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Integrated Flood-Risk Management in Sweden

Submitted by on 05 Mar 2014 – 11:51One Comment


By Åse Johannessen and Jakob Granit

Even though catastrophic flood events, like those experienced in downstream countries such as Bangladesh or the Netherlands, do not happen in Sweden, not investing in flood preparedness does carry significant socio-economic risks. A range of factors, including changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels in the southern part of the country, and ongoing development of coastal infrastructure, mean that Sweden is becoming more vulnerable to floods. Sweden lacks a preventive and comprehensive approach to flood management, and as a result is missing out on the win-win opportunities offered by integrated flood-risk management. This integrated approach not only addresses flood risk, but also other linked issues, including eutrophication and environmental degradation of watersheds and the Baltic Sea. The Swedish Water House and SEI set up a stakeholder group on water and disaster risk reduction, supported by the Swedish Government, which has worked for three years to explore integrated management and governance approaches to managing flood risk. This article reviews the current situation in Sweden, and outlines the conclusions of the group.

In Sweden, county administrators have observed a slow but steady tendency to build housing and other infrastructure in low-lying locations that are prone to occasional flooding. Although municipal planning experts are aware that development should be avoided on floodplains and vulnerable coastal zones, the practice and tendency continues because there is a demand from the public to build in attractive areas. These development pressures make it difficult to adopt a preventive approach that recognizes that water flows and floods need space. Instead, loss and damage to consequently exposed infrastructure triggers calls for controlling measures, which may contribute to ecosystem degradation. Also, other types of land use which are not suitable on flood prone areas are protected by a strong tradition of land ownership rights in the country as a whole. Floodplains in Sweden are used for agriculture and have been heavily developed and drained during the 20th century. During flooding events diffuse pollution and destruction of agricultural embankments can leak substantial amounts of nutrients into the water bodies, which results in eutrophication and degraded ecosystems.  But because of strong local stakeholder interests (e.g. in agriculture) flood risk reduction in Sweden is not prioritized, and is often strongly challenged.

Ongoing development could be better managed through improvements in two key areas: First, there needs to be a different approach to municipal planning that takes into account river flows and river basin management. And indeed, technical experts and institutions around the world have for a long time promoted such principles – one example is the European framework for water governance (The EU Water Framework Directive) initiated in 2000. In Sweden the Directive is co-ordinated by The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (HaV). Five water authorities have been established under the responsibility of the county boards, and binding action plans to reach the goal in the EU Directive have been put in place. However, this framework is mostly aligned towards water quality and environmental policies, and does not focus on broader flood risks and linked socio-economic impacts.

Second, there is a need to raise awareness of how better integrated management of flooding can reduce risk and increase long term societal and ecosystem resilience. The European framework for flood risk governance (the 2007 EU Flood Directive) was triggered by the devastating floods in central Europe in 2002, and in Sweden it is currently implemented by the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency (MSB). MSB’s mandate is focused on the entire spectrum of threats and risks, from everyday accidents to major disasters. It also has a mandate to co-ordinate across sectors and jurisdictional boundaries. MSB has, as a first step to implementing the Flood Directive in Sweden, identified 18 geographical areas with potential significant flood risk. It is hoped that these maps of flood risk will create awareness and trigger action to reduce flood risk in these areas. However, MSB does not have the mandate to enforce action on flood risk, which instead falls to the individual municipalities. What efforts the MSB’s work will trigger is not yet known, and there is no guidance on how to integrate action on floods with water quality considerations under the Water Framework Directive, because these issues are, for now, not part of the planning under the Water Authorities.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s traditional approach to managing water for multiple uses, such as drainage and hydropower, still prevails. This approach is based on outdated legislation originating from 1918, including customary practices, developed during a time when there was limited awareness of how rivers and ecosystems functioned. Land drainage structures, ditches and dykes are traditionally owned by joint property societies established at a time when Swedish society was still mainly agrarian. Membership of these societies is determined by who uses or gains advantage from one or a number of given structures, which is often a group of several landowners who have agreed to collaborate. These societies usually focus on economic objectives and are based on permits for water use that are indefinitely long. As the built environment has developed over time and land use has changed, the amount and speed of storm-water runoff has increased, resulting in localized flooding. Joint property societies are often not made aware of changes until they are a reality, and have no prior information on how actions upstream will influence the flows they are legally bound to manage. In order to change the management objectives of these joint property societies, the consent of the majority of the property owners is required. Swedish legislation is set up to require action by each joint society, in isolation; but the issue is that there are many of them – about 50,000 are responsible for drainage and about 1000 for hydropower – so it takes decades to implement change.  Because there is a dire need for swift change and concerted action, more centralized governance would be desirable, and a change in legislation could immediately change the conditions for all these joint property societies.

Long-term climate change forecasts indicate that major precipitation events are likely to increase 20–25% by 2100. Extreme events are also likely to increase, and are arguably already doing so: The “monster rain” that hit Copenhagen on 2 July 2011 saw 150 mm of rain fall in 2 hours, resulting in large-scale flooding and linked economic damage. Swedish urban areas are not prepared for such extreme surface water flows. Even today the capacity of the urban drainage systems is at its limit, resulting in flooding of basements and overflows of untreated sewage water.

The stakeholder group for water and disaster risk reduction identified some key measures for integrating river basin planning and flood risk reduction. It is becoming a more acceptable idea that water needs space or “room”, and that there is a limit to how far water flows can be controlled. “Making room” for water in both rural and urban areas has proven to be a best practice in the most flood prone areas. For example, the serious flood risks in the Netherlands in 1993 and 1995 led to a realization that the focus on dikes as flood protection was not sufficient, which triggered the Room for the River programme. Under this programme, rivers had to be given more room to flow in a natural way, an approach that has provided additional benefits for recreation, culture, and ecosystem services. For example in Nijmegen an additional river arm is being directed through the town, and different water-level scenarios are becoming part of the physical planning process, resulting in both improved flood control and opportunities for recreation.

The role of physical planning at the level of municipalities is strong in Sweden. However, as noted, water flows beyond municipal borders, and requires a large physical planning framework to provide “room for the river”, something which is missing in Sweden. Also, socio-economic objectives may take precedence at the local level, and upstream or downstream management of water resources may not be a priority for the concerned municipality. There are, though, examples of how this principle has prevented downstream floods in Sweden. An accidental breakage of an embankment in the upstream area of River Svartån in 2009 prevented flooding in the downstream city of Västerås. This illustrates the potential of converting low-lying fields upstream to wetlands that provide flood-water storage and prevent flooding of downstream urban areas, while at the same time increasing ecosystem services such as biodiversity.

Some stakeholders in the group argued that Sweden lacks adequate tools to combine the views of all stakeholders under a single framework that guides a multi stakeholder process for river basin planning that integrates water flows with water quality issues. For example, in order to open up the dialogue around flood risk prevention and physical planning objectives, there is a need for better communication between joint property societies at the municipality level. Also, farmers need to be involved in a legitimate bottom up process, to realize the benefits or tradeoffs of collaborative water management. A representative of the Farmers’ Association describes the dialogue as not being specific enough, even in the water councils that are established as the collaborative platforms for partly implementing the plans issued by the Water Authorities. A more specific, local and professionally facilitated dialogue is sought that includes all the key stakeholders. Generally, farmers are positive towards collaborative activities, but to gain their support (and the support of other groups) it is important to identify societal and economic benefits in order to balance ecological and economic incentives.

At the urban scale, some stakeholders argued that proper planning tools do exist but are not used. For example, municipalities can use the national digital elevation database free of charge to determine bottlenecks in urban hydrology and to adapt streets and neighborhood drainage systems. Water flows must be included in the detailed municipal plan, and one way to do that is to make it compulsory to integrate Surface Water Management Plans into the planning process in order to mitigate risk and damages. Such measures are best integrated with water quality considerations, including aesthetic objectives in storm water management practices. Good practices in this area are found in Härryda, Malmö and the city of Helsingborg, where open systems for storm water have been prioritized which can combine aesthetics and environmental benefits with effective infiltration and runoff.

Costs may be an issue in implementing flood management measures. In The Netherlands, a sense of urgency helped to raise the finance for the “Make Room for the River” programme, but Sweden is more complacent about flood risk than other European countries. However, stakeholders in the group generally indicated that “prevention is better than cure”, and that investigation is needed to find out where potential flood risks can occur and where adequate measures might be taken.

In many European countries the Flood Directive and the Water Framework Directive are co-ordinated by the same agency. This helps to achieve synergies between socio-economic and environmental objectives. In Sweden, where multiple agencies and institutions have specific and sometimes overlapping management mandates, it is a complex task to co-ordinate joint action. Municipalities, the traffic authorities, the county and state authorities – all have some responsibility for managing water resources. There are many barriers that prevent co-ordinated action including costs, legal principles, environmental concerns and politics.

The stakeholder consultation process on water and disaster risk reduction demonstrated challenges in Sweden, but also identified many positive measures that can be taken to address the increasing risks of flooding. There is clearly an interest and demand among many stakeholders for co-ordinated action and clarity in the governance framework.