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Climate health risks posed by floods, droughts and water quality call for urgent action

  • Climate health risks posed by floods, droughts and water quality call for urgent action

About the entity

European Environment Agency
The European Environment Agency (EEA) is an agency of the European Union.

Climate change is worsening floods, and droughts and is reducing water quality, posing an increasing threat to our health, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published. Fast-tracking implementation and better coordination of efforts by governments, water authorities and healthcare providers are urgently needed to prevent and reduce health impacts.

The EEA report 'Responding to climate change impacts on human health in Europe: focus on floods, droughts and water quality’ draws attention to the water-related impacts of climate change on health and well-being that are already felt across Europe and include deaths, injuries, outbreaks of infectious diseases and mental health consequences.

Between 1980 and 2022, 5,582 flood-related deaths and 702 wildfire-related deaths were recorded across 32 European countries. Already today, one in eight Europeans lives in areas potentially prone to river floods and around 30% of people in southern Europe face permanent water stress. Climate change will further increase exposure of people to weather extremes with serious health consequences. Senior citizens, children, those in poor health, lower income groups, farmers and emergency service teams are among the groups experiencing greatest health impacts from floods, droughts, wildfires or water- and vector-borne diseases.

With these facts, the report underscores the critical need to urgently implement existing EU legislation, notably various European climate, water and health policies and integrate them further, and roll out the already existing solutions across all sectors and government levels to protect lives, prevent adverse health outcomes and increase well-being.

Leena Ylä-Mononen, EEA Executive director, said: "Protecting human lives and health from the impacts of climate change, including droughts, floods and worsened water quality is of utmost importance and urgency. Existing European climate, water and health policies offer a solid foundation for action, but they need to be implemented more broadly and systematically. To ensure our future well-being all levels of government across many sectors need to put in place effective solutions so that we can prevent and reduce physical and mental health impacts. We support them with knowledge through the activities of the EEA and the European Climate and Health Observatory."

Faster rollout of effective solutions

To enhance our preparedness for future climate-related challenges to health from floods, water scarcity and deteriorated water quality, responses are needed in both the health sector and other sectors that have an impact on health, including water management, spatial planning, building design or insurance.

The EEA report seeks to inspire action by showing various examples of practical solutions implemented in the EEA member and collaborating countries.

A precondition for upscaled action is the greater integration of climate change into health policies in Member States and increased resources and competencies for climate change adaptation with a focus on health at subnational levels. Quick wins include raising public awareness about the risks and solutions, while longer-term actions, including infrastructure improvements and nature-based solutions, require systematic planning and investment. The differences in vulnerability of various population groups and the geographical variation of impacts require an equity-based, targeted approach to preventing health impacts for all under the changing climate.

Key risks calling for action

Floods

  • Between 1980 and 2022, 5,584 flood-related deaths were recorded in the 32 EEA member countries.
  • Currently, around 53 million people (12% of Europe’s population) live in areas potentially prone to river flooding, although often with flood defences in place. This number increased by 935,000 between 2011 and 2021, showing continuous development on floodplains.
  • One in nine hospitals in Europe is located in areas potentially prone to river flooding.

Droughts and water scarcity

  • Due to demand for water and droughts, regions in Europe are under nearly permanent water stress, and not just in the south.
  • Prolonged spells of dry and hot weather facilitate the spread of wildfires, mainly in southern Europe, but increasingly in other regions. Between 1980 and 2022, 702 people lost lives directly through wildfires in the 32 EEA member countries, and many more were affected by wildfire smoke.

Water quality

  • Rising air and water temperatures facilitate pathogen growth, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases.
  • Heavy rainfall events make it twice as likely to have harmful pathogen concentrations in water bodies due to contaminated run-off and combined sewage overflows.
  • In low-lying areas, sea level rise causes intrusion of saline water into groundwater and surface water aquifers, with spillover effects on crops.
  • Low flows during dry periods result in higher concentrations of pollutants, requiring costly wastewater treatment. During dry and hot periods, cyanobacterial blooms in nutrient-rich waters can jeopardise water quality.

About the report

The report is published as part of activities of the European Climate and Health Observatory, building on and complementing the Observatory’s work. The report follows from the European Climate Risk Assessment published earlier this year, which highlighted health as one of the at-risk sectors.

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