriate land use, such as building restrictions to guard against flooding. Charlotte Vogl, who heads the department for legal and economic affairs in water management at BMLFUW, underlines that in context with the development of zoning maps, local authorities are normally obliged to seek clarity if there are clear indications of flood hazards, such as the existence of flood discharge areas.

As far as the implementation of the Flood Directive in Austria is concerned, Vogl suggests that the first step must be to review to what extent central national management principles regarding flood protection, which are also addressed to groups of people potentially affected by flood events, need to be reformulated or concretised.

This review basically comprises flood retention, sanitary water discharge, prospective risk management and protection in flood risk areas. Vogl is fully aware that flood control is a controversial issue with conflicting interests. There are conflicts between individual authorities and there is also controversy between the duty of a public authority to offer protection against environmental hazards and the need to provide areas that can be used for living and working.

Even in context with the Flood Directive, it will always be a matter of deciding in which living, working and economic areas flood protection systems shall be installed and where area planning measures should be given priority. “The flood risk management plans to be drafted in keeping with the Flood Directive can only be developed and implemented in conjunction with land use stakeholders; this applies to the choice of protection goals as well as to the specific protection measures used”, the water law expert concludes. Charlotte Vogl and Heinz Stiefelmeyer both agree that Austria is one of the countries that provide excellent conditions for incorporating the EU Flood Directive into national law. With its internet flood risk zoning platform HORA, Austria has already furnished itself for step 1 of the Flood Directive.
(Source: aqua press Int. 4/2007, Mag. Christof Hahn)

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