EU Watch - Large sections of Europe are experiencing droughts this summer but the union’s 25 environment ministers are talking about flooding. Jill Craig explains why

Timing is, they say, everything. So as the holiday months approach, it’s a little bizarre for those of us who follow the Brussels scene to be talking about flooding.

However, the European Union took a step closer to a floods directive at the end of June when its 25 environment ministers came to a political agreement. The idea of the directive is to help the governments prevent and limit floods and the damage they cause to people, the environment, infrastructure and property.

The context for the directive is clear. There was disastrous flooding in many parts of central Europe in summer 2002, causing an estimated €3.5m (£2.4m) of damage to property. The following year a heat wave and drought led to 20,000 deaths, widespread crop failures and damage to buildings. It is thought that climate change could double or treble costs in 50 years if nothing is done to reduce vulnerability to weather damage.

In many cases across Europe, the risk zones will cross national borders, so there is a clear need for co-operation

In practice, the directive will require a three-step approach from governments. First, assessments will need to be carried out to identify the river basins and the associated coastal areas at risk of flooding. Then hazard maps will be developed. These risk maps can divide areas according to land use and vulnerability, which should be taken into account when deciding land use planning.

The third stage is to draw up flood risk management plans. In many cases the risk zones will cross national borders, so there is a need for co-operation, not least over how a plan could affect neighbouring countries. The plans will focus on these issues:

  • Prevention This could be about avoiding construction in flood-prone areas.
  • Protection Action to reduce the likelihood of floods and their impact. MEPs emphasised that measures, particularly building infrastructure, should be subject to economic and environmental appraisal.
  • Preparedness This includes measures such as safety instructions to the public.
There is no doubt that pressure on land has caused some to turn a blind eye to the local factors that determine where humans settle. Although EU policy-makers are again making construction and land use central to their legislation, they are clear that risk mapping, building codes and planning rules will be determined locally. Much like the weather.