Working with Nature to Reduce Climate Risk in Europe on World Wetlands Day | WWF

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Working with Nature to Reduce Climate Risk in Europe on World Wetlands Day

Posted on 03 February 2020

World Wetlands Day: Climate change is already exacerbating water-related risks in CEE.
22 January 2020 - New WWF report, Working with Nature to Reduce Climate Risk, outlines how investing in Nature-based Solutions can build resilience in the face of increasing water risks across the continent.
Climate change is the greatest threat to the future of our societies and economies. All the science points to worsening risks from extreme floods, droughts, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. But the climate crisis is not just a future threat. Climate change is already affecting water resources and exacerbating water-related risks across the globe, with impacts being felt by communities, corporations and countries.1
In Europe, these rising risks are occurring on a landscape that has already been dramatically altered by people – including in ways that exacerbate these challenges, such as the loss of floodplains, channelling of rivers and rampant coastal development. Increasingly, it seems as if the forces of nature are arrayed against our homes, businesses and economies – and that traditional responses can no longer hold back the tide, floods or droughts. The answer involves a greater focus on harnessing the power of nature to help increase our resilience and reduce these risks – by investing in Nature-based Solutions (NbS).
On World Wetlands Day (Feb. 2), we must recognise that all of these changes are part of a widespread loss of ecosystems and biodiversity on the continent, including the destruction of 56% of its natural wetlands. However, we must also celebrate what WWF Central and Eastern Europe and its partners are doing to rectify the situation.
Over the past 150 years the rivers and wetlands in the Danube Basin have been heavily impacted by human activity. The main threats stem from unsustainable flood protection infrastructure, hydropower, navigation and drainage of lands due to intensive agricultural practices. The resulting dikes, dams, drainage and dredging activities have straightened large parts of the rivers, and cut off and dried out their floodplains. Overall, more than 80% of the Danube’s and its tributaries’ wetlands have been lost, and with them, the ecosystem services they provide to people like flood protection, fish production, drought mitigation, recreation, livelihoods and biomass.
WWF Central and Eastern Europe’s ambitious Living Danube  Programme in cooperation with the Coca-Cola Foundation has been working to restore and reinvigorate some of the Danube’s wetlands by reconnecting former floodplains to the river system by opening dams, improving water supply channels, as well as retaining water on the floodplains by working closely with relevant local authorities and stakeholders since  2014. The aim is to increase the  water retention capacity by the equivalent of 4,800 Olympic sized swimming pools (12 million m³) and to restore over 7,422 football pitches worth of wetland habitat (53 km²) by 2020 by restoring wetlands in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Austria
As part of the Living Danube Partnership, and with additional financial support of EU LIFE, two barriers were removed and a new fish pass was constructed in Rusenski and Cherni Lom, Bulgaria. The pioneering project is being used to pilot and promote good practice in design and construction of fish passes in Bulgaria in order to permit the free movement of fish and restore endangered fish populations. Project activities have also included re-stocking of fish populations and significant education and awareness-raising. WWF-CEE and its local partners’ work in the Persina and Kalimok wetlands of Bulgaria, part of Lower Danube Green Corridor, has resulted in the recovery of 3,700 ha of wetlands and a freshwater replenishment potential of 7 million m3.
Another  great result of the Living Danube Programme is in the Neusiedler See National Park, Austria. Soda or alkaline lakes found in the national park are a rare type of wetland that supports unusual wildlife, including seabirds many kilometres from the sea. In Europe, they only exist in the Pannonian Basin, stretching from eastern Austria across Hungary to Serbia. Hundreds of the lakes have lost their unique character due to man-made interventions, including drainage. By installing a system of sluices, the level of groundwater was raised, preventing some of the soda lakes from drying out. The successfully completed project has inspired local stakeholders to undertake additional interventions to save other soda lakes in the area.
Construction work to reconnect the floodplain in Garla Mare, and Vrata in Romania to the Danube is set to begin this year. To date, 5 Living Danube wetland restoration projects in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Austria have been completed and 4 in Croatia, Romania and Hungary are ongoing.

Since we can only tackle Europe’s worsening water-related challenges by employing a diverse range of solutions with a basin perspective and in an integrated way, it is essential to prioritise nature-based solutions that use natural systems or processes to help achieve a societal goal, such as managing water supplies or reducing disaster risk for people.
Executive Summary
While conventional infrastructure approaches can often cause negative impacts on other resources and values, a hallmark of NBS is that they provide a range of other benefits to people and nature and thus can help tackle today’s other great global crisis – the loss of the biodiversity, including an 83% collapse in freshwater species populations on average since 1970. NbS can also contribute to the achievement of other international objectives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement.

Although most of Europe features extensive infrastructure and water-management systems, the continent still confronts a number of water-related challenges that are projected to intensify with climate change. Indeed, economic losses in Europe caused by extreme climate and weather-related events soared to around €14 billion per year between 2000 and 2015.

Using NbS to address these challenges can also help restore nature across Europe – boosting efforts to achieve other critical policy objectives, including the attainment of good ecological status for all rivers and other waters under the Water Framework Directive (currently 60% are in bad health) and helping Europe lead the transition to a healthy planet, as outlined in the European Commission’s new Green Deal.

Nature-based solutions are key to planning for the following five objectives across Europe:
  • Reducing risk from extreme river flooding
Due to a combination of climate change and development in floodplains, the number of people affected by floods in Europe has been rising and flood damages are predicted to considerably increase in the future. A consensus is emerging that a much broader approach – a “diversified portfolio” – is needed to manage current and future flood risks.

Along with non-structural measures, such as improved zoning and building codes, there needs to be much greater investment in NbS, which can reduce the impact of extreme floods by slowing runoff (i.e. by protecting natural forests, restoring wetlands and adopting best agricultural practice) and lowering flood levels (i.e. by preserving and restoring floodplains, dike setbacks and floodways), while also helping to restore floodplain ecosystems, which are among the most productive and diverse habitats on the planet.

One case study in this report focusses on the Elbe River, which has experienced extreme flooding several times this century despite an array of dikes and floodwalls. Working in the Lödderitzer oak forest, WWF and partners removed the existing dike and built a new one further from the river. Along with restoring around 600 hectares of the most important floodplain habitat in Central Europe, this NbS is expected to reduce flood levels by nearly 30cm for a 100-year flood for 8km upstream of the project site, providing a considerable reduction in flood risk for the city of Aken.
  • Reducing the risk of flooding in cities
Coupled with all their impervious surfaces, many cities have paved over their wetlands and channelized their rivers, so that heavy rainfall can rapidly overwhelm storm drainage systems and cause severe flooding. Investing in a range of NbS can slow down and store runoff, and reduce flood peaks, including porous pavements, ‘green’ roofs and the restoration – or construction – of lakes and wetlands. Fortuitously, most of these NbS also make urban spaces healthier, greener and cooler in summer, contributing to more vibrant urban environments and the well-being of city dwellers.

For example, the LIFE-MICACC Project2 in which WWF-Hungary is a project partner, aims to help the smallest and most vulnerable Hungarian settlements prepare for climate change. A 1 ha side-reservoir was created beside the Szilágyi Stream which helps retain water from flash-flood events. As such, it is capable of protecting both village infrastructure from flash flooding, and mitigates summer droughts and heatwaves by replenishing groundwater resources and cooling the micro-climate through evaporation. On the upper watershed, leaky wooden check-dams were installed in erosional gullies to halt soil erosion and decrease the speed at which water rushes into the settlement.
  • Managing water scarcity and reducing risk from droughts
The droughts that Europe experienced in 2003 and 2015 were among the most severe in the past 250 years. The 2003 drought alone resulted in approximately €10 billion in economic losses. Similar to managing flood risk, managing for water scarcity and drought risk should strive for a diverse, integrated and comprehensive approach – with an emphasis on NbS, including using natural features to increase water availability, such as recharging groundwater and retaining water in soils. This can help countries move from simply reacting to droughts to building a “drought resilient society.” NbS can reduce extreme flooding by increasing natural water retention. This also helps to mitigate droughts as they keep water flowing when the rains fail.

The LIFE-MICACC Project also constructed the first two nature-based water retention measures in Hungary. At Ruzsa, another project site situated on the elevated sand ridge running between the Duna and Tisza Rivers (Homokhátság), water is extremely scarce. The minuscule rainfall in the area is quickly drained by sandy soils. Precipitation has been decreasing for decades, and the old drainage canal created in the 1970s still drains any excess water away from the area that may appear. Any available surface water is a treasure here, even treated sewage and other effluents from water purification plants. A small lake was created in the middle of the settlement to retain effluent water from a nearby drinking water purification plant.
  • Improving water quality
Although some aspects of water quality in European water bodies have improved over the past few decades, around 60% are still polluted with chemicals, primarily from agriculture. A number of NbS can help improve water quality, ranging from biodiversity-based approaches for managing agricultural pests that require less use of pesticides to building or restoring wetlands that filter sediment, nutrients and other pollution from runoff.

WWF-Finland, with funding from the EU, constructed 30 wetlands in highly agricultural river basins. They were designed to increase water retention, reducing the runoff from fields and erosion of streambanks, and thus cutting the amount of sediment and agricultural nutrients being washed into streams, rivers and the Baltic Sea.

As these examples show, Nature-based Solutions have considerable potential to improve land and water management and to reduce water-related risks. But despite the multiple benefits that NbS can provide, currently less than 1 per cent of total investments in water-management infrastructure is allocated toward NbS. European countries and companies must urgently increase investment in NbS to build more resilient societies, economies and ecosystems.
  • Reducing risk from coastal flooding or erosion
Sea level has been rising and will continue to rise this century. While hard engineering solutions will still be needed in some situations to reduce coastal flood risk, the best option will include a mix of approaches that draw on NbS as much as possible, such as the protection or restoration of salt marshes, coastal lagoons, coastal peatlands, sand dunes and oyster reefs. These will help to reduce wave energy, minimise the impact of storm surges, and stabilize shorelines, while also providing other diverse benefits, such as carbon sequestration to boost climate mitigation, and habitats for wildlife.
WWF points the way forward
  • The European Commission must ensure that the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 includes legally- binding targets for restoring wetlands, peatlands and floodplains; strengthen the implementation of the Water Framework Directive so that all surface and ground waters will be in good status by 2027; and launch a large-scale deployment of NbS for water management to enhance the natural treatment of pollution, sustain biodiversity, and increase resilience to climate change.
  • European Union Member States must integrate NbS into river basin as well as flood risk management plans; and protect the remaining free-flowing stretches of rivers for their biodiversity, ecological and societal values.
  • Private sector companies must adopt water stewardship, beginning by assessing their water risks and then developing a strategy that mitigates them, including promoting the individual and collective application of NbS where possible.
  • The financial sector must better understand water risk and how to account for it when valuing investments; engage with existing efforts and start to create offerings that finance NbS; and support policy that lays the foundation for credible green investments.
Europe’s past features a dramatic loss of nature. Along with diminishing the continent’s wildlife, the loss of forests, wetlands and floodplains has increased the risks from flooding, drought, and poor water quality. Climate change will exacerbate these risks – even if we succeed in holding the rise in global temperature to under 1.5 degrees.

We do not suggest that NbS are the sole solution to water-related challenges, but they should be prioritised because they have the potential to restore some of the losses of the past, while reducing the risks of the future. NbS provide diverse benefits that will help communities, corporations and countries to increase resilience and adapt to climate change, especially when NbS are planned and implemented at a river basin scale and in an integrated way across sectors.

Similar to advice on how to be a savvy investor, those managing rising climate risks should strive for a “diversified portfolio approach” that integrates NbS with more conventional solutions. In a warming world, we risk seeing nature’s power as only a threat. By investing in Nature-based solutions, we also get nature’s power on our side.
More information:
Laurice Ereifej, Regional Freshwater Lead, WWF Central and Eastern Europe,
Klara Kerpely, WWF-Hungary,, Tel: +36 30 233 7368
Mátyás Farkas, WWF-Hungary,, Tel: +36 30 341 1949
Project website of LIFE-MICACC Project:
Related article: Climate Change Poses New Water Management Challenges
1 According to the WWF report Good Water Management: The Heart of Europe’s Drought Response, issued in July 2019, EU Member States’ poor management of rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater is worsening the impacts of climate change, like more severe droughts. Out of the 419 cities worldwide analysed, the CEE Region’s capitals are at rather high risk compared to others globally. In terms of water scarcity and drought Kiev is ranked the 95th most at risk, followed by Bucharest (101), Budapest (171) and Sofia (278).

2 Other project partners include the Ministry of Interior of Hungary, Municipality of Bátya, Municipality of Püspökszilágy, Municipality of Rákócziújfalu, Municipality of Ruzsa, Municipality of Tiszatarján, Association of Climate-Friendly Municipalities, General Directorate of Water Management and PANNON Pro Innovation Services Ltd.
The answer involves a greater focus on harnessing the power of nature to help increase our resilience and reduce these risks – by investing in Nature-based Solutions (NbS).
The aim of the Living Danube Project is to increase the river capacity by 12 million m³ by the end of 2020.
© WWF-CEE/Coca-Cola Foundation
Creating Ruzsa Lake, Hungary. Nature-based solutions can reduce extreme flooding by increasing natural water retention that also helps to mitigate droughts as they keep water flowing when the rains fail.
© WWF-Hungary