Category: Disaster Risk Reduction

Mangkhut batters Philippines and South China as Florence brings widespread flooding to the Carolinas

Mangkhut batters Philippines and South China as Florence brings widespread flooding to the Carolinas

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

It has been a rough and tragic weekend for people living in the Philippines, South China and the Carolinas. Two major storms are wreaking havoc – Florence in the USA and Mangkhut in Southeast Asia – killing several people and leaving widespread destruction. While Mangkhut was named “the strongest tropical cyclone of the year” by the World Meteorological Organisation, Florence is also likely to remembered for years to come due to catastrophic flooding and storm surge.

Typhoon Mangkhut: One of the most powerful storms to hit Southeast Asia in decades

As of Monday morning, 17 September 2018, Typhoon Mangkhut had led to the deaths of 33 miners in the Philippines and 29 people still missing after a landslide buried a mining site in Itogon. As search and rescue continues, Itogon’s mayor says the final death toll might still rise above 100.

Two further people were killed in the Chinese province Guangdong. More than 2.5 million people were evacuated from Guangdong and Hainan Island. Hong Kong was also severely impacted over the weekend, injuring more than 200 people, shattering windows, flooding streets and leading to the suspension of transport services.

Following the enormous death toll of Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which killed over 7000 people, The Philippines dramatically improved preparation and evacuation procedures issuing more warnings, restricting travel, shutting schools down, and putting the army on standby. However, Mangkhut has caused extensive damage to Cagayan’s farmland, one of the major agricultural provinces in the country, threatening staple crops like rice and corn.

Hurricane Florence: Major floods and storm surge, and 50% more rain thanks to climate change

So far, Florence has killed at least 18 people and left 740,000 homes in the Carolinas without power. The coastal city of Wilmington has been completely cut off from the rest of North Caroline due to rising flood waters. Parts of North and South Carolina have seen up to one metre of rain since the hurricane – now a tropical depression – made landfall on Thursday.

According to officials in North Caroline, about 900 people were rescued from the flood waters and roughly 15,000 remain in emergency shelters. The federal administration declared a disaster in several counties of North Caroline, freeing up federal funding for recovery efforts.

The National Weather Service issued flash flooding alerts of varying degrees for all counties of North Carolina. Rainfall will continue throughout Monday, already breaking the state record set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Florence is also probably the first hurricane to have an attribution study made about it pre-landfall. The research found that the storm would bring 50% more rainfall than it would have without the influence of human-induced climate change.

Since both storms are still active, the final impact of Mangkhut and Florence is yet to be seen. However, it is clear that they will both have long lasting impacts highlighting the need to build back better.

 


Cover photo by NOAA: The animated GIF shows Tropical Depression Florence on Sunday 16 September, 2018.

 

Kerala’s monsoon: lessons from recent floods in India

Kerala’s monsoon: lessons from recent floods in India

By Harini Nagendra, Azim Premji University

Media call it the worst flood of the century in the region. After more than two weeks of relentless rain, Kerala, a state at the southern tip of India, known internationally for its scenic green landscapes, touristic spots and backwaters, is left with over 1 million people in relief camps, and close to 400 reported dead – the number is expected to be much higher, as many areas remain inaccessible.

In the mountainous Coorg or Kodagu district in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, thousands of people have been marooned because of torrential rains. Exacerbated by landslides in hilly terrain, flooding has led to the destruction of homes, bridges, road networks and industries.

Far from being a surprise, the possibility of such devastation was highlighted several years ago.

The need to change our development approach

In 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, chaired by the internationally renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, submitted a report to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests. The report warned that an ill-thought focus on development was impacting the sustainability of the Western Ghats hill chain, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas that runs along the west coast of India. The expert report urged a number of states, including Karnataka and Kerala, to adopt an approach of thoughtful conservation, limiting activities such as quarrying, dams and construction near protected forests in hilly areas. The report was rejected by the Ministry as well as by both states.

With the experience of hindsight, it is clear that the worst flood damage took place in those regions where the Gadgil committee recommended protection.

In Kodagu, for instance, tens to hundreds of thousands of large trees were felled in 2015 to construct a high-tension electric wire line. Uncontrolled sand mining has constrained river flows, while the rapid spread of high-rise buildings on unstable hill slopes has weakened the soil. This unplanned development has left the area susceptible to flash floods and landslides, caused by a combination of tree felling on steep hillslopes and heavy rainfall.

Airports built on water bodies

The flooding of the Kochi airport is another example of poor planning leading to disastrous outcomes. The airport was built on the paddy fields and wetlands adjacent to the Periyar river, and extends up to the banks of the river on one side.

The longest river in Kerala, it has a number of dams – some of which had to be opened to release water during the rains. The airport was badly hit, with estimated economic costs of at least Rs 500 crores because of its forced closure for several days.

The Periyar river is not the only one that has been dammed. The state of Kerala has 44 rivers with a total of 61 dams. Many had to be opened across Kerala as they were dangerously full – a step that, while essential during a time of emergency, contributed to the heavy flooding. A 2017 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India warned that not a single one of these dams had an emergency action plan in place for disaster management. Pre- and post-monsoon safety inspections had not been carried out for any of these dams either.

Given how likely it is that coastal and riverine cities will experience flooding in coming years, you would think we know better than to build airports near bodies of water. Yet Kochi airport is not an exception. The runways of the Mumbai airport have been built over the Mithi river, and the airport is located on a reclaimed pond. One of the runways of the Chennai airport extends over the Adyar river, affecting its long-term safety and stability.

It is no surprise that these airports, which are among the busiest in India, frequently flood when the rains are heavy – leading to large-scale economic losses. Yet the new Navi Mumbai airport is coming up in an equally unsuitable location on coastal wetlands.

Reversing the trend

In the era of climate change we have just entered, extreme rainfall events are going to become increasingly common. Uncontrolled growth at the expense of the environment will severely exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Our cities are simply not prepared for extreme weather events. The recent collapse of a bridge in Genoa, killing at least 43 people, is linked to poor maintenance, but also to heavy rainfall.

Certain types of infrastructure may be less suitable to some contexts in a changing climate scenario. Wildfires in California cause extensive damage to private property because many cities are extending their boundaries into forest areas. As local climate becomes hotter and drier, with fires becoming more likely, new homes are being built in areas that are highly susceptible to fire instead of less exposed locations.

Some cities are seeking to reverse this trajectory of unplanned construction. Nairobi is in the midst of an extensive demolition drive, uprooting thousands of buildings built on riparian land that choke the flow of water and contribute to severe annual floods.

In Seoul, between 2002-2005, the city municipality tore up an elevated highway that had been built over the Cheonggyecheon stream. This internationally famous urban-renewal project reduced traffic, reduced air pollution and cut the urban heat-island effect. In Yonkers, New York, an ongoing project aims to restore the buried Saw Mill river.

Millions of dollars have been invested to rehabilitate the Saw Mill River in the state of New York and bring nature back in the city, August 2016. Jim Henderson/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC

Similar urban river daylighting projects are gaining traction in cities around the world. Zurich has been an early pioneer, developing the Bachkonzept (stream concept) to create, restore and uncover a number of streams and springs. London, which built over a number of famous rivers, has now uncovered and restored a number of these waterways, while Sheffield, having experimented with daylighting, is now considering uncovering sections of the local Sheaf river.

The demonstrated ecological and environmental benefits are clear – as are the social and economic returns. For example, Seoul’s iconic Cheonggyecheon stream restoration led to a more than six-fold increase in biodiversity, a 35% decrease in air pollution and a growth in property prices that is double of that in other parts of the city.

Investment in the Cheonggyecheon stream is amply repaid many times over in economic security and growth, local health and quality of life. riNux/Flickr, CC BY

The restored stream attracts tens of thousands of visitors daily who contribute significantly to local economy. Such ideas of restoration need to become more widespread, and embedded in routine climate change and disaster management planning. The investment made is amply repaid many times over in economic security and growth, biodiversity, local health and quality of life, and resilience against future disasters.

Once the emergency relief is attended to, Kochi and Kodagu would do well to use their recent experience as a warning of future disasters to come in a world of increasingly uncertain climate.

The focus must be on long-term restoration projects that can reverse some of the environmental and ecological damage that has led to the current situation. But such learning need not be confined to the areas that have experienced the worst. The rest of the world has much to learn as well.


Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability, Azim Premji University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cover photo from Maxpixel.
Wisconsin reservation highlights success of managed retreat

Wisconsin reservation highlights success of managed retreat

By Georgina Wade

With global temperatures on the rise combined with a significant increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, investigations into methods of staving off climate change’s most dire consequences are continually in the works. And as an inevitable phenomenon at the moment, adaptation is the key response to minimising the unfavourable effects of climate change.

One such approach in discussion is managed retreat – in other words, deliberately getting out of harm’s way. Managed retreat involves the strategic relocation of assets and people away from areas at risk, enabling restoration of those areas to their natural state.

While migration is far from a simple solution and comes with its own set of complications, a Wisconsin reservation offers a climate success story.

The relocation of Odanah

In 1960, the village of Odanah, Wisconsin was up to its neck in floodwaters. The town, home to thousands of members of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe, had been built on the banks of the Bad River in the middle of a flood plain.

The flood had a magnitude 1.25 times the 100-year recurrence interval and became a turning point in the village’s history.

Three years later, the Bad River Housing Authority was established, and the first displaced families moved into new houses a few miles up the highway. In the next three decades, waves of people would move out of the flood plain until virtually the entire town had relocated to higher ground. And the relocation could not have had more optimal timing, as the real monster, in terms of quantity of water, came through directly afterwards.

Flooding in Wisconsin during the summer of 2016 resulted in damages estimated at $30 million USD with the state governor declaring a State of Emergency after rainfall amounts reaching 12 inches occurred within an eight-hour period.

Nicholas Pinter, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, says that moving out of the flood plain before the big flood is almost unheard of, which is exactly what makes the Odanah success story so unique.

“In a way, Odanah was very successfully moved right before the monster flood, the 2016 flood, came through,” he said. “That saved many hundreds of structures from potential flood damage.”

Quantifying the damage avoided

To fully understand the magnitude of managed retreats on minimising damages, the next step is to quantify the damages avoided. Pinter and James Rees, a student at the University of California, Davis, are hoping that hard numbers will be helpful for other governments trying to make similar decisions.

Long-term risks are notoriously difficult for local governments to plan for due to the complexities and uncertainties involved, and this is especially true for disasters like floods, which have a low likelihood of happening in any given year.

But using Odanah as a focal point, the duo is working at combining old maps with satellite data in an attempt to quantify the amount of damage that would have occurred in 2016 if the town had failed to move prior to the flood.

Use of migration as a risk reduction and adaptation strategy

Estimates vary widely, but between 25 million and 1 billion people could be on the move or permanently displaced due to climate risks by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate, according to a 2015 study.

According to researchers, voluntary migration can lessen the risk of displacement by reducing exposure to climate hazards, and is therefore a contribution to individual and societal adaptation. Serving as an autonomous adaptation strategy, voluntary migration may appear as a reliable fix. But conversely, not everyone is equally able to act in this way to avoid climate impacts, or indeed wants to.

For one, those who lack the resources and networks to escape deteriorating environmental conditions may be unable to move, and therefore trapped in conditions of vulnerability. Migration can be relatively expensive with many social and legal barriers in the way, making it a rather poor bet for households already on the brink. Estimates suggest that the number of people unable to move away from climate change degraded areas may climb into the tens of millions by 2050.

Additionally, forced migration can be connected to loss of land, culture, identity and even sovereignty. In the case of Odanah, the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe’s existence in Wisconsin is itself the result of a relocation forced by invading Europeans who drove them West. More recently, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 prompted relocation by creating incentives for people living on reservations to move away from their allotted land and into cities.

In some parts of the country, entire tribes collapsed as the federal government ordered tribal government to dissolve, and it became financially impossible for families to remain on their land. Although not entirely forced, this can only serve to accentuate the circumstances under which Odanah began moving after the flood of 1960.

Navigating Complexity

The line between voluntary migration and forced displacement from climate change can be difficult to determine. Much movement – and indeed most movement related to environmental factors – is not entirely forced or voluntary, but rather falls somewhere on a continuum between the two, with multiple factors contributing to whether a person moved, where they move, how. But as with the Odanah relocation, what happens when the reasons for residing in a climate catastrophe prone area were unfair to begin with?

One example is Newtok in Alaska, where erosion is forcing the primarily Yup’ik Native village to relocate. As temperatures increase, the frozen permafrost underneath the village, which was established as a consequence for forced settlement, is thawing resulting in about 70 feet of land erosion each year. Since 1994, the Newtok community has been desperately seeking out funding to aid in their relocation to a plot of land 9 miles away. And more than twenty years later, money still remains the largest barrier in their endeavours.

As of March, the village secured more than $15 million USD in funding to begin relocating households to safer ground inland. This amount, however, is still just a fraction of what is required to relocate the entire village. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the total cost of relocation could be as much as $130 million USD.

If there is not enough money to relocate the village collectively, Newtok residents could be forced to scatter, putting their community, culture, the Yup’ik language and identity at risk.

Without clear responsibilities and allocated funds to deal with managed retreat, vulnerable communities will continue to struggle to find permanent solutions to their predicament. Although FEMA has pushed for communities to plan for climate change, the federal government currently doesn’t have policies to deal with issues like relocation. As more communities face similar problems, a legal solution could be the only way to stay above water. And, as Odanah showed, managed retreat can turn out a success.


Cover photo by Commonist/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0): The water tower in Odanah, Wisconsin.
Kerala floods kill hundreds & cause close to $3 billion in damages

Kerala floods kill hundreds & cause close to $3 billion in damages

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Floods in the Indian state of Kerala have killed over 320 people, caused at least $2.7 billion in damages, and displaced over 700,000. Authorities estimate that 20,000 homes have been destroyed, 40,000 hectares of farmland are under water and 83,000 km of roads have been damaged.

Between 8 and 15 August the state, which already receives a lot of rainfall, experienced over 250% more precipitation than normal. Water from 35 dangerously filled dams had to be released by state authorities, which in turn led to surges in rivers and overflowing banks.

While the rains have eased, poor sanitary conditions and widespread contamination of water could lead to the outbreak of several diseases, especially in relief camps where 724,000 people have taken refuge. The state requested $285 million in immediate assistance, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government would provide $71 million for immediate assistance and additional funds in the future.

Even though Kerala is one of India’s most prosperous states, the floods highlight how vulnerable South Asia is to climate change related altered rainfall patterns. Last year alone over 1,200 people died and an estimated 20 million were affected in some of the worst monsoon floods India, Nepal and Bangladesh have ever experienced. Megacities like Mumbai flood regularly leading to widespread infrastructural damage, death and disease, and leaving poor residents with even less than they had, increasing their vulnerability to adverse climate events or other risks and hazards.

As Kerala starts its recovery efforts, it will not just be important to build back but build back better, keeping in mind the shifting thresholds of a changing climate, but also putting a special emphasis on more vulnerable members of the population. As this year’s and past years’ extreme weather events have shown, India, and South Asia in general, are facing many challenges making the need for climate resilience more pronounced than ever.


To learn about measures that are already being taken in South Asia to adapt to climate change, head to the Action On Climate microsite and find out about the programme’s work to climate proof growth and development in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Afghanistan: http://www.acclimatise.uk.com/collaborations/action-on-climate-today/

Cover photo by Akbarali/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0): Kerala flood – Cheruvannur mosque disappeared, 17 August 2018.
Spiraling wildfire fighting costs are largely beyond the Forest Service’s control

Spiraling wildfire fighting costs are largely beyond the Forest Service’s control

By Cassandra Moseley, University of Oregon

Just six months after the devastating Thomas Fire – the largest blaze in California’s history – was fully contained, the 2018 fire season is well under way. As of mid-July, large wildfires had already burned over 1 million acres in a dozen states. Through October, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts above-average wildfire activity in many regions, including the Northwest, Interior West and California.

Rising fire suppression costs over the past three decades have nearly destroyed the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. Overall funding for the agency, which does most federal firefighting, has been flat for decades, while fire suppression costs have grown dramatically.

Earlier this year Congress passed a “fire funding fix” that changes the way in which the federal government will pay for large fires during expensive fire seasons. This is vital for helping to restore the Forest Service budget. But the funding fix doesn’t affect the factors that drive costs, such as climate trends and more people living in fire prone landscapes.

The cost of managing wildfires began to rise in the late 1990s and increased significantly after fiscal year 2000. CRS

More burn days, more fuel

Why are costs increasing so dramatically? Many factors have come together to create a perfect storm. Climate change, past forest and fire management practices, housing development, increased focus on community protection and the professionalization of wildfire management are all driving up costs.

Fire seasons are growing longer in the United States and worldwide. According to the Forest Service, climate change has expanded the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. Agencies need to keep seasonal employees on their payrolls longer and have contractors standing by earlier and available to work later in the year. All of this adds to costs, even in low fire years.

In many parts of the wildfire-prone West, decades of fire suppression combined with historic logging patterns have created small, dense forest stands that are more vulnerable to large wildfires. In fact, many areas have fire deficits – significantly less fire than we would expect given current climatic and forest conditions. Fire suppression in these areas only delays the inevitable. When fires do get away from firefighters, they are more severe because of the accumulation of small trees and brush.

Blue areas on this map experienced fire deficits (less area burned than expected) between 1994 and 2012. Red areas had fire surpluses (more area burned than expected), while yellow areas were roughly normal. Parks et al., 2015, https://doi.org/10.1890/ES15-00294.1, CC BY

Protecting both communities and forests

In recent decades, development has pushed into areas with fire-prone ecosystems – the wildland-urban interface. In response, the Forest Service has shifted its priorities from protecting timber resources to trying to prevent fire from reaching houses and other physical infrastructure.

Fires near communities are fraught with political pressure and complex interactions with state and local fire and public safety agencies. They create enormous pressure on the Forest Service to do whatever is possible to suppress fires, which can drive up costs. There is considerable pressure to use air tankers and helicopters, although these resources are expensive and only effective in a limited number of circumstances.

As it started to prioritize protecting communities in the late 1980s, the Forest Service also ended its policy of fully suppressing all wildfires. Now fires are managed using a multiplicity of objectives and tactics, ranging from full suppression to allowing fires to grow larger so long as they stay within desired ranges.

This shift requires more and better-trained personnel and more interagency coordination. It also means letting some fires grow bigger, which requires personnel to monitor the blazes even when they stay within acceptable limits. Moving away from full suppression and increasing prescribed fire is controversial, but many scientists believe it will produce long-term ecological, public safety and financial benefits.

Suburban and exurban development has pushed into many fire-prone wild areas. USFS, CC BY-ND

Professionalizing wildfire response

As fire seasons lengthened and staffing for the national forest system declined, the Forest Service was less and less able to use national forest as a militia whose regular jobs could be set aside for brief periods for firefighting. Instead, it started to hire staff dedicated exclusively to wildfire management and use private-sector contractors for fire suppression.

There is little research on the costs of this transition, but hiring more dedicated professional fire staffers and a large contractor pool is probably more expensive than the Forest Service’s earlier model. However, as the agency’s workforce shrank by 20,000 between 1980 and the early 2010s and fire seasons expanded, it had little choice but to transform its fire organization.

In six of the past 10 years, wildfire activities have consumes at least half of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget. CRS

Few opportunities for cost control

Many of these cost drivers are out of the Forest Service’s hands. The agency may be able to have some impact on fire behavior in certain settings, with techniques such as hazardous fuels reduction and prescribed fire, but these strategies will further increase costs in the short and medium term.

Another option is rethinking the resources for wildfire response. While there are almost certainly savings to be had, capturing these savings will require changes in how society views wildfire, and political courage on the part of the Forest Service to not use expensive resources on high-profile wildfires when they may not be effective.

Even if these approaches work, they will likely only slow the rate of increase in costs. Climate change, the fire deficit on many western lands and development in the wildland-urban interface ensure that continued cost increases are baked into the system for decades to come.

The ConversationWildfire fighting costs now consume more than half of the agency’s budget, reducing funds for national forest management, research and development, and support for state and private forestry. Even if it doesn’t lower costs, the fire funding fix is vital because it will help create space in the Forest Service budget to fund the very activities that are needed to address the growing problem of wildfire.


Cassandra Moseley, Associate Vice President for Research and Research Professor , University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cover photo by USFS/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Air tanker drops fire retardant on the Willow Fire near North Fork, CA that began on Jul. 25, 2015 and has consumed an estimated 5,702 acres.
Nepalese live with threat of glacial lake outburst flood caused by climate change

Nepalese live with threat of glacial lake outburst flood caused by climate change

By Georgina Wade

Climate change poses a significant threat to Nepalese communities as it can lead to outburst floods from glacial lakes.

In the Himalayas, rising temperatures are increasingly melting the snowpack that collects on peaks. This resulting snow-melt then accumulates in dips in the mountain landscape to form high-altitude glacial lakes.

Increasing mean temperatures will cause these lakes to grow, putting pressure on the unsteady accumulations of rock and regolith typically penning in the water. The water widens the gap until the lake can drain out at a startling speed, resulting in an avalanche of water with enough force to wipe out roads, fields, and any human settlements built in the path of the flood.

The phenomenon is called a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) and despite being deemed a rare event, is one of increasing concern in this age of weather chaos and shifting landscapes.

Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, in the Mount Everest region, sits in the shadow of a glacial lake called Imja Tsho. Imja Tsho, which was virtually non-existent in 1960, today contains 2.6 billion cubic feet of water – a number that grows by the year despite efforts to drain the lake. For the people of Khumbu, the fear of what might happen if this water were unleashed is not wholly abstract.

In 1985 another glacial lake above the valley, Dig Tsho, burst on a sunny August afternoon destroying several villages and killing three people. Additionally, glacial flooding in Khumba accompanied the 2015 earthquake that saw the deaths of twenty-two people at the basecamp on Mount Everest.

Following these events, experts began an assessment of GLOF risks in the country and the likely cost of such disasters. The results of the study placed Imja Tsho at the top of the list, with a $11 billion potential price tag.

Despite this, survey data gathered by social scientists found that while 45 percent of the interviewed Khumbu Valley residents considered GLOF a major threat to their life, it was not enough to make them relocate. The reasons for this are manifold, social and cultural, highlighting the need to consider aspects that reach beyond physical climate-related risks when thinking about climate change adaptation, especially community-based adaptation.


Cover photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash.
Dominican Republic city braces for 2018 hurricane season

Dominican Republic city braces for 2018 hurricane season

By Georgina Wade

The Dominican Republic’s second largest city is preparing for the upcoming hurricane season with a new evacuation plan following last year’s storms that killed around 90 people.

Santiago de los Caballeros is still struggling with the economic toll from hurricanes Maria and Irma, two category 4 storms that left trails of destruction as they crashed through the Caribbean in September of last year.

The fifth largest metro area in the Caribbean, Santiago de los Caballeros has experienced rapid and disorganized urbanisation and physical expansion leading to an increase in informal settlements  that are poorly or illegally connected to official infrastructure and services.

Amongst rising fears in many island nations that infrastructure and economies could be devastated by even more powerful storms in the future, authorities are taking measures to mitigate the potential damage caused with the unveiling of its 87-page resilience strategy

As a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, Santiago de los Caballeros has prioritised disaster preparedness, alongside developing infrastructure, improving transport and reducing domestic violence.

However, Maria Isabel Serrano Dina, the Chief Resilience Officer for 100 Resilient Cities, says the city is faced with limited resources that are preventing the full implementation of the plan.

“One of the biggest challenges is money. What can you do with a little budget? You have to be creative,” she said.

Working with businesses to sponsor local parks or to take responsibility for street lights is a cost-effective way of funding schemes and giving private sector companies a vested interest in protecting their areas, she said.

Additionally, public education and outreach programmes can help communities get more involved in resilience efforts.

Major challenges to the city currently include improving the drinking water supply and waste management system.


Cover photo by Greifen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0): View of Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic.
Urban floods: We can pay now or later

Urban floods: We can pay now or later

By Michael Drescher, University of Waterloo

Wild weather seems increasingly widespread these days. Cities are especially vulnerable to extreme weather, meaning that many of us will end up paying for the damage it can cause.

But how much we pay — and when — is largely up to us. We could, for example, pay now to prepare ourselves and limit future damage, or we can pay later to repair our properties and restore the environment.

Urban flooding — and other complex, environmental challenges — can be solved when communities work together to share their experiences and knowledge. In Canada, the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo is taking the lead on this as part of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Urban floods on the rise

Many factors contribute to the increasing risk of flooding in urban areas. For one, in many regions climate change seems to be causing more intense downpours than what have occurred in the past.

This is a problem because the storm-water systems built just a generation ago were not designed to handle the amounts of rain we are seeing now — and expecting in the future.

The growth of cities also contributes to urban flood risk. The increased construction of hard, sealed surfaces hinders rain from soaking into the soil and causes runoff. If there is too much runoff, the water pools and enters our lakes and rivers, dragging oil, metals, road salt or pesticides with it.

Or it can turn into a flood.

The density of sealed ground continues to grow in urban areas. We just keep on adding more houses, more roads, more parking lots. From 1991 to 2011, the built-up urban area in major Canadian cities increased by more than 20 per cent.

On top of that, houses are being built closer together and they get ever bigger. More than half of the homes built after 2001 are larger than 140 square metres. When you factor in that these new homes come with patios, parking pads, driveways and sidewalks, it’s no wonder we have a problem.

Level of preparedness

Unfortunately, city dwellers, by and large, are not well-prepared for urban floods. A recent study found that most people do not know if they are living in flood-prone areas and, if they do, many do not take measures to protect themselves against flooding.

They may not know that many home insurance policies do not cover water damage from flooding, but only damage from broken pipes or similar issues. Or if the policies do cover flood damage, that the coverage might be limited.

And governments may refuse to bail house owners out, so to speak, if they could have purchased insurance add-ons that do cover flood damage.

Even so, most municipalities do not address the issue of urban floods as effectively as they could — maybe because their budgets are too strained to act or they have other, seemingly more pressing, priorities.

Recently, flooded-out residents in Ontario have filed lawsuits against their municipalities, and a few years ago in Illinois, a major insurance company filed nine class action lawsuits against municipalities over this.

How can homeowners prepare?

It is not a question of whether wild weather will affect your neighbourhood, but when. Somebody will pay for it — and it might be you.

You could pay upfront to protect yourself against damage or afterwards to fix it. There are a number of things that people can do to protect their homes, their neighbourhoods and the environment against the damages caused by urban floods:

  1. Purchase add-on flood protection with your home insurance.
  2. Keep the water from getting in. Covers can prevent water from rushing in through basement window wells, and foundation grading can direct surface water away from your house. You could also install a sump pump or sewer backflow prevention system.
  3. Install on-site water storage to collect and store rainwater for safe release later. Some municipalities sell rain barrels; larger water storage tanks are even better.
  4. Green infrastructure solutions can slow down rainwater runoff and help the ground soak up the water. Rain gardens — specifically designed depressions with plants for increased water infiltration — and green roofs are options. Patios and driveways can be built with permeable pavements.
  5. Talk to your neighbours, your neighbourhood association and your city councillor about urban floods. These strategies work best when many people in a neighbourhood take action together.

Change can be expensive, but municipalities are increasingly providing tax incentives or financial assistance to pay for some of them.

Nothing will provide 100 per cent protection against the potential losses from urban floods, but planning ahead reduces the odds that you will be flooded and may reduce your costs when a flood does occur.

The ConversationThe neat thing is that by acting with foresight and heeding this advice, we can protect ourselves, protect our neighbours and protect the environment, all at the same time.


Michael Drescher, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cover photo by Fred/flickr (CC BY-SA): Flood waters rise in the Montreal neighbourhood of Cartierville in May 2017.
NOAA Hurricane Season Forecast 2018: 75% chance of near or above normal season

NOAA Hurricane Season Forecast 2018: 75% chance of near or above normal season

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Centre (CPC) predict a 35 per cent chance of an above-normal season, a 40 per cent chance of a near-normal season, and a 25 per cent chance of a below-normal season for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season, which extends from June 1 to November 30. Prior to the peak of the season, in early August, NOAA will provide an update to this outlook.

In terms of storms, this means that there is a 70 per cent chance of 10 to 16 named storms (winds of 63 km/h or higher) forming, of which 5 to 9 could become hurricanes (winds of 120 km/h or higher), including 1 to 4 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 179 km/h or higher). For context, average hurricane seasons tend to produce 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, which includes 3 major hurricanes.

Two of the main factors driving this outlook are the possibility of a weak El Niño developing and near-average seas surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. However, both of these factors are also influenced by atmospheric and oceanic conditions that are conducive to hurricane development and have been producing stronger hurricane seasons since 1995.

Hurricane track and intensity forecasts are incredibly important for risk management and preparedness. After 2017’s devastating Atlantic hurricane season, many communities, especially in the Caribbean, still find themselves in very vulnerable situations.


Listen to our latest podcast with Angela Burnett, author of the Irma Diaries, who witnessed Hurricane Irma first hand and collected survivor stories from the British Virgin Islands to shed light on the urgency of building back better and building resilience:

Cover photo by NOAA: NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite (now GOES-East) captured this infrared/visible image of Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017.
Podcast: Hurricane Irma: Angela Burnett, author of The Irma Diaries

Podcast: Hurricane Irma: Angela Burnett, author of The Irma Diaries

In 2017 the Caribbean was struck by a series of hurricanes, the largest of which, hurricane Irma, was the strongest open Atlantic storm on record. Irma’s peak wind speeds reached 180mph as it caused catastrophic damage to the islands of Barbuda, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands.

Today we hear from someone who experienced the full force of Irma first-hand. Angela Burnett, a lifelong resident of the British Virgin Islands was working as the territory’s climate change officer when Irma struck, but even having experienced severe hurricanes in the past, she was deeply affected by the storm.

To draw attention to those living, as she does, on the front lines of climate change, Angela embarked on a mission to tell the stories of the survivors and how it has changed them.

After a process that saw Angela work late into the night by candlelight, make clandestine trips to write at a local sewage treatment works and face armed police barricades, Angela’s book ‘The Irma Diaries: Compelling Survivor Stories from the British Virgin Islands‘ was born. This is her story.


The Irma Diaries is available to purchase here.

Learn more about the book and hear extracts from the survivors’ stories here.

Cover photo by DFID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Road Town, on the British Virgin Island of Tortola, 12 September 2017.