Changes in hydrometeorological characteristics and risks have been observed and are projected to increase under climate change. These considerations are scientifically well studied and led to the development of a complex policy framework for adaptation and mitigation for hydrometeorological risks. Awareness for policy actions is growing worldwide but no legal framework is in place to tackle climate change impacts on water at a global scale. With the example of international frameworks and the legislation on EU-level, this article elaborates that hydrometeorological risks are not considered in the framework of one single policy. However, various policy instruments are directly or indirectly considering these risks at different operational levels. It is discussed that a tailor-made framework for hydrometeorological risks would improve coordination at international or national level. A major drawback for a single operational framework is that hydrometeorological risks are scientifically tackled in two large communities: the disaster risk reduction community and the climate change adaptation community, both of which are bound to different research and operational funding budgets. In future, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation will need been seen as a complementary set of actions that requires collaboration.


Hydrometeorological risks ; Disaster risk reduction ; Policy ; European Union

1. Introduction

The Technical Paper VI of the IPCC highlights that observational records and climate projections provide abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable toward climate change, with wide-ranging consequences for human societies and ecosystems in Europe and worldwide. Observed warming over several decades has been linked to changes in the large-scale hydrological cycle, such as the effects on atmospheric water vapour content, changes of precipitation patterns with consequences on extreme floods and droughts (Bates et al., 2008 ). This has been reconfirmed by the IPCC in 2014, and evidence of observed climate change impacts is strongest and most comprehensive for natural systems (IPCC, 2014 ). It is very likely that hydrometeorological characteristics will change in the future. The impacts of climate change, in particular the increased frequency and severity of extreme hydrometeorological events, may challenge the reliability of our water management systems, although quantitative projections of changes in precipitation, river flows and water levels at the river basin scale remain uncertain.

Nonetheless, these considerations supported the development of a complex policy framework designing adaptation and mitigation options. These options aim at tackling impacts of global warming on water resources and risks to society and assets. They are closely linked to a range of policies. This article gives an outline of the major policy framework relevant to hydrometeorological events with some considerations from previous publications of the authors (Gemmer et al., 2011 , Quevauviller et al., 2011  and Quevauviller, 2011 ). It discusses the transition from the policy framework to the operational level and identifies major drawbacks.

2. Policy background

The need for policy responses to tackle climate change impacts on water, including hydrometeorological extreme events, is recognised worldwide. This is extensively expressed in the IPCC Technical Paper on Water (Bates et al., 2008 ), which is addressed primarily to policy-makers engaged in all areas related to freshwater resource management, climate change, strategic studies, spatial planning and socio-economic development. This technical paper evaluates the impacts of climate change on hydrological processes and regimes, and of freshwater resources (availability, quality, uses and management), at a worldwide scale, and highlights their implications for policy, looking at different sectors. In particular, it provides recommendations regarding adaptation measures in regions prone to climate change-related extremes about water resource management, ecosystems, agriculture and forestry, coastal systems, sanitation and human health. Awareness for policy actions is growing worldwide but no legal framework is in place to tackle climate change impacts on water at a global scale.

2.1. International policies

Following the publication of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2007, the impacts of climate change and extreme events, for instance in hydrology, have received special attention in academia and in international management aspects for hydrometeorology. Expert groups supporting the global players such as the UN programmes and the regional development banks have recommended specific measures, but a global policy for hydrometeorological extremes does not exist. So far, two major publications have addressed the need for such a global approach in response to the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts, a guidance document of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) (UNECE, 2009 ) and the IPCC Technical Paper on Water (Bates et al., 2008 ). UNECE recommends the mainstreaming approach for policy, meaning that any policy needs to reflect climate change and its projected extremes same as any other challenges that are known such as resource scarcity, environmental degradation, economic pressure or demographic change. The challenge to adapt such a mainstreaming approach lies in building cross-sectoral legislation and trans-boundary implementation to allow consideration of cross-sectoral trade-offs, synergies, and investments in mitigation and adaptation measures. Since the publication of the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, uncertainty cannot be mentioned as reason for inaction anymore.

The Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015 (HFA) is one of the key policy trends at international level. The UN adopted this programme in January 2005 that commits 168 nations to substantially reduce the loss of life and livelihoods from disasters. The scope of the HFA goes clearly beyond the sole water-related disasters from extreme floods and droughts and includes, for example, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and storms. The implementation of the HFA is under the responsibility of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR) which is the focal point in the UN system for the coordination of disaster reduction and to ensure synergies among the disaster-reduction activities of the UN and regional organisations, and activities in socio-economic and humanitarian fields. More information about the UN-ISDR objectives can be found in the 2010–2011 Biennial Work Programme (UNECE, 2009 ). The so-called HF2 (post-Hyogo Framework) has recently been negotiated in Sendai in March 2015 and resulted in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030.

2.2. Water policies in the European Union

2.2.1. The water framework directive

The Water Framework Directive (WDF) is European Framework Legislation that, for the first time, sets integrated water resources management principles as its core value (EC, 2000 ). These principles are implemented in an integrated approach considering risk characterisation (including hydrometeorological risks), monitoring of the water resources, and programmes of measures anchored in river basin management plans (Chave, 2001 ). The WFD implies classical risks such as water quality deterioration or overexploitation (with the aim to achieve a good status of water by 2015). A novelty is that hydrometeorological risks (in particular floods and droughts) are discussed in light of river basin management plans.

Climate change is a highlight in the development of the first river basin management planning under the WFD, which operationally started in 2010. Technical aspects (risk characterisation, monitoring, and action programmes) and the evaluation of the good status objectives achievements (in 2015) are concerned by the integration of knowledge on projected climate change impacts on water policy implementation. These aspects are currently discussed by a wide range of experts and stakeholders in working groups under the so-called WFD Common Implementation Strategy (CIS).

2.2.2. WFD and climate change: operational aspects

Climate change has to be mainstreamed through all steps of the WFD principles and its status objectives (Wilby et al., 2006 , Quevauviller et al., 2011  and EC, 2009 ). The integrated approach of the WFD is the operationalization of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) principles (chemical status for all waters, ecological status for surface waters, and quantitative status for ground waters) with milestones as follows:

  • Characterisation of water bodies and pressures. The WFD requires a review of the impact of human activities (and related pressures) on the status of surface and ground waters.
  • Risk assessment. The WFD requires a characterisation of water bodies to allow forecasting of risks, costs and benefits of measures.
  • Prevention of status deterioration. The WFD foresees the assessment of changes in the flow regime and physico-chemistry of rivers in view of their ecological status and target achievements.
  • Achievement of good status. The WFD status achievements are based on the above, and targets compliance to chemical and ecological standards. In view of climate change and hydrometeorological risks, these can impact on status objectives (e.g. changes in sediments load, baseline shifting of groundwater).
  • Characterisation and risk assessment (2004–2005) leading to monitoring networks to achieve overview of water status. EU Member States designed monitoring programmes by the end of 2006, allowing continuous status assessment.
  • Registers of protected areas within each River Basin Districts were established, covered under the following directives: the Bathing Water Directive,1 the vulnerable zones under the Nitrates Directive,2 the sensitive areas under the Urban Wastewater Directive,3 and the areas designated for the protection of habitats and species including relevant Natura 2000 sites designated under the habitats4 and wild birds5 directives.
  • Development of a River Basin Management Plan for each river basin district in the EU (including trans-boundary river basins), including indicator of pressures and impacts of human activity on water status. The first River Basin Management Plan was published by the end of 2009 and review is planned for 2015.
  • Design of a programme of measures for achieving WFD environmental objectives that should be operational by the end of 2012. Programmes of measures necessary to deliver WFD objectives may also be affected directly or indirectly as these depend upon the above operational steps (characterisation, analysis of pressures and impacts, in particular). The success of the programme of measures will be closely related to the accurate characterisation in the first place, and flexibility to future changes in climate. They should also accommodate possible changes in behaviour ahead of climate change, such as adaptation measures in spatial strategies.

It may, therefore, be considered that the integrated steps of the WFD River Basin Management Planning process provides a good framework practice for hydrometeorological risks and adaptation under the climate change policy following a risk assessment, monitoring, environmental objective setting, economic analysis and action programmes to achieve well defined environmental objectives for these risks (EC, 2009 ).

Climate-related disasters (in particular floods and droughts) are covered in the European Flood Directive (2007/60/EC) and the Water Scarcity and Drought Communication. However, their impacts cannot be mitigated by the existing WFD programmes of measures (linked to the implementation of various EU directives), which are directed towards anthropogenic pressures (pollution and overexploitation) but not towards climate change.

2.2.3. Flood policy: coordination and operation

The Floods Directive has to be implemented by EU Member States and asks them to assess and manage flood risks (EC, 2007a ). This directive contributes to a larger Flood Action Programme for the assessment and management of flood risks aimed at reducing the adverse consequences for human health, the environment, cultural heritage and economic activity associated with floods in Europe (Gemmer et al., 2011 ).

Besides the legislative framework, the package covers an optimal use of funding instruments (e.g. capacity-building projects), information exchange and research. This directive is coordinated with the implementation of the WFD from the second river basin management plan onward. It therefore provides a comprehensive mechanism for assessing and monitoring increased risks of flooding due to climate change and for developing appropriate adaptation approaches. The coordinated approach with the river basin management plans will ensure an overall effective adaptation approach.

2.2.4. Drought policy

Not only floods but also droughts have been projected to increase in Europe. In view of this climate change challenge, the European Commission has adopted a Communication on water scarcity and droughts in the EU (EC, 2007b ), which sets policy options for addressing the challenge of water scarcity. With this legislative background, the EC assesses water scarcity and droughts in Europe on annual basis. Monitoring changes across Europe helps identifying where further action is required to response to climate change. A review of the strategy for water scarcity and droughts has been conducted in 2012.

2.3. Climate adaptation strategy

The European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change (EC, 2013a ) in April 2013 in order to make Europe more climate-resilient. The strategy focuses on three key objectives:

  • Promoting action by Member States . The EU engages all Member States to adopt comprehensive adaptation strategies and provides funding to help them build up their adaptation capacities and take action, including actions related to preparedness to extreme climatic events.
  • Climate-proofing action at EU-level by promoting adaptation (and mitigation) in key vulnerable sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and cohesion policy, ensuring that Europes infrastructure is made more resilient, and promoting the use of insurance against natural and man-made disasters.
  • Better informed decision-making by addressing gaps in knowledge about adaptation and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the one-stop shop for adaptation information in Europe. This platform supports adaptation policy and decision making, such as a toolset for adaptation planning; projects and case studies' database; and information on adaptation action at all levels, from the EU through regional and national to the local level.

Stakeholders from the local, regional and national level participate in the EU Adaptation Strategy and the EU is providing guidelines on integrating climate into policies and investments and on how to use the instruments and funds provided by the Commission for climate change adaptation. For instance, EU-Cities Adapt is an EU initiative to train and exchange knowledge among stakeholders at city level.

3. Discussion and conclusions

3.1. Hydrometeorological risks and adaptation policy

Hydrometeorological risks affecting water management under climate change (floods and droughts) are not covered by the WFD as an own pillar. The WFD provides a framework to include climate change impacts into the planning process. The limitation and benefit of the EU Climate Change Adaptation Strategy is that it complements the activities of Member States. It supports action by promoting greater coordination and information-sharing between Member States. Member States that have no National Adaptation Policy and are less experienced on climate change adaptation have benefited enormously from the Adaptation Strategy. It serves as a positive example of European Cohesion Policy. Direct intervention for trans-national boundaries, but also adaptation considerations to be addressed in all relevant EU policies, is also fostered.

Various policy instruments are directly or indirectly taking these risks into consideration at different operational levels (international, European, national or even regional). The EC continues identifying adaptation knowledge gaps with the Member States and stakeholders and addresses them in the programming of Horizon 2020, the EUs 2014–2020 framework programme for research and innovation. It also promotes EU-wide vulnerability assessments, taking into account, inter alia, the cross-sectoral EU overview of natural and man-made risks (de Groeve et al., 2013  and EC, 2014 ).

However, a tailor-made framework for hydrometeorological risks would improve coordination at international or national level. Such approach would allow alignment between the wide varieties of key players through appropriate interfacing mechanism.

3.2. Hydrometeorological risks and operational aspects

European policies for an efficient management of hydrometeorological risks exist. On the operational side, the implementation of policies is facing many obstacles. The lack of operational frameworks for hydrometeorological risks under climate change lowers the efficiency of concrete actions. Considerable efforts have been put in place since 2010 to enable a strategic roadmap; the challenge ahead is to put identified policy actions on the ground. Cooperation in the EU on risk assessment is to be enhanced and developed following adoption of the new Civil Protection Mechanism (EC, 2013b ) which introduced risk self-assessments for the signing countries (28 Member States plus three associated countries) with the benefit of receiving EU co-funding for adaptation costs.

A pragmatic challenge has to be overcome which is simply the different policy pathways, the academic communities and the decision making cycles involved on the operational side which have to be supported by public funding. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the average cost-benefit ratio for investments in the development and strengthening of hydrometeorological services, in terms of reduced economic losses, is about 1:7, depending on the time frame and period of amortization, the interest rate used for investments, the needs of added personnel, and the operations and maintenance costs stemming from the investments.

3.3. Hydrometeorological risks: research, innovation and communities

Hydrometeorology has been a main pillar in the Disaster Risk Reduction community for 25 years and a main subject of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) of 1990. In light of this, the academic community that contributed to the Third Assessment Report of IPCC in 2001 was still organised in the traditional disaster risk reduction pillars. A major breakthrough came with the Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 and the Fifth Assessment Report. This might strongly be related to how governments were funding research. The academic communities are largely fragmented over Europe with regard to hydrometeorological risks, some focusing on the atmosphere, some on hydrology, some on the sectors and impact studies. This is still reflected in the IPCCs Fifth Assessment Report, where we do not find a sub-chapter for hydrometeoroloigcal risks but for sectoral approaches, such as agriculture, energy production, municipal services, freshwater ecosystems. The big change in paradigm is the acknowledgement in the Fifth Assessment Report that, in the face of hydrological changes and freshwater-related impacts, vulnerability, and risks due to climate change, there are needs for adaptation and for increasing resilience. It also acknowledges that relatively little is known about the economic aspects of climate change impacts and adaptation options related to water resources (IPCC, 2012 ). This is also reflected in the HF2, that is underlining the need for higher resilience as opposed to early warning measures.

The 6th Research Framework Programme of the EU had an environment domain including climate change. Climate change adaptation per se was only covered in the 7th Research Framework Programme and only recently climate action is one of the seven main pillars (societal challenges) in Horizon 2020, the current EU framework programme for research and innovation (http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/ ). While this is an attempt to bridge the academic and practice communities of Disaster Risk Reduction (old network) and Climate Change Adaptation (new community, mostly emerging from the Disaster Risk Reduction community), the implementation of policy is following the old and separate reality with separate administrative budgets.

3.4. The way ahead

Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction have never been seen as a complementary set of actions that requires collaboration. Vulnerable communities feel impacts and have adaptation needs holistically and not in sectors. Climate Change Adaptation has been described as too much talk, too little action (Shaw et al., 2010 ). There has been an evolution in Climate Change Adaptation, starting in COP11 in Nairobi, further developing through the Bali Roadmap and Action Plan in 2007 and COP15 in 2009. Disaster Risk Reduction is about past experiences, Climate Change Adaptation about future action. In an ideal world, both would be combined. The greatest challenge is local action, getting the implementation done.

At the European level, the tasks and responsibilities of institutions and/or agencies for disaster risk reduction vary according to the decentralization of disaster risk reduction functions and the disaster risk itself. Hydrometeorological risks are operationalized and tackled by working groups representing the Member States: one on Floods, one on Disaster Risk Reduction, one on Climate Change Adaptation, etc. Only recently, the first common meeting between the EU Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction working groups has been organised. A considerable progress has been done with an improved strategic thinking; the challenge ahead is now to implement identified policy actions for hydrometeorological risks on operational level. There might be no real need for one integral policy for hydrometeorological risks. Linking relevant elements appears to be essential. The development of an integrated approach at the European level is as important as the link between the management of disaster risks and climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. These two need to be seen under the umbrella of socio-economic development, as acknowledged by a wide range of leading policy documents and instruments, including Europe 2020, Territorial Agenda 2020 and the European Cohesion policy post 2014 (CSF Funds). A step forward might be that, since its creation in November 2010, the European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction (EFDRR) has considered Climate Change Adaptation to be one of the most prominent challenges for developing safe and resilient communities at local, national, regional and global scale. Combining knowledge about the past with projections about the future will definitely help shaping a common future under hydrometeorological risks where climate change is just one factor, but socio-economic changes that are putting human beings and the economic sphere at the forefront of decision-making, are also relevant. In that respect, the planning cannot be based on how will it happen but what will happen in a holistic view. The economics of climate change adaptation, such as assessed in the EU project ECONADAPT (www.econadapt.eu ) will be decisive for guiding politics.


The views expressed in this article are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating a formal position of any EU institution.


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5. Directive 79/409/EEC, OJ L103 of 25.04.1979.

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