Living with floods in a warming world

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As cities expand to swallow entire floodplains and coastal areas, often extending even beyond the boundaries of land to reclaim thousands of acres of waters from nature, they are becoming more vulnerable to climate change.

Cities already account for more than half the world’s population. By 2050, this is expected to become two-thirds. China alone is expected to see more people than the entire population of the US migrate to cities by 2050.

The perfect storm was brewing for many years – extreme weather caused by climate change coupled with extreme usurping of riverine and coastal territories by overflowing human populations. Climate scientists have been predicting wacky weather for years. Without controlled pathways to drain excessive stormwater flows, urban centres are sitting targets for climatic onslaughts. Thailand, Philippines, Pakistan and many other Asian countries have been heavily hit by flooding in recent times.

Just eight months ago, northern India experienced one of its worst flooding disasters that killed more than 5,700 people. With excessive construction on river banks combined with scores of hydroelectric projects which restricted river-flows there was no way the region could cope with rainfall 375% heavier than usual.

Despite all the disasters, there is no let-up in building near coasts and rivers even in the western world (sample the areas hit by Katrina and Sandy). This is why it becomes important to pay attention to the Dutch thinking on tackling future floods.

The Dutch are past masters in flood management. With two-thirds of their area vulnerable to flooding, the Netherlands has employed a range of defensive measures. Each successive flooding disaster offered new lessons which were duly learned. Not only are the Dutch constantly perfecting engineering and information systems related to flood management, but they have also developed democratic institutions such as water boards to maintain their dikes, waterways and polders. A constant effort has been made to manage water in an integrated manner across different departments and institutions.

As a guest of the Dutch government recently, I got a chance to see first-hand, some of its iconic structures such as the Maeslant storm surge barrier, the world’s largest moveable barrier which protects the busiest port of Europe – Rotterdam. The barrier which has been designed to withstand a one in 10,000 year storm is every bit as impressive as it has been portrayed in Discovery Channel’s Extreme Engineering series.

Yet, even more appealing than the mammoth Maeslant barrier is the Room for the River programme, which seeks to return to Holland’s rivers a part of the space taken away over the years. This is a philosophy that has taken root only recently. Living with floods is now recognised as more sensible than shutting them off with ever-rising dikes. It’s no longer about beating nature but working with it.

Among other things, Dutch engineers have discovered that moving human settlements and activities away from water can be far more daunting than moving water itself. The trickiest challenge is not the engineering but the forming of partnerships with civil society and the public interactions. Communication and negotiation skills are as much needed as engineering prowess.

The time has come to think of all the options we have in a world which will perhaps see more floods in the next ten to 50 years than it has in the past 100.

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