Management Summary

Of all the natural hazards in Europe, flooding is the most common, and accounts for the largest number of casualties and highest economic damage. Without additional actions, both the probability and potential consequences of floods in Europe are expected to increase. Increasing flood risks in Europe call for improved management. This Guidebook aims to provide inspiration on what flood risk management strategies to employ and how to implement them through good governance.

This guidebook was developed based on the experiences and analyses of the STAR-FLOOD project in which flood risk governance in Belgium, England, France the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden – was analysed and compared.

Flood risk management in Europe has traditionally focused on structural solutions to defend against flooding: ‘keeping water away from people’. Although this often appears to be an effective and economically efficient strategy, it is more and more recognised that one should be prepared for flood events as well. As recommended in the EU Floods Directive, a mix of strategies that minimise both the probability and the consequences of floods is needed. This way, loss of lives and social, economic, environmental and cultural losses can be reduced and recovery or smart adaptation after a flood event can be enabled.

A mix of strategies can include the following five flood risk management strategies. In the strategic phase before a flood 1) flood risk prevention decreases the potential consequences of flooding by restricting developments in areas at risk of flooding; 2) flood defence infrastructure, as well as measures that increase the discharge capacity of rivers or increase upstream water retention capacity, decrease the probability of flooding; and 3) flood risk mitigation decreases the magnitude or consequences of flooding through measures inside the vulnerable area, such as flood zoning, flood-proof building or local water retention. In case a flood event occurs, 4) flood preparation and response helps to minimise the consequences by for instance issuing timely flood warnings and evacuating inhabitants of the flooded area. Finally, after a flood event, 5) a quick flood recovery can be encouraged by the preparation of reconstruction plans as well as public compensation or private insurance systems.

There are considerable differences between the strategies that countries apply, and there are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions. An optimal mix has to be tailored to the physical and societal context, and needs to be based on societal and political priorities regarding the objectives.

An important lesson of the STAR-FLOOD project is that to ensure the implementation of flood risk management strategies, a good organisation or governance is essential. In general, four governance aspects need to be in place:

  • the relevant actors, such as spatial planners, water managers, emergency services and insurance companies, take responsibility and collaborate to implement the strategy;
  • the strategy is embedded in the actors’ discourses, e.g., in thinking, discussions and policies;
  • the implementation is backed up by formal and informal rules; and
  • the actors have the necessary power and resources (finances, knowledge, political and interaction skills).

All these governance aspects need to function together: one missing link may hamper implementation. Furthermore, having multiple flood risk management strategies in place may cause fragmentation. Bridging mechanisms, or actors, policies, laws and other tools and instruments that link and align strategies, are therefore essential.

The recommendations and good practices in this Guidebook contribute to three ultimate aims of flood risk management. The first aim is resilience which includes having in place both the capacity to resist floods and the ability to absorb and recover. Furthermore, it includes the adaptive capacity to learn and change. The second aim of efficiency emphasises that flood risk management and governance should use resources (economic, human, technological) in an efficient manner; maximising desired outputs and minimising required inputs. Thirdly, flood risk management should be legitimate: the input, process and output should be societally acceptable.

A four step cyclical approach is recommended for improving flood risk management strategies and governance towards the ultimate aims:

  1. Analyse the current situation and its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats;
  2. Determine the desired situation and assess what changes are required to arrive there;
  3. Consider what has priority and what can be changed by whom;
  4. Take action in order to establish the desired changes.

Improvements that result from this process may depend on many actors in multiple interconnected and non-linear processes, which can be only partly influenced by individual persons or organisations. Striving for improvement will require ongoing effort, many iterations and sustained networking and capacity building.

Fortunately, efforts to improve flood risk management are ongoing in many countries. Past experiences can inspire and foster more directed, and faster improvement. This Guidebook provides such inspiration by describing common challenges and good practices in flood risk governance which are drawn from the wealth of information collected in Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden.

The common challenges and good practices are organised in the following clusters: 1) integrated planning, coordination and collaboration, 2) flood risk governance before a flood; 3) flood risk governance during a flood and 4) flood risk governance after a flood. For each challenge one or more good practices are introduced, describing how the challenge has been successfully addressed in specific countries and cases.

Regarding integrated planning, coordination and collaboration, all EU Member States are confronted with the implementation of the Floods Directive. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. In Poland the Floods Directive provided an opportunity to rethink and reshape flood risk management. Integrated planning for the future also takes place for other reasons than the implementation of the Floods Directive. In Sweden, climate adaptation triggers such planning; in France, integrated Action Plans for Flood Prevention are developed by local authorities; and in the Netherlands, Belgium and England examples of integrated and adaptive plans that take account of (future) uncertainties are developed. Other common challenges have to do with collaboration in river basins, between upstream and downstream stakeholders, and multilevel collaboration, between local, regional and national authorities. The River Contracts Wallonia are a good example of the first; the cooperation between amongst others the municipality, water board and state in the Dutch city of Dordrecht is a good example of the latter.

In the stage before a flood an important challenge that multiple countries face is how to defend against flooding in an optimal way. Two good practices are the Dutch advanced system of structural defences that guarantee safety in a high risk area, and the Swedish system of counting on temporary flood defences to deal with the lower and more dispersed flood risk. A related challenge is how to provide sufficient space for water outside the vulnerable area to decrease flood risk by decreasing peak discharges. Good examples are the Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems in England and the Room for the River project in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Another common challenge is including flood risk in spatial planning and construction. This can contribute significantly to reducing the consequences in case of flooding. A good example can be found in Belgium where the Water Assessment and Signal Areas have been introduced as tools to integrate water into decision making on urban developments. In Sweden local governments can withhold building permits based on flood risk arguments. In France, specific coordination mechanisms between spatial planning and risk management are in place.

Securing sufficient money for investments in physical infrastructure is done in several ways. The Dutch fund most measures through public taxes, whereas in England good examples of mixed funding through partnerships exist. In order to prioritise measures, we can turn to good examples from England and Belgium where several types of cost-benefit analysis support decision making. The last common challenge in the stage before a flood is to raise awareness and stimulate action by citizens. In England publically available flood maps play an important role in raising public awareness and attempts are made to create bottom-up action. In Belgium, property owners are obliged to inform interested buyers or tenants of a property of the associated flood risks, thus creating awareness.

In the stage during a flood, challenges of a different nature arise. An important common challenge is how authorities can organise themselves in times of flooding. In England we find good practise regarding flood forecasting and warning, which is essential to be able to react in time. Also a national framework to coordinate local action is in place. In France, local, national and international partners collaborate in a large crisis management exercise in the Paris region. Besides collaboration of authorities, the involvement of the public and volunteers is required to deal with floods, considering the limited capacity of the government. In England local community flood action groups are set-up, whereas Poland has good experiences with involvement of the voluntary fire brigades, involving local volunteers and identifying local leaders that are capable to raise and coordinate community action. As involvement of the public starts with awareness of the public, Sweden has set-up a communication program on flood risks related to failure of large dams and the Netherlands launched a website informing citizens of their options for evacuation in case of a large flood.

After a flood event the recovery phase starts: water needs to be pumped away, the area needs to be cleaned and areas need to be rebuilt or repaired. A common challenge is to make sure that sufficient money is available for recovery. In England as well as Belgium and France, insurance systems are in place. Either as part of the general household insurance such as in England, as part of the risk-fire insurance such as in Belgium, or as part of the private-public Cat Nat system in France. The Netherlands relies on a national compensation fund in case of natural disaster. In England a scheme is in place to compensate local authorities for unexpected costs related to floods. Maintaining and restoring critical infrastructure, healthcare and other functions is another common challenge in the phase after a flood. In England a specific programme on critical infrastructure was launched that promotes organisations to integrate resilience into their networks to better absorb shocks and recover quicker after a flood event. Ultimately, after a flood event lessons should be learned to better prepare for the future. In order to learn from the past we can turn to measures such as in England, where independent reviews are organised regarding flood risk management and responses to significant flood events. In Poland, the Millennium floods in 1997 triggered considerable changes in flood risk management resulting in much better preparation and response during the 2010 flood event.

This management summary is followed by a quick reference table to help guide you directly to the best practices of your interest. For each good practice the chart indicates which flood risk management strategies and which governance aspects are discussed and to which ultimate aims the good practice contributes. The good practices are clustered per country, with a more detailed reading guide found in section 1.3