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The Belgian coast lies in the southern part of the North Sea. The seaward part of the coast includes the territorial sea (12 nautical miles).

Study Area Context


 Figure 1: The Spatial Demarcation of the "Coast", with indicators of sea depth and attitude (Belpaeme et al. 2004)

 • The coastline is 67km. In the East, the nature reserve Zwin forms the border with The Netherlands. In the West, the Belgian beach continues to the French Opal Coast in the east of Dunkirk. Behind the coastline, further inland, the polders are situated. The polders are a low laying area, situated below sea level, mainly used for agriculture. These polders and the coastline form the Belgian coast.

• About 20 % of the coastline is sedimentary, 40 % is erosive and the remaining part is relatively stable.

• Over 85 % of the coastal landside is below 5 m elevation, which places it at increased risk of sea level rise and extreme weather events.

The Belgian coast is a densely populated area and hence a very intensively used zone with important economic and tourist activities. Furthermore, the Belgian Part of the North Sea (including the exclusive economic zone) is characterized by high productivity and highly diversified habitats but also by dense shipping traffic, intensive fisheries, tourism, the presence of cables and pipelines, sand and gravel extraction, dredging activities, and offshore wind turbine parks.


Figure 2: Intensive use of the coast (Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services)

In order to protect the Belgian coastline, hard and soft coastal defence measures have already been taken:

• 60% of the coastline is protected by artificial coastal defence structures (e.g. groins, seawalls, beach groins, breakwaters).

• The remaining 40% is protected by soft and dynamic coastal defence (e.g. dry beach elevation, beach nourishment, planting of brushwood, sand fences, planting of marram grass).

Nevertheless climate change and the impacts will put extra pressure on the existing coastal defence structures and it will be necessary to take adaptation measures in the future.

Drivers of climate change

Almost 85% of the Belgian coast lies under 5m elevation, which makes the Belgian coast one of the most vulnerable coastlines in Europe, and makes the question: how to deal with climate change, even more pressing. It is now known that climate change will make coastal zones even more hazardous. The CLIMAR-project shows that the effects of climate change on the Belgian coast and marine systems are manifold. Most of the effects will be due to sea level rise. The exact amount of sea level rise is difficult to predict. According to a study conducted by the Federal Government's Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models (MUMM) in the light of the CLIMAR-project, sea level is estimated to rise between 30 cm and 50 cm in 2040 and between 60cm and 2m in 2100, depending on which scenario is used. Click here to view MUMM webpage. Besides or along sea level rise, the Belgian coastal zone is likely to experience a greater incidence of storm damage and flooding in vulnerable coastal areas as well as coastal erosion, changes in water depth, available light, current velocities, temperature, salinity distributions and a shift in the freshwater-saltwater. This can lead to habitat changes and physiological effects for some animal and plant species. How regime shifts are triggered and what effects they will have in the food web of an ecosystem are not yet thoroughly understood, even though climate change is predicted to have direct and indirect effects on plants and animals and consequently on marine food webs. For example, a northward shift in Atlantic cod is reported, while densities in monkfish remained constant. The population in haddock decreased in density in the southern part of the North Sea but increased in the northern part. (CLIMAR 2008) (Van den Eynde et al. 2009)

Impacts of climate change in the case study area

We investigated the ecological, economic and social impacts for the most relevant sectors at the Belgian Coast.

Tourism (coastal marinas/ water recreation)

• Ecological impacts

The potential presence of more marine mammals along the coast will most likely result in more tourists excursions at sea.

• Economic impacts

The main effects of climate change will be an increase in storm frequency and intensity, sea level rise and changes in coastal erosion and sedimentation processes. These impacts can lead to more damage to yachts and marinas, less available shipping days and more dredging activities. Consequently the exploitation and damage costs can increase due to higher maintenance and reparation costs of the marinas.

• Social impacts

Extreme weather conditions and sea level rise will negatively influence the safety on board of yachts and in marinas (on quays and jetties). The presence of marine mammals, however, could lead to more tourists and tourism activities.

Ports and maritime transport

• Ecological impacts

Changing coastal erosion and sedimentation processes could have an increased impact on shipping lanes (displacement of sand, sedimentation, etc.) that will on its turn require more dredging.

• Economic impacts

The main climate change impact on harbours will be a rising sea level. Since increases from 1 to 1.5 meters can cause problems related to safety and protection of harbours, higher safety measures will be required to anticipate the effects of sea level rise.

The second most important impact will be an increased frequency and intensity of storms and wave height. This situation will be more damaging to ships and harbour infrastructure, might result in less available shipping days and difficulties in executing certain harbour activities the year round.

Another economic impact indicated by the sector is the fact that temperature rise will increase the need for cooling. Consequently technical measures will have to be taken to adapt ships to this impact.

• Social impacts

Climate change impacts (extreme weather events, sea level rise, etc.) will negatively influence the working conditions on board ships and increase risks of accidents.


• Ecological impacts

The main impact of climate change on the marine environment might be a shift of species. Due to a rise in seawater temperature, a northward shift of marine species is already taking place in the North Sea and can occur more in the future. The northward shift will have an impact on the presence of cod, haddock and halibut in the North Sea, as these species inhabit in colder waters and there will be a higher incidence of warm water species in our region (including anchovies, sardines, seahorses and mullet). However, not all of these species are of interest for commercial fishing, such as seahorses. Besides the northern shift of marine species, it is likely that the rise in sea level, changes in wetland areas and in erosion and sedimentation processes can affect the existing nursery areas for shrimps, sole and plaice.

Another ecological impact would be the increase of harmful algal blooms due to rising seawater temperatures. At present newspapers report of contaminated mussels, but this coverage is often not correct. Harmful algal blooms are indeed a problem, but the amount of harmful algal blooms is primarily dependent on the tidal force. Therefore, the sector should reckon with the harmful algal blooms during the harvest of mussels by already taking daily samples of the water quality.

Finally, although the presence of marine mammals is of interest for tourism, it is not for fisheries. The increase of marine mammals will compete with fisheries to catch fish, and thus create a food-web competition. Food-web competition occurs when there is potential overlap of the trophic flows supporting a given group (e.g. marine mammals) with the trophic flows supporting another group (e.g. fisheries).

• Economic impacts

Due to an increase in storms and inclement weather, there will be more annual storm days and thus less shipping days. This is especially important for inshore fishing; they can only fish at sea up to 4-5 Beaufort. These climate change impacts will also adversely affect the safety on board vessels and in harbours. According to some, storms also have a positive impact on the catching of fish. After a storm the seabed is turbulent, therefore more food is available and more fish can be caught. But this theory only applies to bottom fish. Another reason for the increasing presence of fish could be that there was no fishing for a period of time in that area due to risk of storm.

• Social impacts

Extreme weather events and sea level rise will negatively influence the safety on board the fishing vessels and in harbours. Climate change together with other stress factors on the sector (e.g. fuel and fish price) could lead to a further reduction of the Belgian fishery fleet.


• Ecological impacts

Massive algal blooms can lead to problems with the engines if these algal blooms are sucked through the cooling water and result in blockage of the engines. As such problems are already taking place today (e.g. India), the sector is searching for possible solutions to avoid these problems.

• Economic impacts

The dredging sector has stated that temperature rises have an impact on the rate of corrosion of ships and the operation of the engine cooling and acidification influences the wear of ships. However, according to the dredging industry, the impact on ships and their machinery will be rather minimal and thus controllable as the sector is already equipped to anticipate these impacts (e.g. material selection, installation of protection layers).

Another economic impact will be the reduction of cargo that can be transported since the rising of sea temperature will lead to lower water density which ensures that ships submerge in the sea and consequently are less able to carry cargo. Even today there are differences in water density across the world although the sector can do little against this impact.

As already stated by the fisheries and shipping sector, the dredging sector would also have less shipping days, due to more intense and frequent storms and waves.

Climate change could also create opportunities for the sector since sea level rise and the increase of storms and wave height would ensure more need for constructing and maintaining coastal defence in which the dredging industry can play a very important role. Thus, this sector sees sea level rise as the main impact of climate change but in a positive sense since it would create new opportunities. In what rate climate change would be an opportunity depends on the coastal defence policies that will be implemented by governments around the world.

• Social impacts

Demand for more dredging activities, due to sea level rise and changes in sedimentation processes, will lead to a growth of the sector with more jobs as result.

Sea defence

Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services is the competent authority to guarantee the safety of the population and cultural heritage against storms and floods. In order to achieve this objective, the Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services mainly focuses on sea level rise, since this climate change impact will have the greatest impact on the safety of the entire coastal zone. To protect the coast and the hinterland against flooding, the Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services prepared a coastal safety plan (Masterplan 2050).

To conclude, some sectors will be more affected by climate change effects than others. For instance fisheries can be more affected by climate change (changes in fish population, harmful algal bloom, changes in temperature etc.), while the shipping industry will be less affected. Although some effects are already perceptible, we realized that it is difficult to mobilize all the sectors to adapt to long-term prospects (2050-2100), as a lot of those sectors aren't affected at this time.

Adaptation: International and European legal context, institutional context and ICZM

Adaptation measures in the coastal zone, such as building coastal defences should ideally be part of an integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) strategy, aimed at the development of a sustainable coast and integrating nature protection, biodiversity and ecosystems.

Although the international and European policies on adaptation promote an ecosystem-based approach to adaptation, as well as integrating adaptation into other sectors, it is not clear if legislation also sustains this approach. A number of international and European instruments were examined to assess if they legally support such an adaptation. Also some possible legal uncertainties were examined.

Establishing a policy, legal and institutional framework is one of the first and key steps for the development of an adaptation strategy. It is important to define the institutional processes through which adaptation measures are or will be planned and implemented, including where the decision-making authority lies at national and local levels and how actions between these levels are coordinated.

Due to the federal and regional structure in Belgium, policy and legal actions related to climate change adaptation at the coastal zone are divided between the federal government and the Regions (three Regions: the Flemish, the Walloon and the Brussels Capital Region) each with their own competences. Coastal zone management on land falls under federal and regional jurisdiction, whereas the federal government (barring a few exceptions) is competent for taking management measures at sea. Also the Provincial government and the municipalities retain important prerogatives respectively related to emergency planning and monitoring the coastal code. Next there are different coastal and marine stakeholders active at sea and on the Belgian coast. This necessitates close cooperation between federal state and region in determining coastal policy and management.

Click here to download Institutional Adaptation Capacity Framework: Policy and Legal Evaluation 13

Click here to download the Legal evaluation tool for analysing the institutional adaptation capacity framework of your country

The EU ICZM process resulted for the Belgian coast in the establishment of the Coordination Centre for Integrated Coastal Zone Management in 2001.

The main goal of the Coordination Centre is to encourage and promote sustainable and integrated management of the coastal region in Belgium through:

• Communicate and sensitize about integrated coastal zone management;

• Act as a contact point for integrated coastal zone management;

• Offer a platform for consultation about integrated coastal zone management;

• Follow up the sustainability indicators of the coastal region;

• Cooperate to put the recommendations of the European Parliament, concerning the implementation of integrated coastal zone management in Europe, into practice.

In addition a national Coast Guard was set up in 2003.

Both the Coordination Centre and the Coast Guard play a coordinating role between the Flemish and the Federal government, respectively related to coastal zone management and activities at sea as well as between different coastal sectors. Therefore, the Coordination Centre is seen as the appropriate body to promote an integrated climate change adaptation approach. However there must be noted that the Coordination Centre is based on a declaration in principle rather than a cooperation agreement, which makes its institutional powers rather weak. No legal base for a National ICZM strategy has been developed.

Click here to view the Coordination centre for Integrated Coastal Zone Management website

This learning portal brings together the results and lessons learned from the IMCORE project. This project was funded under the Interreg IVB programme from 2008 to 2011.

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