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.
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.
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.
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:
Purchase add-on flood protection with your home insurance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The recently announced database will collect local level statistical data on natural disasters and their impacts. This includes disaggregated data on mortality rates, service interruption, economic losses, damages to infrastructure, and more. The database will provide the basis for government decision-making, from fund allocations and investments, to actions to reduce losses.
Aggregated national level, or even state level data on disasters and their impacts for a country of India’s proportions are of little use in planning and decision-making process. The challenges faced by people in the wake of a disaster are best assessed using local data. This will give decision-makers insights into local level impacts helping distribute funds and personnel effectively while implementing locally relevant measures to minimise losses.
Having experienced the third largest number of disasters globally in 2016 (after China and the USA), India was home to a whopping 50 per cent of the global population affected by disasters in 2015-2016 and has a total projected annual average loss of US$ 9,824 million. According to UNESCAP, disaster risk reduction interventions have an estimated return rate between four and seven times. For the Asia Pacific Region an annual investment of $2.3-$4 billion could reduce the annual average loss of $160 billion by 10%. This new database will help Indian authorities target disaster risk management investments better and thus improve their results.
Rajesh Sharma, a disaster risk information and application specialist at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) explains that through the database practitioners “will be able to understand what is happening in their own district and then they can take the preventive actions needed or request further information. Then we really have resilient development.”
Sharma is further encouraging the government to make the National Disaster Database open access as, “this will demand more action from all the stakeholders and I think it will raise more awareness in the long run, leading to an overall improvement in the use of disaster risk information… It could help focus minds and attention on disasters that otherwise go unnoticed, but have a huge knock-on effect for local communities.”
Cover photo by McKay Savage (CC BY 2.0): People going about their daily lives commuting to work or school just after heavy morning rains flooded the streets.
In the US, close partnerships between National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) help improve flood response and recovery when disasters strike. Earth observation data from NASA satellites offer invaluable information that can guide disaster aid in affected communities by providing products tailored to the needs of the respective agency. Such collaborations have helped thousands of people recover from flood disasters.
Louisiana’s historic flood
In 2016, Louisiana was battered by a 500-year deluge that led its governor to declare a state of emergency. The most severely affected areas received totals 61cm of rain with peaks of almost 80cm in Watson, near Baton Rouge. The record-breaking rainfall began on August 12 and FEMA soon reached out to NASA with a request to assess the potential disaster that was developing.
Speaking to NASA Glen Russell, remote sensing coordinator at FEMA, said “We estimated that Louisiana would have about 27,000 damaged homes, but it was through the acquisition of SAR data [synthetic aperture radar] and other remotely sensed data that we were able to see that that was a much larger impact than we had forecast.” It was thanks to the combination of remotely sensed data that FEMA decided to increase the resources they had sent to Louisiana, helping many families find shelters and new homes.
2017’s record-breaking hurricane season
Last year saw several major deadly and destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. Six of the 17 storms developed into major hurricanes, hurricanes with a Saffir-Simpson scale category of 3 or higher. In August and September, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria set all kinds of records during a hurricane season that produced both the highest total accumulated cyclone energy on record and the highest number of major hurricanes since 2005.
During this challenging time, USGS provided large amounts of remotely sensed data at no cost through its Hazard Data Distribution System (HDDS) to analyse the extent, severity, and evolution of major hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. USGS staff worked around the clock keeping the portal up to date. Over 15,000 images were downloaded and requests came from 48 government agencies, including the US Senate, Department of Homeland Security, and the Centers for Disease Control. FEMA used HDDS data about roads and infrastructure in Houston to direct rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey.
The access to such high-quality data in a fast and uncomplicated manner has made it possible to produce and distribute maps that help disaster management authorities make decisions and prove invaluable during rescue efforts.
The European research project PLACARD (PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction) has released a new report exploring how foresight can help integrate climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR).
The PLACARD project aims to establish a coordination and knowledge exchange platform to support the dialogue between the CCA and DRR communities. As part of that effort, this new report promotes the cooperative use of foresight methods to improve the integration of CCA and DRR in research, policy, and practice.
Foresight is described as a “systematic, participatory, future intelligence gathering and medium- to long-term vision-building process to inform present-day decisions and mobilise joint actions.”
It helps decision-makers explore and anticipate future developments through a range of forward-looking approaches. It is a process to think about, debate and shape the future in a participatory, inclusive, and action-oriented manner exploring common long-term visions, and desired future conditions.
While they often might not be explicitly called that, foresight methods are already commonly used in CCA and DRR, for example the Adaptation Pathways approach, which presents “a sequence of possible actions after a tipping point,” and offers a series of ‘pathways’ in the form of adaptation or decision trees. Another very common practice is the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis), which helps categorise internal and external factors that might influence organisations. However, these methods are usually applied to either DRR or CCA rather than using them as a mechanism to integrate the two, which is what PLACARD’s new report proposes.
Given that both communities are used to the methods, the aim would be to encourage the use of foresight to look both at DRR and CCA together. As the authors explain, “for DRR this would imply the consideration of a longer time horizon and more attention to preventive responses, for CCA it would stimulate the consideration of the relevance of long-term changes for short-term changes and weather events which are more relevant for policy and practice.”
PLACARD identifies a number of ways in which foresight might improve future-thinking in a joint CCA-DRR policy context:
Enhance the effectiveness of participatory processes, cooperation and dialogue
Produce salient knowledge and capacity building that is relevant for future decision making and policy support
Facilitate the understanding of issues and concepts such as complexity, uncertainty, non-linearity, wildcards and surprises
Generate levers that build flexibility into policy measures and across policy areas
Address different time scales simultaneously, for example, connect long-term CCA prevention with short-term DRR preparedness
Be used in the context of trust building and the development of shared values
Allow for the use of a holistic perspective in connecting different policy areas.
This report summarises PLACARD’s initial work on foresight and will be followed up by a series of webinars and workshops in 2018 which will help develop and identify more specific foresight methods to integrate CCA and DRR.
For most Americans, the one-two punch of last fall’s hurricanes is ancient history. But hard-hit communities in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean are still rebuilding.
I recently traveled with public health students from the University of Washington to southeast Texas, where the impacts of Hurricane Harvey last August are still felt today. With support from the Natural Hazards Center’s Quick Response Grant Program, we wanted to understand how disaster recovery strategies can create long-term opportunities to promote healthy communities.
Through interviews with local health officials, we learned how Hurricane Harvey is still affecting many residents. As we often see during natural disasters, Harvey amplified pre-existing health and social stresses and inequities.
For example, greater Houston had only a paltry pre-storm supply of affordable housing. Now buyers and renters are competing to secure undamaged units. We heard about families who were living in homes with toxic mold because they couldn’t afford to leave, and concerns that rising prices would drive people out on the street or force them to move to other cities and states. However, we also saw signs that communities were using Hurricane Harvey to springboard efforts to address persistent housing problems.
The default response after a major disaster is often to rebuild as quickly as possible. This typically means replicating what existed before the storm. But why not build back in a way that corrects long-standing problems?
Major disasters like Hurricane Harvey often bring influxes of resources and attention to communities that are struggling with health and social challenges. In a 2015 report, the Institute of Medicine found that many communities fail to fully leverage recovery resources to address pre-existing issues, such as access to health care.
The report urged communities to consider short- and long-term health impacts of their recovery decisions, known as a “health in all policies” approach to recovery. This approach recognizes that health is connected to many other issues, including transportation, social networks and housing. By thinking about the health impacts of recovery strategies, municipal leaders can rebuild in a way that promotes stronger and more resilient communities.
For example, co-locating mental health professionals at sites where people are signing up for FEMA aid can help more residents get counseling and support. In the long term, decisions about land use in badly damaged neighborhoods can create spaces where people can exercise and socialize, which helps them to lead healthier and happier lives.
Leveraging local expertise to build back better
The idea of incorporating health in all policies may sound sensible, but putting it into action after a hurricane, wildfire or tornado strike is easier said than done. As a former emergency manager in Baltimore, I know that working conditions after disasters are fast-paced and often chaotic. Communities are under political and social pressure to recover quickly, and health may not be at the top of their agendas.
Advance planning for recovery is important. And involving people who understand challenges to community health and well-being is essential. Local health departments, as well as community- and faith-based organizations, are often connected to at-risk populations. Involving these organizations in recovery planning and implementation can inform an approach that promotes community health and well-being. For example, they can identify opportunities to use recovery resources to meet pre-existing housing needs, or direct case management services to families that are already struggling.
During our trip to Texas we saw that pre-disaster recovery planning was paying off. As an example, Fort Bend Recovers was established in Fort Bend County, which covers 885 square miles in the Houston metro area, after major flooding on Memorial Day in 2016.
In Harvey’s wake, plans developed by Fort Bend Recovers created a process for organizations, including local health and social services agencies, to rapidly reconvene to respond to community needs. Together they offered case management services, staffed mental health support lines, and convened emotional support groups. Such services can help individuals affected by the floods find housing and supplies, but also connect them with solutions for longer-term problems, such as finding affordable medical care.
Hurricane season 2018 is coming
In order to truly “build back better,” states and communities need to develop a plan for recovery in advance of the next disaster. Galveston County, on Texas’ Gulf Coast, is using its Hurricane Harvey recovery experience to formalize a Long Term Recovery Group that brings together the local health department and other community- and faith-based organizations to address community health needs. But we also heard about other communities that still don’t have a plan or mechanism for organizing recovery.
With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Connections Program, my research team is now reviewing state disaster recovery plans nationwide. We plan to identify whether and how states use the disaster recovery period to build back better. We hope to highlight recovery strategies that promote equitable access to affordable and safe housing, health care, and places and spaces that encourage healthy activity and foster social connections.
As climate change amplifies storms, floods and other extreme weather events, U.S. communities can expect more frequent and severe natural disasters in the years to come. By recognizing and planning for opportunities to build back better, they can make themselves more resilient against the next disaster.
Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had declared 2017 the costliest year on record for weather and climate disasters. 16 extreme events had losses exceeding $1 billion and causing a total loss of $306 billion, three times more than in the record year 2005.
The NIBS study analysed results from 23 years of federal disaster mitigation grants provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), concluding that investing in disaster resilience saves six times more than it costs.
Additionally, the researchers looked at the benefits of designing new buildings to exceed 2015 International Codes (I-Codes) provisions and found that every extra dollar spent here saves four.
Both strategies together could prevent 600 deaths, 1 million nonfatal injuries, and 4000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long-term.
The public-sector disaster resilience building strategies the project team studied include:
For flood resistance, acquiring or demolishing flood-prone buildings, especially single-family homes, manufactured homes and 2- to 4-family dwellings.
For wind resistance, adding hurricane shutters, tornado safe rooms and other common measures.
For fire resistance, replacing roofs, managing vegetation to reduce fuels and replacing wooden water tanks.
The strategies to exceed minimum requirements of the 2015 I-Codes include:
For flood resistance (to address riverine flooding and hurricane surge), building new homes higher than required by the 2015 I-Codes.
For resistance to hurricane winds, building new homes to comply with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety FORTIFIED Home Hurricane standards.
For fire resistance in the wildland-urban interface, building new buildings to comply with the 2015 International Wildland-Urban Interface Code.
The report is accompanied by a white paper and addendum that outline public and private sector incentives for disaster resilience investment.