Category: Disaster Risk Reduction

Toward a flood-resilient Kolkata

Toward a flood-resilient Kolkata

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Kolkata’s flood forecasting and early warning system (FFEWS), supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), will be India’s first comprehensive city-level early warning system. Designed to provide forecasts and real-time updates using sensors installed in key points throughout the city, the system will enable informed decision making before and during disasters.

How the FFEWS works. Source: ADB.

The system includes a series of complementary components: weather forecasts; flood models for various intensities of rainfall; real-time information on key pump status, sump and canal water levels, actual rainfall, inundation levels, among others; and a messaging system to provide warnings and real-time information to city officials and citizens. The FFEWS will enable flood-informed urban planning, improve the flood awareness and safety of Kolkata’s communities, reduce economic losses and flood-impacts on livelihoods, and reduce the impacts of flood-induced traffic jams.

The system was designed with the people of Kolkata at its centre and aims to empower them so they can act quickly and appropriately to reduce flood risks. During the design phase key stakeholders were consulted to identify the best places for monitoring. Consultation with citizens and borough engineers helped identify locations for real-time data collection on rainfall and flood risk.

Since 2000, phased investments carried out through ADB-supported projects have already helped reduce Kolkata’s flooding problems by about 4,800 hectares, planned projects are expected to provide a further reduction of roughly 6,000 hectares. The projects are enabling the city to systematically expand the sewerage and drainage network in Kolkata, including flood-prone areas; increasing sewage treatment capacity; improving water supply through reductions in non-revenue water; managing solid waste; and increasing operational efficiencies and building capacity to better sustain the services it provides.

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Heavy rains and blocked drains: Nairobi’s recipe for floods

Heavy rains and blocked drains: Nairobi’s recipe for floods

By Sophie Mbugua, Climate Home News

Dirty flood waters, impassable roads and submerged slums have become the norm every time it rains in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.

In August, the authorities took drastic action, bulldozing around 2,000 buildings in the flood plain, including shopping malls worth millions of dollars. After a lull, they are due to resume demolitions this month, national media reports.

The ongoing October-December rainy season is on track to bring – mercifully – average volumes of water. Yet the city’s flood risk is rising, as climate change brings more extremes of rainfall. Experts tell Climate Home News better waste management, urban planning and warning systems are needed to protect its growing population.

Numerous informal and formal settlements without adequate sewerage and sanitation services edge onto the three Nairobi Rivers: Mathare, Ngong and Nairobi.

At Hazina village, one of 22 villages in south B division along the Ngong, the river chokes with refuse, making the water hardly visible.

“It’s the village’s dumping site,” Anne Keli, a 46-year-old mother of 12 tells Climate Home News. She has lived in the village for two decades and says flooding has been particularly bad in the past two years.

“The water reaches the village at a high force compared to previous years but gets stuck due to the plastics, paper bags and assorted waste in the river, blocking its flow,” Keli says. “Since we are on a lower area, the run-off from higher areas headed to the river has no place to go as the river is full. So, where else does it go? Into our houses.”

During the long rains in April, Keli’s family left their flooded home and camped in the county commissioner’s grounds. She lost around 30,000 Kenyan shillings ($290) worth of goods from the shop she runs less than a kilometre from the river.

The provincial administration made some efforts to clean the river during the flooding, but as soon as the rainy season ended it clogged up again, Keli says. “People keep building close to the river, reducing its size by day. People are asked to remove the structures with every flood but after the rains, everything moves back to normal.”

Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) has installed more than 72 monitoring stations across the country in a bid to provide more timely and precise information.

Brian Chunguli, a county disaster management official, says a UK-funded programme will allow them to monitor live flooding levels from satellites and alert residents as waters rise.

“We hope to respond before flooding happens, and collected data will inform the disaster policy and interventions as we will compare long term data showing at what rainfall levels has certain areas flooded,” explains Chunguli.

Long-term projections of East African rainfall vary, with most climate models predicting heavier inundations as temperatures rise.

Mary Kilavi, the Nairobi County director of meteorological services, is mapping the areas likely to flood in Nairobi given a specific amount of rainfall. South B and South C on the Ngong river are hotspots, along with Mathare by the Nairobi river.

“We are using a model that simulates surface water flooding using previous city flooding data corrected over time,” she explains. “We want to find out with a specific amount of rainfall, which areas will flood.”

This will help the authorities to move beyond a reactive approach to systematic preparation, she says. “Since weather is given in probabilistic terms, systems don’t act fast. We will establish the probability of achieving the estimated flood causing rainfall, then with stakeholders, agree at what point to act, the actions to take and funds to be set aside for the actions.”

The solutions range from cleaning up waste to creating green urban spaces and changing land management upriver. Many of these face political, as well as practical, obstacles.

There is a directive against building within 30 metres of the riverside, for example, but it is haphazardly enforced. Many owners of the recently demolished structures insisted they had permits to build there.

“It requires funds and land to relocate and rebuild the structures amid political interference, as area politicians incite the residents not to move,” says Barre Ahmed, assistant county commissioner for Starehe sub county.

Dr Lawrence Esho, chair of the Kenya Institute of Planners, calls for a drainage master plan to cover the entire metropolitan area.

“We have a flooding crisis but the issue is bigger than the illegal buildings. It is more of the uphill destruction of land which we are doing nothing about, too much concrete pavements aggregating the run off flow, blocked drains and climate change,” says Esho. “Over the last 20 to 25 years the city has also gone through the change from bungalows built over a huge area to high-rise apartment blocks… without a drainage city master plan change.”

Builders should leave gaps between pavements for grass “to allow the water sip under when it rains,” he advises.

In the meantime, Keli can only make sure she has a quick exit strategy ready. She says: “I worry at every drizzle. But this time, I am prepared with a bag packed for any eventuality to rescue my children. As for the shop, there is little I can do. Until the river is cleaned, I still believe this village will flood if the rain keeps coming as they did these two years.”

This article originally appeared on Climate Home News and is shared under Creative Commons license. This article was produced as part of an African reporting fellowship supported by Future Climate for Africa.

Cover photo by Sophie Mbuaga: The Ngong river is choked with garbage as it passes through Hazina village.
African Development Bank launches climate risk management plan

African Development Bank launches climate risk management plan

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Last week, the African Development Bank (AfDB) announced the launch of its first climate risk management initiative. The Africa Disaster Risk Financing programme (ADRiFi) will run from 2019 to 2023 with the aim to improve the bank’s ability to assess climate risks, respond to disasters, and review adaptation measures.

Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal have expressed interest in taking part in the programme, which is said to save $4.40 in future relief measures for every $1 invested in resilience measures today. Countries will receive initial financing to help them assess their climate risks and associated costs.

“Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change, prone to a wide variety of natural disasters including droughts, floods and tropical cyclones. However, disaster risk management suffers from inadequate financing and challenges in the deployment of available funds”, said Atsuko Toda, Bank Director for Agricultural Finance and Rural Development.

ADRiFi will promote such mechanisms as index-based insurance, which allows for pay-outs being disbursed automatically when pre-defined risk thresholds are exceeded. The insurance schemes shall help poor communities reduce their vulnerability to climate change in order to protect their lives and livelihoods.

In order to ensure cooperation in preparing, developing and implementing climate change resilience projects, AfDB signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the African Risk Capacity, an agency of the African Union using finance mechanisms such as risk pooling and risk transfer to enable a pan-African climate response.

Cover photo by Oxfam/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0): Residents of Beletweyne, Somalia, wade through the muddy water.
Landslides are growing risk to poorest

Landslides are growing risk to poorest

Waterlogged hillsides are dangerous. For those who live on them, or further downhill, they can be deadly. The global risk from landslides is rising.

Lethal landslides are on the increase. Between 2004 and 2016, sudden cascades of rock, rubble and mud have claimed at least 50,000 lives. And fatal slips down unstable hillside slopes have steadily increased this century, according to new research.

British geographers report in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences that they had amassed a database of 4,800 fatal landslides since 2004 and found that at least 700 of them had what they call a direct human fingerprint: they happened because people built on unstable soils, they mined, legally and illegally, they cut into hillsides, and they allowed pipes to leak.

In addition, heavy rainfall, earthquakes, explosions, dam collapses and freezing and thawing also set the earth moving at ever greater speeds, with deadly consequences.

The researchers also report that they found that other catalogues of natural disaster consistently under-estimated the toll exacted by landslides.

“It was surprising to find clear trends within the database that fatal landslides … were increasing globally during the period of 2004 to 2016”

One study found that the International Disaster Database, maintained by the international disaster community, under-estimated the number of fatal landslides by between 1400% and 2000%, often because the death tolls from such events were lumped in with other forms of disaster that might precipitate landslip: among them volcanic eruption, earthquake and flooding.

“We were aware that humans are placing increasing pressure on their local environment, but it was surprising to find clear trends within the database that fatal landslides triggered by construction, illegal hill-cutting and illegal mining were increasing globally during the period of 2004 to 2016,” said Melanie Froude, of the University of Sheffield, who led the study.

All the countries in the premier league for fatal landslides were in Asia: one in five of these happened in India, but Pakistan, Myanmar and the Philippines also suffered increasing losses.

Poorest in the shadows

Such findings are no surprise. First, there are more people on the planet, looking for new places to live and new ways of making a living, and the poorest are always more likely to be forced to the margins, to live on or in the shadow of dangerous, unstable slopes.

Second, the world is warming: for every extra degree Celsius the moisture-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by about 7%, so more rain is likely to fall with ever greater intensity to saturate more soil and dislodge more rock. The researchers found that 79% of all landslides could be linked to rainfall.

And, with greater warming, there is a greater hazard of devastating superstorms, along with hurricanes and tropical cyclones that deliver the conditions for catastrophic floods not just in Asia but in Europe and the US.

Paradoxically, extremes of heat and drought can also create dangerous slopes: dangerous wild fires can remove the tree cover that stops hillsides from slipping, and drive people from their homes to places that could later be just as hazardous.

Applying knowledge

Research like this is never just academic: the point of such studies is to draw attention to natural disasters that need never have happened, and identify the communities most at risk.

And these, the scientists say, are more frequently in poor countries, with the poorest of all disproportionately at risk. The point the scientists make is that there is nothing inevitable about a “natural” disaster. Human error, heedlessness and ignorance all contribute to loss, suffering and death.

“With appropriate regulation to guide engineering design, education and enforcement by regulation by specialist inspectors, landslides triggered by construction, mining and hill-cutting are entirely preventable,” Dr Froude said.

This article was originally published on Climate News Network.

Cover photo by Peruvian Ministry of Defense/Flickr (CC BY2.0): A 15 March 2018 image of a landslide near Cusco, Peru.
After the storm passes: the reality of hurricane aftermaths

After the storm passes: the reality of hurricane aftermaths

By Georgina Wade

On 20 September 2017, an onslaught of catastrophic weather changed the lives of 3 million people forever. One year later, residents of Puerto Rico are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that resulted in economic losses of nearly $140 billion and killed nearly 3,000 people directly and in its aftermath.

The tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record and the most intense tropical cyclone worldwide of 2017, it was a mix of highly favourable environmental conditions that allowed Maria to undergo explosive intensification as it approached the Caribbean islands.

It was the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years with sustained winds of 155 mph (ca 250 km/h) resulting in a blackout across the entire island and dumping six months’ worth of rain in less than four days. Trees were uprooted, homes were destroyed, and widespread flooding caused more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans to register for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid. With no power, running water was cut off for much of the population. Communications to and from Puerto Rico became nearly impossible for days. And when the cloud cover finally broke, the chaos during the storm was only matched by the disarray following it.

The aftermath

With the island’s power grid knocked out, it was only last month that electricity was finally restored to all customers. Emergency health services were left paralysed trapping people in need of care in their homes without access to medication or telephone service.

While previous government estimates had the death toll at 64, an independent study from George Washington University, released 11 months after the storm, found that an estimated 2,975 had died after Maria. The analysis suggested that Hurricane Maria was the second-deadliest storm to ever hit U.S. shores, following the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 that killed an estimated 6,000 people.

Maria demolished 87,094 homes, with another 385,703 sustaining major damage. Up to a quarter of a million people were displaced. A year later, blue tarps covering damaged houses can still be seen by overpassing aircraft. What were supposed to be temporary fixes, are now tattered and fading in the sun as the island struggles to rebuild.

More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans left the island temporarily, with about 11,000 currently living in New York. However, housing funds set aside for Puerto Rican families forced to flee have now ceased. Just last month, a judge ruled that families had to move out from temporary FEMA housing by 14 September.

A long road ahead

Long after a storm dissipates, people still face a harsh reality. A single hurricane can undo years of development and plunge prosperous households into poverty from one day to the next. And while people are quick to focus on the immediate physical costs from hurricane strikes, the resounding social costs can be felt for decades to come.

Grenada, for example, is still dealing with the consequences of being hit successively in 2004 and 2005 by Hurricanes Ivan and Emily. Estimated losses amounted to 200 percent of gross domestic product and Grenada remains in “debt distress” according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Caribbean happens to be the most tourism-dependent region in the world. More than 47 million international visitors travelled to the Caribbean in 2016, spending $31 billion, according to an Oxford Economics study. When hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the Caribbean last fall, the region lost nearly 1 million visitors and an estimated $900 million USD in tourism-related spending. As tourism infrastructure is restored, further losses totalling more than $3 billion USD are expected over the next four years.

Such disasters also have an effect on mental health. Psychologists estimate that 30 to 50 percent of the Puerto Rican population is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety following Hurricane Maria.

“The storm takes away the foundations of society. Everything you thought gave you certainty is gone,” says psychologist Domingo Marques, an associate professor at Albizu University in San Juan. “You see people anxious, depressed, scared.”

Everyday routines that once included work and school commutes can come grinding to a halt, only contributing to the semblance of disarray many feel following such catastrophic events. Survivors may bounce back after a few months, or they may experience ongoing stressors, such as financial issues or problems finding permanent and safe housing.

While early disaster recovery efforts often focus on physical reconstruction, psychological recovery efforts typically end up on the back burner.

Building back better

Work towards a more resilient Caribbean starts with building back better. With a changing climate promising more intense storms in the future, it’s increasingly important that action is taken to not only recover from a storm, but to increase resilience to future ones.

In January 2018, following the Caribbean’s devastating hurricane season, The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) held its eventBuilding Back Better: A resilient Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes”. The conference addressed four pillars for resilience building: Ecosystems and planning; Codes and practices; Economies; and Governance. Tying in with The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the central idea is that stakeholders should share responsibility in reducing disaster risk and that growing disaster risk is putting a stronger emphasis on better preparedness and overall resilience.

Roundtable discussions included a debate on best approaches to financing and implementing post-disaster resilience building. As noted by several of the presenters, the damage caused by an extreme event can be two to three times higher than the annual GDP of the countries affected. This can mean that funds get diverted from other annual budgets such as education, transport or general development. And with a short timeframe between immediate disaster recovery and preparation for the next event, efforts to build long-term resilience are especially challenging.

Despite this, disasters caused by storms like Irma and Maria open windows of opportunity to rethink the measures needed to ensure a sustainable future. In some cases, disasters can be used to generate political momentum to increase climate resilience. For example, following the almost total devastation to the island of Dominica due to Hurricane Maria, the country responded with its intention to be the “first climate resilient country in the world”.

But many things are needed to build back better. To begin with, it requires a deep understanding of the causes of disaster, recovery processes and future climate risks. Additionally, it requires high levels of commitment from policymakers, the international aid agencies and donors supporting recovery, and from communities already engaged in recovery.

In their briefing paper, ODI introduced four principles that can help guide stakeholders as they transition from immediate responses to longer-term recovery.

  • Learn from history and avoid repeating it: understanding the historical and cultural factors that led to disaster is critical to identifying solutions.
  • Develop a holistic recovery framework: recovery frameworks should be based on priorities and activities in existing development strategies and land-use plans, to avoid creating a parallel planning system.
  • Create transparent, accountable and participatory processes: building consensus on key issues requires involving the widest possible array of relevant stakeholders
  • Leave no one behind: Certain types of intervention can deepen marginalisation. Recovery efforts should be built on the principle of ‘leave no one behind’.

Ultimately, disasters can be both a crisis from which to learn and an opportunity to do things better. While hurricanes are a common feature of the Caribbean, there has been limited investment in resilience building to address the many social repercussions of such storms. To avoid further human suffering, ‘building back better’ must become central to development efforts. Climate-related disasters should be used to challenge current decision making and promote investment on long-term climate resilience in the Caribbean and globally.

Cover photo by US Government (public domain): While conducting search and rescue in the mountains of Puerto Rico a Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Black Hawk located this home with HELP painted it is roof.
Americans who live far from coasts should also be worried about flooding

Americans who live far from coasts should also be worried about flooding

Editor’s note: This is an article that was written last year, however, the lessons from Hurricane Harvey still hold true and are also relevant to the aftermath of Hurricane Florence earlier this month.

By Nina Lam, Louisiana State University

Catastrophic flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is the latest reminder that floods kill more people in the United States than any other type of natural disaster and are the most common natural disaster worldwide. Many communities along U.S. coastlines have begun to take heed and have slowed development in coastal flood zones. The bad news, as Harvey shows, is that inland communities are also at risk – and in some, development in flood zones is increasing.

With post-doctoral research associate Yi Qiang and graduate students, I recently studied development patterns in the United States from 2001 to 2011. We found that while new urban development in flood zones near coasts has generally declined, it has grown in inland counties. This is a worrisome trend. It implies that people who have experienced flooding on the coast migrate inland, but may not realize that they are still vulnerable if they relocate to an inland flood zone.

That’s what we have seen firsthand here in Louisiana. Thousands of people fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and settled 80 miles inland in Baton Rouge. A decade later, many of these same people lost everything again when a 500-year flood event struck Baton Rouge in August 2016.

Climate change effects, such as sea level rise and potentially more extreme weather, are increasing the risk of flooding, hurricanes and storm surges in coastal areas. Some communities are considering moving coastal populations inland to protect them. However, our research shows that people should be very careful about moving inland. They can still face flood hazards if their property is located in a high-risk flood zone.

Not just a coastal issue

Flooding can happen wherever large rainstorms stall over an area, as we have seen in Boulder, Colorado in 2013; in Texas and Louisiana in 2016; and over Houston now. However, if communities take steps to reduce flood risk, they can mitigate the danger to people and property.

When we assess flood risk in a given location, we consider three questions.

  • Hazard: How likely is a flood event?
  • Exposure: How many people and physical assets are located there?
  • Vulnerability: Do people have the capacity to deal with the event?

Flood risk is the product of these three elements.

We can decrease flood risk by reducing any of the three elements. For example, communities can reduce hazard by building flood control structures, such as dams and levees. They can use laws and policies, such as land use controls, to reduce exposure by steering housing development away from flood zones. And they can make people and property less vulnerable through other measures, such as elevating houses and developing better flood warning systems and emergency preparedness plans.

How can people learn about flood risks where they live? The Federal Emergency Management Agency has created flood zone maps for most parts of the United States. The maps are based on models that consider factors such as elevation, average rainfall and whether a location is near a river or lake that could overflow.

FEMA maps classify flood zones into three categories: high-risk, moderate-low risk and undetermined. High-risk zones have at least a 1 percent chance of being inundated by flood in any given year. These areas are also called base flood or 100-year flood zones.

To obtain a federally insured mortgage on property in a 100-year flood zone, buyers are required to have flood insurance. This policy is designed to make people less vulnerable in the event of a flood, but it increases the cost of home ownership. As a result, flood zone designations can be very contentious.

100-year flood zones are based on a combination of statistics, hydrogeology and society’s tolerance for risk.

Moving into harm’s way

We undertook this study because we wanted to develop a clear baseline showing how Americans’ exposure to flood hazards has changed over the past decade. To assess levels of exposure to flood hazards nationwide, we compiled urban development, flood zone and census data and overlaid them on a county map of the nation.

Overall, we estimated that as of 2011, more than 25 million Americans lived in flood zones. We also found that inland communities were less responsive to flood hazards than coastal communities and were doing a poorer job of steering development out of flood-prone areas.

The three U.S. counties with the largest concentrations of people living in flood zones are located on the Gulf of Mexico. They are Cameron Parish, Louisiana (population 6,401, with 93.6 percent in flood zones); Monroe County, Florida (population 66,804, with 91.4 percent in flood zones); and Galveston County, Texas (population 241,204, with 82.8 percent in flood zones).

These are all coastal communities, where flood risks should be well-known to all residents. But we also found inland counties where the share of the total population living in flood zones increased over the decade we examined. A number of those with the largest increases are bordered by rivers, such as Marshall County in western Kentucky, which sits between Kentucky Lake and the Ohio River. We also identified several hot spots where urban development has increased in coastal flood zones, including New York City and Miami.

Heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Harvey is forecast to reach hundreds of miles inland. National Weather Service

Reducing exposure now

This alarming trend points to a need for more awareness, education and communication about flood risk, especially in inland counties. More affordable housing in nonflood zones and strategies to mitigate floods are also needed, especially inland.

Why would people move to inland flood zone areas? Some may be unaware of the risk. Others may plan to adapt through steps such as elevating their houses or buying flood insurance. Still other may accept the risk because they want to be closer to relatives or workplaces, or for other cultural, political or institutional reasons.

Our analysis has pinpointed a number of regions of concern. The next step is to produce in-depth analyses of these regions, in order to understand why people are locating in flood zones there, and to devise local strategies to reduce overall U.S. flood risks. Climate change, land subsidence or sinking, and construction of new levees and dams will change long-term flood exposure in these areas over time. Therefore, local governments, mortgage lenders and homeowners should review current FEMA flood hazard maps for accuracy.

This research provides national context for a detailed study that we are carrying out examining resilience and sustainability in the Mississippi River Delta. Our goal is to understand how human actions combined with natural environmental conditions may have caused land to sink in the Mississippi Delta. Our research on development in flood zones reminds us that flooding problems in low-lying coastal regions are not unique and also affect areas well away from the shore.The Conversation

Nina Lam, Distinguished Professor of Louisiana Environmental Studies, Louisiana State University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover photo by Steve Zumwalt/FEMA (public domain): Jamestown, Colo., Sep. 15, 2013 — The small mountain town of 300 has been cut off because of Boulder County flood.
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:

Cover photo by Akbarali/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0): Kerala flood – Cheruvannur mosque disappeared, 17 August 2018.