Implementation of an Alpine-wide approach for mainstreaming climate change into transboundary water management

Basic information:

Rivers and lakes in the Alpine River Basins are closely interlinked and pressures on water resources have effects beyond regional and national borders. Also, Alpine waters have an effect on large downstream river basins.

So far, the Alps have profited from sufficient water of good quality. But climate change shifts the scope of Alpine Water Management more and more towards managing fluctuations in water resources: Changing patterns in temperature and precipitation increase the frequency and volume of floods. Simultaneously, droughts – hitherto a lesser concern and only an issue in the southern parts of the Alpine Arc – are an increasing threat. At the same time, climate change increases the users´ demands (for irrigation, cooling, artificial snowmaking and other recreation activities, hydropower etc.), see more about this topic in IP_W1: Tools and methods for drought management in the Alps) Atmospheric temperature increases and the average temperature increase in the Alpine area is nearly twice as high as in the surrounding areas. As a result of this, the water temperature of surface and groundwater bodies of Alpine rivers and lakes rises, too. This directly affects water quality, aquatic ecosystems and their populations as well as biodiversity.

Climate change will put additional pressures on Alpine water resources: changes in precipitation patterns, reduced snow cover in winter as well as rising temperatures will have effects on the quantitative water balance and water availability. This is already affecting the runoff regimes of rivers, groundwater availability and discharges of springs as well as water levels in natural and artificial lakes. On a regional scale, exceptional situations of both water scarcity and floods are expected to become more frequent and more severe, with those Alpine regions that are already affected by dropping groundwater levels and temporal water scarcity today being highly vulnerable in the future.

At the same time, water management and its integration in spatial planning processes is an element of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies which also needs to be coordinated at river basin scale. As surface water systems and groundwater aquifers in the Alps are highly interlinked across borders (all rivers flow into five main Alpine river basins), a common approach to deal with these additional challenges for water management is needed.

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) already provides a set of guidelines for Integrated River Basin Planning, which also allows for integrating water management into climate mitigation and adaptation strategies as well as for closer integration between spatial planning processes and water management. In practice, all Alpine countries do already have River Basin Management Plans according to the WFD, and several pilot projects on transboundary River Basin Management are on the way. But in most cases the transboundary focus is still missing, even for larger rivers which cross two or more Alpine countries. To reach this objective, an Alpine-wide framework should promote transboundary planning tools and participation processes as well as enable intersectoral cooperation (administrative level) and integration of the key stakeholder groups within a river basin beyond the national processes of River Basin Management Plans.

Sequence of implementation steps:

Based on the mapping exercise which was carried out during the ForumAlpinum 2018 in Breitenwang[1], the approach will be systematically further developed with the objective to obtain a comprehensive conflict map for the Alpine region.

This can be compared with the National River Basin Management Plans as well as the proposed hot-spot analysis in pathway IP_W1 and links to ongoing activities on national or transnational level, e.g., as already initiated in the large Alpine river basins (e.g., Rhône, Inn, Ticino) as well as to activities of EUSALP AG6 and AG7. Ongoing coordination activities as well as information about transboundary rivers of urgency for cross-border cooperation shall be integrated in the mapping approach to allow a comprehensive overview of conflicts as well as status-quo. On this basis, model river basins are identified where increased cooperation between neighbouring countries would support the avoidance of conflicts between different water use interests, as well as increase the resilience of the river ecosystems and the adaptive capacities of the user management.

[1] https://austriaca.at/0xc1aa5576%200x003a30da.pdf

With respect to the model river basins respectively regions identified in step 1, workshops will be organized to increase regional and transboundary cooperation, by promoting

  • Participatory & cooperative methods and water governance approaches to improve conflict management, especially making use of water-based spatial planning approaches
  • Nature-based solutions and opportunities for water storage/retention management by considering ecosystem-based approaches as a priority (working with nature to avoid negative impact of grey infrastructures and to achieve various co-benefits i.e. through flood plains, afforestation, ecosystem restoration, etc.)
  • Innovative solutions to water reuse
  • Regulation of zones without any water extraction/water rehabilitation zones (e.g., linked to remaining riparian wetlands and springs from glaciers)
  • Consistency of water investment plans with climate change adaptation strategies

Making use of forecasting approaches in water management: Forward-looking assessment of groundwater resources (addressing demand side before considering additional supply) and improved consideration of higher water temperatures and low water levels in the management of water resources in all the countries of the river basins.

Based on step 1, new, respectively more effective alliances for managing water-related conflicts through integrative approaches are established for the identified model river basins, and disseminated into all major Alpine river basins. This includes all larger water users as well as stakeholders that represent the downstream needs. Also, the general public should be integrated into participatory processes to raise awareness on climate-related pressures on Alpine waters. Stakeholders that need to be integrated into this governance structure are mentioned below.

Further Information:

  • Sub-regional, regional and national administrations (as responsible for implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and related legislation on water and natural resources)
  • Authorities responsible for spatial planning
  • Organisations for protection of transboundary river basins (e.g., ICPDR) and other coordinators of river basin management plans
  • Authorities responsible for natural resource management and protection, water and nature stewardship organizations
  • Associations and stakeholders related to specific economic water use interests: electricity producers, agricultural sector, recreation and tourism, drinking water suppliers and households, etc.
  • Identification of hot spots regarding water conflicts and mapping of ongoing coordination activities at transboundary level and transboundary rivers of great urgency for cross-border cooperation
  • Implementation of transboundary model projects in every Alpine country to promote a transboundary focus in mainstreaming climate change into water management and for integrating water management into spatial planning and climate mitigation and adaptation planning
  • Map of existing conflicts and model river basins (yes/no)
  • Model projects: number of transboundary model projects
  • Governance structures: Number of Alpine river basins which have climate-resilient transboundary river basin management plans, including broad stakeholder involvement processes
  • RSA2: Water and water management issues (2009)
  • Guidelines on local adaptation to Climate Change for Water Management and Natural Hazards in the Alps (Platform Water Management, 2014) (stock-taking No. 8)
  • Initiative “Strategic planning: How to face drought periods in the Alpine Region” (stock-taking No. 10)
  • 5th International Water Conference “Water in the Alps – and beyond: adapting Alpine and mountain river basins to climate change” (2014): online proceedings
  • 7th International Water Conference (Breitenwang 2018, together with the ForumAlpinum)
  • Project SPARE – Strategic Planning for Alpine River Ecosystems (Alpine Space Programme)
  • Project AlpWaterScarce – Water Management Strategies against Water Scarcity in the Alps (Alpine Space Programme)
  • Project C3-Alps – Capitalising Climate Change Knowledge for Adaptation in the Alpine Space: pilot activities on water management in France and Italy (Alpine Space Programme)
  • Project SILMAS – Sustainable Instruments for Lakes Management in the Alpine Space (Alpine Space Programme)
  • EEA (2009): Regional climate change and adaptation: The Alps facing the challenge of changing water resources. EEA Report No 8/2009
  • Best practise examples presented at the AC Water Conference in Annecy in February 2020
  • EUSALP AG 6 study on Alpine Water Governance
  • EUSALP AG 7 list of rivers with a need for enhanced transboundary cooperation




Water management in the Alps faces new challenges due to climate change: Climate change leads to changes in precipitation patterns and puts additional pressures on Alpine water resources, resulting in exceptional situations of both water scarcity and floods. There tends to be less snow but more rain in winter and less water in summer, with drought episodes becoming more frequent, especially in the southern and south-eastern Alps. The decrease of snow and the melting of glaciers also reduce the amount of stored water. The use of water for agriculture, households, hydropower generation and tourism needs to be managed carefully to prevent conflicts of usage and to keep the water ecosystems functional.