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Water! From risk to resource

The example of the Danube shows that high water levels, beyond posing a risk, can also become a resource

For tropical farmers, the humid rain-charged monsoon wind, ready to fill the alluvial plains, represents a natural blessing. The same can be said for the frequent overflows of the Nile’s banks, which enabled Pharaohs to build one of the most successful civilisations of mankind. Yet, in 2017, the South Asian territories contained between the Himalaya and the Indian Ocean were devastated by excessive Monson rains, ravaging the natural environment and killing numerous people. And, even the withdrawing Nile, while leaving behind a fertile humus, killed a big amount of fishes, trapped in the mud formed by its rapidly retreating waters. Floods are indeed among the most common causes of environmental damages. How can we interpret them and where do they originate? And, most importantly, how can we become flood-resilient? In some cases, particularly when vast areas are considered, a single actor might not be enough and partnerships result necessary: The Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (Icpdr) has created a platform that involves 14 European countries, cooperating to manage the waters of Europe’s longest navigable river.

Floods: what are they and where do they come from?

Floods occur when water overflows lands that are naturally dry. Their causes can vary significantly. They can be generated when rivers overflow their banks, when copious rains fall, when ice melts too rapidly – a phenomenon likely to increase through climate change-related phenomena – or even when large sea storms and tsunami hit costal areas. Floodplain can also occur when man-made structures collapse. Fortunately, floods require hours, and sometimes days, before dangerously spreading to their surrounding areas, hence often allowing the timely intervention of the due rescue teams. Sometimes, however, floods spread so quickly that even rapid response teams cannot avert damages. The strength of fast-running waters can overwhelm a whole village: “when a river overflows its banks or the sea drives inland, structures poorly equipped to withstand the water's strength are no match. Bridges, houses, trees, and cars can be picked up and carried off. The erosive force of moving water can drag dirt from under a building's foundation, causing it to crack and tumble”.

In the United States, where flood mitigation strategies are well developed, floods – reports the National Geographic – “do about $6 billion worth of damage and kill about 140 people every year”. Moreover, as a 2007 OECD Report shows – continues the National Geographic -, coastal flooding alone causes roughly $3 trillion dollars worth of damages worldwide, while in the flood-prone China’s Yellow Rivers valley, several millions people have died over the last century.

The Danube River’s solution

Running over 2.860 kilometres, the Danube River is Europe’s second longest river and its second biggest basin (817.000 km2): it cuts across nine countries and through four capital cities while also serving as a natural international border. It originates in the Black Forests and ends its run in a wide delta dying in the Ukrainian Black Sea. Its mass flow rate varies greatly, but can reach up to 6.500 m³/s right before its delta. These numbers speak fro themselves: they highlight both a great resource and a great risk.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (Icpdr) is an International Organisation formed by 14 cooperating European states. Since its establishment in 1998, the Icpdr has become one of Europe’s most proactive and experienced international water management bodies. The Icpdr in fact, does not deal only with the Danube River itself, but also with its tributaries and ground water resources.

Since water – as the Icpdr clearly states – overruns administrative and political borders, the best way to protect and manage it is to develop a close international cooperation between all the countries that are touched by the river basin, upstream and downstream.

A European directive (Water Framework Directive) has established the juridical framework to improve aquatic ecosystems’ management, slow their deterioration and ensure long-term sustainable use of water resources. It imposes an innovative water management approach based on river basins and natural geographical and hydrological units and further sets precise deadlines for Member States. It specifically addresses “inland surface waters (rivers and lakes), transitional waters, coastal waters, groundwater and, under specific conditions, water dependent terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands”. It sets out several water management integrative principles and further aims to integrate water management across different policy areas.
A specific working group of experts - The Accident Prevention and Control Expert Group (APC EG) – structures strategies to prevent and manage accidents, and develops emergency preparedness response systems. It has recently imposed that between 2015 and 2027 EU member states should aim to achieve good status in all bodies of surface water and groundwater, so that the great River can constantly be safeguarded and controlled.


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