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Adaptation development

Bilbao is just beginning the process of developing adaptation and risk management policies and is yet to develop a specific adaptation strategy. A vulnerability assessment has not been carried out nor options for adaptation assessed. Local political commitment to an adaptation strategy is still lacking and, accordingly, no budget has been allocated to it. Decision-support tools, such as Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), are in limited use for city planning processes.

Bilbao still needs to define what it considers to be its critical infrastructure and then to comprehensively assess this system. This would provide local decision-makers and planners with data as a basis for adaptation decisions.

Adaptation context

Bilbao, the capital of the province of Biscay in the Basque Country in northern Spain, is a port city spread across 40.65 km2. The city lies along a 16km-long estuary, between two mountain ranges to the north-east and south. As the sea is not far away, Bilbao’s climate is maritime and tides reach the city. Bilbao may therefore be significantly affected by a changing climate.

Bilbao has transformed immensely over the last few decades. Once a major industrial hub throughout northern Spain, Bilbao has had to deal with a declining population for the past two decades after an economic downturn led to extensive emigration.

Bilbao's GDP per capita (2012) lies around €30,889 and is focused on the dominant service sector. 


    Service sector: 87.6%

    Industrial sector: 6.9%

    Building: 5.4%

    Agriculture: 0.1%


Within the service sector, the most significant areas of employment are trade and repairs services (24%), professional, scientific and technical services (18%) and education services (18%) (EUSTAT, 2012).

Adaptation challenges

Research results from the EU-funded project RAMSES, a project aimed at delivering quantified evidence of the impacts of climate change and the costs and benefits of a range of adaptation measures in, have shown that the main local climate risk factors are river and pluvial flooding (by far the most relevant risk), sea level rise, air pollution and heat waves.

1. Water issues

Flooding is the most common threat in the Nerbioi valley, where Bilbao is situated. Over the last six centuries Bilbao has been affected by 39 floods. Contributing factors include inadequate forest management, intensive cattle raising, damaging recreational practices (all of which intensify erosion) and Bilbao’s urban sprawl.

Flood risk is predicted to be aggravated by a 10% increase in extreme participation events across the Basque Country. The Nerbioi River will also rise by 22% by 2050, which could increase flood risk by 3% (Mendizabal et al., 2013). While this figure sounds minor, it can have disastrous effects on adjacent housing, industrial areas and agricultural land.

A rising sea level accompanied by higher tides will aggravate the flooding potential along the estuary with all the above mentioned consequences (Basque Government, 2011). 

The costs incurred by the heightened flood risk of the metropolitan area of Bilbao may rise even more steeply by 56.4% in comparison to scenarios, which do not take account of climate change impacts (IHOBE, 2007).

Given the demand for new housing, careful decision-making is vital to protect these new housing units and the respective infrastructure around them from climate-related risks, particularly flooding. Spatial analyses of climate change impacts could lend support in ensuring effective planning. 

2. Social dynamics

Bilbao's population is declining and the elderly population is increasing. The elderly, who are more likely to be frail or have health issues, are far more vulnerable to extreme weather events, particularly heat waves. As there are also differences in the spatial distribution of the elderly across Bilbao, some neighbourhoods may be even more vulnerable than others merely from the perspective of the well-being and agility of their people.

Integration of migrants is also a vital point to be addressed for Bilbao's future. It is important to involve migrant communities in developing and implementing climate change adaptation plans. Tailored awareness-raising campaigns can be both effective for migrant groups and the general population, as the dominant migrant groups speak Spanish as a native language, facilitating communication across broad sectors of society.

The most relevant impacts of climate change affect children, the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income families the most. They do not have the physical or economic means to sufficiently withstand these impacts.
Despite a declining population, there is a high demand for housing space. It is important that new buildings are planned to be resilient against flood risk. 


Adaptation measures

Despite the absence of an adaptation strategy, some adaptation measures have already been implemented.

1) Flood management: Zorrotzaurre redevelopment

Deusto Canal and Zorrotzaurre peninsula before and after the implementation of the master plan (BC3, 2012)

Since the 1970s, Zorrotzaurre to the north of Bilbao had been on a continuous social and industrial decline, with only 500 people living on the peninsula at its lowest point. Today, it is the city’s biggest regeneration project. The Zorrotzaurre Master Plan was then drawn up to open the Deusto Canal, making the Zorrotzaurre peninsula into an island. The open canal and green banks will let river water flow through, reducing the water level by one metre and significantly reducing the risk of flooding.

The RESIN partners from the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3) analysed the possible impact of the new waterway on flood risk in a 2012 study. It found that the 10-year return period for expected flood events will no longer apply, resulting in a 100% reduction in expected costs. For the 100-year return period, the estimated damages will be reduced by €162.72 million (Osés et al, 2012).

Three storm water tanks and a new flood protection wall along both riverbanks are also planned, which will help protect riverside housing. Excavation works on the canal are already underway. The project is set to be completed in spring 2017.

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2) Emergency response: Bilbao Emergency Plan

Bilbao City Council has adopted an emergency plan for the city. A yearly update allows the quick deployment of financial resources and capacity across the city in the case of an emergency. The alert types considered in the emergency plan are, for example:

  • Torrential rains and floods
  • Avalanches
  • Heavy snowfall
  • Gales and high winds
  • Infrastructural collapse
  • Road accidents
  • Breakdown of services

The extent to which adaptation and critical infrastructure protection is also considered in further municipal plans and strategies has yet to be identified and streamlined – for example, in a new climate adaptation plan.

3) Tackling pollution: Integral Sewerage Plan

Bilbao had a major issue with water pollution in the 1970s. The city solved this challenge with the Integral Sewerage Plan for the Bilbao Metropolitan Area. After 25 years of work and the investment of €600 million, the city has now minimised the effects of sewage pollution stemming from the metropolitan area. Fewer than one thousand people remain to be connected to the integrated sanitation system.

4) Biodiversity and clean energy: Zabalgarbi Waste Disposal Site

The company running the Zabalgarbi disposal site manages a solid waste–to-energy plant and also houses a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant, a composting plant, a landfill and a leachate treatment plant.

During construction of the first plant, Zabalgarbi regenerated and recovered the entire Artigas-Arraiz Special Plan area covering 108 hectares. The land was degraded by shaft mining activity and an open-cast quarry. Today the area has been reforested, trails were built and space provided for people to enjoy themselves in gardens, picnic areas and along forest tracks.

5) Reforestation and landslide mitigation: Zabalgarbi Waste Disposal Site

The outskirts of Bilbao are in danger of landslides during heavy rainfall. This risk will increase once the predicted more frequent and intense rains become a reality. The city council has therefore been supporting the reforestation of the slopes at whose feet the city lies. Since 2007 more than 41,000 trees have been planted. The city made sure that the varieties of species were also mixed and ready to withstand a changing climate.


Bilbao's needs

1) for improving adaptation efforts

  • Political Leadership
  • Financing
  • Coordination and streamlining across government levels
  • Integrated vision
  • Citizen awareness

2) for improving critical infrastructure protection

  • Political Leadership
  • Financing
  • Coordination and streamlining across government levels
  • Security plan to protect critical infrastructure
  • Technical and research support
Through RESIN, Bilbao hopes to create a sound evidence base by analysing its vulnerability towards climate change.

Having a proper overview and knowledge of what the current situation looks like and what the forecasts are, the local government can develop an effective and efficient climate adaptation plan. Here local decision-makers will have to work together with the administration as well as its citizens, companies and research institutes. Participation in the RESIN project will allow Bilbao to gain from its research results, policy recommendations and have their research needs met to take further steps towards being a resilient city.