The impacts of the gradual shifts in temperature and precipitation due to climate change in the Rhine Basin seem limited in magnitude, especially in the near future. The increased climate variability on the other hand has more immediate and direct economic and safety (floods/droughts) implications.

In view of the magnitude of the perceived 'climate change threat', policy makers increasingly see that a continuation of the historical 'struggle against water' no longer involves pure technical and structural measures, but requires a different attitude in spatial planning and awareness, where space will be reserved to 'live with water'. However, in the translation of principles to practice, the recognition of the real socioeconomic consequences of the new approach, in combination with a reduced feeling of urgency, is likely to result in a continuation of traditional measures based on short-term interventions and investments. For the Rhine Basin this may mean that strengthening of dykes and levees will still be considered preferable to providing 'space for the river'. The main driving force is socio-economic. Climate change will act as a moderating factor, but as long as the impacts of climate change and climate variability are mainly at the level of 'nuisance factors', acceptance and implementation of adaptation measures will be insignificant.

In this regard an industrialized basin like the Rhine has its limits; due to the relative safety against floods after centuries of protective measures, it is difficult to abandon existing approaches in favour of compromises with major consequences and uncertain benefits. The need for protection against extremes (and the willingness to face the consequences) in fact only becomes a reality after a (near) disaster. In those cases, however, the push for short-term emergency measures will prevail over the long-term approaches that would be more sustainable.

Apart from the conflict between traditional approaches and adaptation measures, the cost-benefit aspect will be the most important factor, with emphasis on the financial component but implicitly or explicitly including social costs (damage to goods, loss of life, intangible costs, etc.). The economic position of a country or region and the associated political priorities will be determining factors for the feasibility of activities. New and long-term initiatives are more likely to be accepted during periods of economic growth, with the traditional approaches preferred during periods of economic hardship.

Specific conclusions

• The expected impacts of climate change in the Rhine Basin are relatively modest. With regard to agriculture, some regions may suffer from increased water stress, but in general there actually may be an increase in productivity. For the environment, species in marginal situations may either benefit (increase in Mediterranean species) or disappear (southerly locations of boreal species). Increased risk to humans is especially related to the increased climate variability, although the ecological changes may include spreading of vector diseases. For industry, limited availability of cooling water during drought periods and reduced navigability during periods of low flow are the most likely concerns.

• In the Rhine Basin, the EU policies, especially concerning agriculture, are more significant than the effects of climate change.

• Increased climate variability, with a higher frequency of extreme events, is a more significant factor in decision making than the long-term gradual effects of climate change.

• Climate change and the associated increased climate variability are just one of the driving forces in the definition and especially the implementation of coping and adaptation measures. Socio-economic considerations and conditions are the dominant factor.

• In view of the innovative nature of adaptation measures and strategies, these will be most successfully developed and initiated during periods of economic growth. At other times more traditional approaches are likely to prevail, as they are considered cheaper, of proven reliability and a low risk investment.

• In the Rhine Basin, relatively high protection against floods along the river and in its estuary is secured by technological measures. This security is, compared to other basins, a limiting and inhibiting factor for innovative approaches in the management of the river basin, even though it is based on a false sense of security. In the Meuse Basin there was considerable disbelief when an approximately once in 150 years flood occurred twice within a few years. In this case the second flood, however, only caused a fraction of the damage (and the public agitation) of the first one.

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