Key Messages 
  • In Austria, the central government is responsible for the designation of flood hazard areas in coordination with the regional governments (Länder). It also manages a disaster fund that finances preventive measures and emergency and recovery actions.
  • Flood protection in Austria is managed through a complex set of authorities shared across federal, provincial and local scales.
  • To date, Austria has not actively factored-in the effects of future climate change into flood risk management strategies
  • Flood risk reduction works are now seen as an integrated part of larger river system planning in which revised guidelines emphasize the importance of integrated and participatory planning of river-basins.
  • Cost-Benefit-Analysis (CBA) is used to different extents, depending on the investment sum of the regarding project.

Context

Floods are one of the costliest natural disasters in the Federal Republic of Austria, which is characterised by steep mountainous regions exposed to the continuous hazards of heavy rain-falls, avalanches and mudflows, and by low-lying and built-up urban areas exposed to costly floods. Due to its highly mountainous topography, only 38% of the country’s land area is suitable for permanent settlement; as such, population and economic activities have tended to be concentrated in river valleys and basins that are prone to flood risk. A number of structural and non-structural measures have therefore been taken throughout Austria’s history to anticipate, adapt to, reduce and prepare for flood risks. Flood risk had traditionally been managed locally with limited use of intensive engineering and hydraulic works until the mid 19th century. Between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, considerable public works projects were conducted to control the country’s flood risks. While during the war periods disruptions of economic and social life significantly curtailed river regulation and management, the years since the 1970s saw a strong emphasis on flood risk reduction investments, connected to a longer-term view of risk management, along with investment into damage repair. In a shift towards more comprehensive flood risk management, traditional practices such as straightening and confining of flood channels without sufficient retention areas have been abandoned, and incorporation of considerations about flood risk into land-use zoning has been promoted. Flood risk reduction works are now seen as part of larger river system planning in which revised guidelines emphasize the importance of integrated and participatory planning of river basins.

Despite continued efforts to manage the country’s flood risk, recent years have seen repeated incidences of large-scale floods in Austria. The estimated economic damages from the recent flood events of August 2002, August 2005 and June 2013 are reported around 2,445 (2002), 515 (2005) and 866 (2013) million Euros respectively. These events have triggered increased public and private efforts on flood protection measures through the country. Following the 2002 flood event, for instance, federal and provincial governments introduced flood protection measures worth 2.9 billion Euros targeted at protecting human lives and properties. In 2007, another agreement between federal and provincial governments came into force that required flood protection investment worth 21 million Euros. Until 2016, it is expected that further flood protection investment totaling 570 million Euros will be realized along the Danube, March and Thaya rivers. 

The administrative structure of Austria is split across three levels: the federal government, nine provincial governments (Länder) and 2,358 municipalities. In addition, next to these three official levels of government, the Austrian municipalities are organized according to 99 administrative districts. Flood protection in Austria is managed through a complex set of authorities shared across federal, provincial, district and municipality scales. Responsibilities and roles of flood risk investment are codified across a number of laws, which specify mandates for federal, provincial and municipal governments. In general, the Federal government is in charge of the development and management of water regulating infrastructures, while provincial and local governments are in charge of spatial planning and water resources management at their respective scales.

Policy and methodological developments 

National and provincial levels

Designation of flood hazard areas and the implementation of land-use planning are the main instruments used to manage the risk of floods in Austria. The Federal government is in charge of specifying areas in danger of erosion, avalanches and inundation. Overall regional spatial planning falls under the responsibility of provincial governments (Länder); therefore, coordination is an important element of overall flood planning in Austria (ELLA n.d.). To foster development and sharing of flood risk information, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture Forestry Environment and Water Management (BMLFUW) has worked closely with the Austrian insurance companies (Austrian Insurance Association: VVO) and developed a nationwide zoning system for natural disasters (HORA-Flood Risk Zoning Austria). Hazard maps are available for the country’s river system spanning across more than 25,000 km2, for the 30-, 100- and 200-year flood events.

Following the EU-Water Framework Directive, assessments of costs and benefits are mandatory for water management protection and water development projects above 1 million Euros in Austria. For projects above 0.11 million but less than 1 million, simplified CBA is performed. For maintenance and upgrading projects worth less than 0.11 million Euros, CBA is not mandatory. Full-scale CBA requires assessment of economic benefits and costs of intangible assets (social, ecological and cultural) together with tangible assets associated with the whole life-span of a pro-posed project. Comprehensive CBA in Austria includes the following 15 inputs and steps: 1) geo information; 2) characteristics of flood scenarios; 3) hydrodynamic modelling; 4) socioeconomic information; 5) vulnerability assessment; 6) damage potential estimation; 7) benefit estimation, 8) cost estimation; 9) Benefit-cost ratio and sensitivity analysis; 10) assessment of people exposed; 11) assessment of intangible effects; 12) overall assessment; 13) comparison of alternative and choice of ’optional alternative’; 14) description of residual risk and 15) report and documentation (ICPDR 2014). To facilitate standardised implementation of CBA, BMLFUW has developed guidelines as well as templates for detailed CBA assessment.

The responsibility for recovery and reconstruction after flood events generally falls under provincial jurisdiction, as the Austrian constitution does not specify the responsibility for federal government. However, in case of severe natural disasters, exceptions are made in the form of special legislation to extend additional support necessary to accelerate recovery and reconstruction.

Local level

In addition to overall flood risk planning that takes place at both federal and provincial levels, local level participation is important, especially in terms of spatial planning and other flood risk management interventions. While spatial planning laws are introduced generally at the regional level, additional risk management measures (such as restriction of land use in retention areas) are often implemented by local authorities. Furthermore, technical flood protection measures are also designed at the municipal level in collaboration with engineers and consultants. In many cases, a number of municipalities form a ‘water board’ to work together to plan and build structural flood protections. These water boards receive collective financial and technical support from the relevant provincial or federal authorities. In addition, voluntary fire fighting units at local levels play an important role in the case of emergency, assisting in rescue, clean up and other response and recovery operations. Given limited knowledge and high uncertainty regarding future impacts of climate change on flood hazards, the current Austrian adaptation strategies are targeted at addressing the existing risk of extremes. Uncertainty of future climate change is therefore not presently incorporated into flood risk planning in Austria.

Main implications and recommendations 

In Austria, central government is responsible for the designation of flood hazard areas, in coordination with the regional governments (Länder), and also manages a disaster fund that finances preventive measures and emergency and recovery actions. Analysis of other countries shows different characteristics: (1) in the UK, the Environment Agency has responsibility for managing risk from flooding from main rivers and the sea, including the approval and funding of flood risk management projects undertaken by local authorities and water drainage boards, (2) the Nether-lands: flood protection standards for the whole country are written in law and central government and its services play a key role in overall flood risk management and (3) Czech Republic: the central government has an important coordinating role in the development of the multi-annual programme of flood prevention. In all the case study countries, regional and local authorities play distinctive but varying roles in various elements of flood risk management (flood control, flood damage mitigation, preparedness, emergency planning and recovery).

In Austria, Cost-Benefit-Analysis (CBA) is used to different extents, depending on the investment sum of the regarding project. Also compared to the other three analysed countries, as yet, there is no single superior decision-making tool to fit all circumstances. We found that there is growing recognition across Europe, also promoted by the EU Floods Directive, that participatory approaches to decision-making should be employed, whenever this is feasible.

Until now, Austria has not actively factored-in the effects of future climate change into flood risk management strategies. When it comes to climate change adaptation, the process for developing the Austrian climate adaptation strategies began in 2007 between BMLFUW and the nine Länder (departments). The evidence suggests that the approaches have by no way settled yet: governments, government agencies and academic researchers are experimenting with approaches and are actively evaluating and developing the options. In this context, the European Commission has rightly argued that in investment projects, climate change-related risk management should be integrated into existing project life cycle appraisal approaches to manage the additional risk from climate change. These existing approaches can vary between countries and sectors. From a practical perspective it is important that risk management approaches complement existing project appraisal processes but not replace them.  

Bibliography 

ELLA (n.d.), Preventive flood management measures by spatial planning for the Elbe River basin. Results and proposed actions. ELBE-LABE. http://www.landesentwicklung.sachsen.de/download/Landesentwicklung/ELLA_EN.pdf.

ICPDR [International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River] (2014), Flood risk management plan for the Danube river basin district. http://wisa.bmlfuw.gv.at/dms/at-gv-bmlfuw-wisa/fachinformation/hochwasserrisiko/hochwasserrisikoplan/Entwurf_RMP/icpdr_frmp_2015.pdf?1=1.