Pushing Adaptation Policy: Not an Easy Task

By Irene Lucius, WWF-DCP

This story is part of a series on adaptation in the Danube-Carpathian region.

Compared to other river systems such as the Ganges river in south Asia, the Danube basin  is not likely to be dramatically affected by climate change. Nevertheless, some parts of the river basin will probably suffer from more droughts. Floods are already increasing in intensity and frequency. So it’s high time for the nineteen countries in the Danube basin to start thinking about climate change adaptation (CCA) and to adjust their policies accordingly!

This at least is the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme’s (DCP) current approach. As the policy coordinator of WWF DCP, I am responsible for pushing and pulling regional governments into action. In doing so, I have had the privilege of working with the well respected and organized International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) while making use of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) as a convenient stick (and sometimes carrot). Although only the seven European Union member states under the umbrella of the ICPDR are obligated to comply with this very progressive piece of water legislation, non-EU countries of the basin are strongly encouraged to do so as this increases their chances of eventually joining the EU.

But what does the WFD actually say about climate change adaptation? Not much, actually — at least not directly. But the WFD does indirectly support WWF’s adaptation priorities for the Danube basin a great deal. For instance, the WFD prescribes the cooperation of countries on a basin-wide level with the aim of taking joint measures to reach “good ecological status” while reviewing planned measures every five years. This provides the basis for “adaptive management” and a strategic basin-wide approach, which is so important for effective climate change adaptation.  The ability to review and adjust our actions over time is critical for climate change adaptation because we often don’t have good confidence about predictions for what the climate will look like in the future, and we need to be able to evaluate our effectiveness as we learn more about how regional climate shifts are evolving.

The WFD also calls for comprehensive and cohesive monitoring programs, which can be used to detect at least some climate-induced changes. Another advantage of the WFD compared to other pieces of water legislation is its focus on restoring river ecosystem functions through measures such as floodplain restoration or the installation of functioning fish passes to facilitate fish migration. These measures connect the different sections of the river to one another and thus help species and ecosystems adjust on their own to changing river conditions, especially those that are driven by climate change. Restored riverine wetlands, for example, create places that shelter fish from hotter temperatures.

Mission accomplished? Not yet. The WFD is a good basis for wise CCA but countries need to analyze the vulnerability of the Danube system — both human and ecological — to the effects of a changing climate. They must also agree on the best response strategies in order to prevent worst-case scenarios. The drafts of the Danube River Basin Plan for 2010–14 that circulated for comments last year contained a very poor chapter on climate change with contradictory messages. On the one hand, the plan stated that scientists know enough about climate change for policymakers to respond now, yet on the other hand the plan also said that more information is needed before action can be taken.

Equipped with knowledge and references provided by our excellent “CCA coach” John Matthews, I started to argue for clearer goals in the CCA chapter at every meeting of the ICPDR. I lobbied influential people over numerous glasses of beer and cups of coffee, and provided draft texts that were rejected, taken apart, reassembled, and finally integrated — at least partly.

Why was this job such a tough one? The reasons for resistance and hesitation are numerous. Many people, not just policymakers, have the naive hope or belief that science will soon provide exact information about the effects of climate change on a small scale, and that models will accurately predict precipitation patterns in the Upper Tisza valley in the 2030s or the severity of floods in the lower Danube area in the 2040s. Before such accurate information is available, some argue, it is a waste of time to talk about CCA.

Another common reason for the lack of action is the fear that water management planning will become messier than it already is. Managing a river basin with 19 countries is hard enough without having to include climate change issues. We have spent years trying to get the major Danube countries to agree on a strategy and program of measures to improve water quality — but will we ever be able to agree when we assume uncertain futures and start discussing different scenarios for the future? Or is there a fear that responsible CCA planning would mean saying goodbye to pet projects, such as new hydropower plants dependent on a minimum water level, which is likely to drop?

Whatever the answer might be, on 16 February 2010, fourteen environment ministers of Danube river basin countries signed the Danube River Basin Management Plan for the coming five years. This plan calls for a basinwide CCA vulnerability assessment and for strengthening ecosystem resilience as a response to climate change. A small WWF triumph, at last.