Reduce flood risk or watch development wash away

Monday, 1 July 2013 08:38 GMT

A displaced girl sleeps outside her makeshift tent at a camp by the roadside after waters rose in the river Yamuna due to heavy rains in New Delhi, India, June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We must start planning for future scenarios far removed from anything we have experienced in the past

The year 2013 will be a turning point in how governments around the world view the threat of floods in a new age of extreme weather events.

India, Nepal, Canada and many countries in Europe have experienced huge losses over the last two months due to intense precipitation that has triggered extreme flooding affecting millions of people’s well-being and livelihoods.

The shocking loss of life in India underlines how vitally important it is that we start planning for future scenarios far removed from anything that we may have experienced in the past.

When we look at the worldwide escalation in economic losses from disasters over the last five years, it is clear that our exposure to extreme events is growing and this trend needs to be addressed through better land use and more resilient infrastructure as we seek to cope with population growth and rapid urbanisation.

Flood management systems need to be designed so that even if they are overwhelmed by floodwaters, the failure is not catastrophic.

There is a clear need for early warning systems, reduction of social vulnerability through land use planning and leadership at local government level.

On average, some 250 million people have been affected annually by floods over the last ten years. Floods are the most widespread hazard and represent an increasing disaster risk to urban settlements of all sizes.

Beyond the major floods that make the news, there are hundreds of minor floods that cumulatively cause enormous damage to critical infrastructure including transport systems, roads, schools and health facilities.


The recently released U.N. 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction pinpoints several aspects of poor urban planning that increase flood hazard, including unsuitable land use changes; increases in paving and other impermeable surfaces; and poorly maintained drainage, sanitation and solid waste infrastructure.

The report warns that in today’s highly interconnected economy, the effects of floods often spread well beyond the local inundation, amplifying risk and disruption rapidly through globalised supply chains.

The 2011 flooding in Thailand is a clear example: it caused direct economic losses of $45.7 billion with several major global sectors affected. The country’s huge automobile industry saw production fall 84 percent, with Honda factories in Malaysia, North America and Japan forced to halt production because of supply interruptions. As a result, Honda recorded a $1.4 billion operating loss.

Thailand also produces 43 percent of the world’s hard disk drives, and the flooding caused a drop of 77 percent in production, causing a tripling of prices between November 2011 and February 2012.

The catastrophe prompted a number of insurance and reinsurance companies to pull out of Thailand because of the financial hit in claims. In response, the government set up the National Catastrophe Insurance Fund in an effort to restore business confidence, particularly among Japanese investors.


I recently visited the Nigerian port of Lagos, Africa’s second fastest-growing urban area, where mostly uncontrolled urban development has generated vastly increased risk that manifested itself in the severe floods of 2011 and 2012.

About 70 percent of Lagos’ population lives in informal, poorly regulated settlements, and while sound urban development policies exist, implementation of building and safety codes remains marred by corruption and limited capacity - despite impressive efforts by the government to strengthen the country’s disaster risk management.

With 80 percent of construction artisans either unskilled or uncertified because of an absence of standardised training, the challenge to reduce risk in Lagos is significant.

The effect of manmade ‘development decisions’ in generating flood risk can also be seen in Italy. The continued urbanisation of floodplains is set to maintain the country’s record as one of Europe’s most flood-prone nations.

Of course, physical factors such as climate, topography and morphology contribute to flood hazard. But it is these ‘development decisions’ where the biggest difference can be made.


Different laws and policies have been adopted to regulate land use, but local autonomy to designate development areas has in some cases allowed companies to keep building in floodplains.

In Campania, in southern Italy, for example, population growth and speculative development has extended city boundaries towards flood-prone areas and contributed to landslide risk in the area.

But there are several impressive examples of effective disaster risk management founded upon inclusive public-private partnerships that are already reducing flood risk.

In Scotland, a national planning policy has reduced construction on flood plains to almost zero since 1995.

Local governments have been legally obliged to set up Flood Liaison Advice Groups (FLAG) as non-statutory bodies of public and private-sector representatives. The groups include real estate developers, insurers, emergency planners, hydrology consultants, police and railway representatives who collectively address all issues relating to water management.

The success of the initiative is undisputed. Only one local authority, Moray, did not engage and continued construction in floodplains. Consequently, it continues to have problems with flooding as well as access to flood insurance.

Margareta Wahlström is the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction.