Flood risk management in Sweden – opportunities and challenges

By Maria Pettersson, Susana Goytia, Elin Spegel and Kristina Ek

kristina_ekCompared to the other countries participating in STAR-FLOOD, Sweden has relatively limited experience with disastrous floods. Historically, it is only very rarely that floods have resulted in casualtiesmaria_petterson or in large-scale evacuations. However, a number of events, even in the last few years, have brought about significant economic losses of. For example, persistent rains during the summer of 2007 caused extensive areas in the south of Sweden to flood, damaging roads, railways and many buildings. In addition,  significant environmental damage occurred, because  treatment plants in two municipalities were flooded, resulting in the discharge of untreated  waste water into rivers.

Other significant factors for the Swedish flood risk management debate relate to some very specific country characteristics. The hard weather conditions and sparsely distributed population are quite unique for Europe. Moreover, extensive hydropower generation and forestry have resulted in a long history of controlling water through dams, dikes and water regulations.

The municipalities in Sweden most exposed to flood risks consider floods a high priority, and take them into account even when deciding on matters such as spatial planning and emergency preparedness.elin_spegel The measures and strategies adopted by the municipalities differ considerably and local governments have been quite outspoken regarding the difficulties they face when having to deal with flood risk management. In susana_goytiageneral, municipalities have expressed the need for better support in the form of resources, adequate data and increased collaboration between municipalities and government agencies.


More recently, floods have also gained significant national attention, partly because of the damaging events previously mentioned, but also because of the growing concern regarding climate change. In 2005, the Swedish Government appointed a Commission on Climate and Vulnerability, with the main task of assessing the impacts of global climate change at local and regional levels. In 2006, the Commission produced a report on the flood risks associated with three of the largest lakes in Sweden (and other vulnerable areas). In  2007,  a final report on the threats and opportunities of climate change was published. Both  documents contain very important recommendations aimed at reducing the country’s vulnerability to flooding. The focus is decisively on preventive measures and some of these measures have already been implemented. For example, existing legislation on spatial planning now includes clearer requirements to consider the risk of accidents, floods and erosion when determining the suitability of the land where buildings and structures are to be located.

The EU Floods Directive seems to also have had an impact on Swedish actors and discourses, and there is a belief that the implementation of the Floods Directive may lead to a more systematic approach to flood risk management, for example through the use of common criteria and improved definitions of the roles and responsibilities of those involved in flood risk management. However, the strong municipal self-government poses a serious challenge for the implementation of the Floods Directive; the municipal (spatial) planning monopoly basically means that all decisions will ultimately be made at the local level.

In this context, we consider the participation in the STAR-FLOOD project to be a valuable opportunity for Sweden. Important changes are happening at all levels and there is a need to address flood risk governance in an integrated way. The three urban regions selected as case studies, Karlstad, Gothenburg and Haparanda, are quite diverse and the processes of institutionalization of their flood risk management strategies can be expected to have followed rather individual pathways. It will be interesting to analyse and evaluate such processes with the objective of later identifying and suggesting appropriate and resilient Flood Risk Governance Arrangements.