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Climate: How will Europe cope with growing flood risks?

New study outlines adaptation options

Central Europe 72h rain fall at 2.6.2013 en

Widespread heavy rainfall led to historic flooding across Central Europe in June, 2013. Map via Wikipedia, under a Creative Commons license.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO —Europe needs to update its risk management strategy to adapt to the growing threat of floods, an international team of experts said this week, projecting that flood costs will climb dramatically during the next few decades.

By 2050, average annual flood-related costs could soar to €23.5 billion, up from the €4.9 billion in average annual losses for the 2000 to 2012 period, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and other European institutions.

Eying the widespread transnational threat, the team of economists and hydrologists advocated for restructuring pan-European funding mechanisms to better manage flood risks.

“There is scope for better managing flood risk through risk prevention, such as using moveable flood walls, risk financing and enhanced solidarity between countries,” said economist Reinhard Mechler, the deputy program director for risk policy and vulnerability at the Vienna-based IIASA. “There is no one-size-fits all solution, and the risk management measures have very different efficiency, equity and acceptability implications. These need to be assessed and considered in broader consultation,” he said.

“We need to reconsider advance mechanisms to finance these risks if we want to be in the position to quickly and comprehensively pay for recovery,” said IIASA researcher Stefan Hochrainer-Stigler, who led the modeling work on the study.

The increase in projected costs is  driven by the growing value of assets in flood-prone areas, as well as by global warming, which will change precipitation patterns across the continent. Large events, such as the 2013 European floods, are likely to increase in frequency from an average of once every 16 years to a probability of once every 10 years by 2050.

“The big driver is exposure,” said Mechler. “There will be more valuable assets in harm’s way, with increased wealth and GDP growth over time,” Mechler said.

“In this study we brought together expertise from the fields of hydrology, economics, mathematics and climate change adaptation, allowing us for the first time to comprehensively assess continental flood risk and compare the different adaptation options,” says Brenden Jongman of the Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam, who coordinated the study.

“The new study for the first time accounts for the correlation between floods in different countries,” said Hochrainer-Stigle. “Current risk-assessment models assume that each river basin is independent. But in actuality, river flows across Europe are closely correlated, rising and falling in response to large-scale atmospheric patterns that bring rains and dry spells to large regions,” Hochrainer-Stigler said.

“If the rivers are flooding in Central Europe, they are likely to also be flooding Eastern European regions. We need to be prepared for larger stress on risk financing mechanisms, such as the pan-European Solidarity Fund, a financial tool for financing disaster recovery in the European Union.”

For example, the analysis suggests that the EUSF must pay out funds simultaneously across many regions. This can cause unacceptable stresses to such risk financing mechanisms.

“The fund should be better aligned with potential risk … why not think about insurance in a wider sense,” Mechler said.

Hochrainer-Stigler presented testimony based on this research at a recent public hearing on the EUSF with the European Commission.

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