Climate change is raising sea levels and increasing risks from extreme weather phenomena. The Scheldt estuary (Belgium) is highly vulnerable to flooding because of its open connection to the sea, its funnel-shape and surrounding low-lying land, especially when high tides coincide with heavy storm winds. The Scheldt is laden with sediment, so tidal marshes are systematically rising along with high waters. Consequently, the transition to the waterway is becoming steeper (coastal squeeze). The steep tidal marshes are being eroded by increased flow velocities in the waterway. As a result, protected freshwater mud flat and tidal marsh habitats, which are rare in Europe, are disappearing. These habitats also help provide important ecosystem services.
Financial damage from flooding in the Scheldt estuary can exceed €50 million on an annual basis. In the Belgian, tide-affected area of the estuary there are approximately 720 000 inhabitants and 10 000 businesses situated in low-lying areas at potential risk of flooding. In the port of Antwerp, where economic activity is concentrated, the consequences of a flood could be disastrous. Serious flooding would also affect inland waterways.
The LIFE SPARC project proposes measures to make the Scheldt estuary and its highly urbanised area resilient to climate change. In practice, this means providing much greater protection against floods by creating open space for water and developing a robust estuary ecosystem. More specifically, the project has the following goals: Reducing flood risk using nature-based solutions appropriate to tidal rivers, in line with the EU Floods Directive, such as the construction of flood areas that can safely fill with water during flood events, decreasing water levels on the river and reducing the risk of flooding in urban areas; Restoring habitats to make the ecosystem more resilient to the effects of climate change, and enabling tidal mud flats and freshwater tidal marshes to develop in line with the Habitats Directive. The aim is for the restored sites to form a network, to improve the implementation of the Habitats and Birds directives and to act as green infrastructure ('corridors') to give species greater opportunity for movement; Reinforcing public support, by actively engaging stakeholders and the general public, and sharing knowledge. Opportunities in the field of recreation and tourism will also be taken to boost the local economy; and Demonstrating the transferability and replicability of new techniques for nature-based solutions appropriate to tidal rivers.
Expected results: Annual risk of serious flooding in the Scheldt estuary will be reduced from about 1 in 350 to 1 in 1 000 through the creation of new flood areas; Reduction in high water levels due to storm tides (with 35 cm, as measured at Dendermonde); Creation of more than 400 ha of additional freshwater tidal habitats, to halt habitat degradation caused by coastal squeeze; Re-establishment of ‘favourable’ conservation status for species listed in the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive, including the European beaver (Castor fiber) and birds such as bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) and a number of heron species: European spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), little egret (Egretta garzetta), great egret (Arda albea), and eventually the cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) and glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus). New nature sites will provide foraging areas for many birds, and also form an important network of green infrastructure; Provision of ample information through various channels to engage and inform local people, visitors and local businesses; with recreation and tourism activities also having a positive effect on the local economy; and Demonstration of nature-based solutions for tidal rivers communicated to policy-makers and European scientists, inspiring other climate adaptation projects, and enabling the new techniques to be transferred and replicated.