Executive summary

This report provides an overview of the multiple policy benefits that can be achieved by including floodplains more systematically into future assessments and planning in River Basin and Flood Risk management plans. It also points to a fragmented information base that would benefit from some streamlining across Europe, in order to understand the true value of river restoration efforts.


In the recent reporting of the second river basin management plans under the Water Framework Directive, it is clear that across Europe, Member States are not achieving at least good ecological status for their waterbodies. On average, approximately 40 % of Europe’s surface water bodies achieve good ecological status (EEA, 2018). Similarly, an analysis of the conservation status of 37 floodplain habitats listed in the Habitats Directive shows that the vast majority are in either inadequate or bad conservations status. Across Europe, only 14 % of floodplain habitats and species are in good conservation status.


Although difficult to quantify, there is a link between the amount of natural floodplains and achieving the key objectives of European policies, in particular in the context of the Water Framework, Floods, Habitats, and Birds Directives. Floodplain management or protection is encouraged but only indirectly required under European environmental policies, but floodplain health is important for achieving multiple European policy objectives. Many of these policies have not reached their objectives to date.


Because of the multiple benefits provided by natural floodplains, EU policies encourage restoration based on natural water retention measures, as well as conservation of existing natural floodplains, to be adopted in river basin or flood risk management plans, conservation plans or climate change adaptation plans. To this end, the link between the Water Framework and Floods Directives is essential. It provides a clear incentive to base flood risk management on natural water retention measures.


Natural water retention measures refer to initiatives where flood protection is provided, while at the same time the natural properties of the floodplain and its connection to the river are restored. As such, these measures are an integral part of ecosystem-based management; they can include both structural changes to the river and floodplain, and changes that involve managing land use within the floodplain. Using natural water retention measures and green infrastructure has been found to be a cost effective alternative to structural measures (EEA, 2017). The European Union promotes the increased use of natural water retention measures as part of its Green Infrastructure initiative and has co-financed restoration projects through the LIFE programme. Most countries also report on using nature based solutions as measures in their Flood Risk Management plans (EC, 2019).

 An approach to securing recognition and prioritisation of multiple benefits of floodplain and river restoration could be developed by using an approach rooted in ecosystem-based management when developing river basin and flood risk management plans. Such an approach would secure that the multiple benefits of potential restoration measures are considered, devising solutions suitable for meeting all environmental objectives set across policies.

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