Natural Capital the basis for effective flood protection?

The year has been marked by a number of unusual climate events. Not only was 2015 the hottest year on record[1], with 2016 appearing on track to exceed this[2], but the year has also been unusually wet. In the US state of Louisiana, 13 people died and large areas are still struggling to cope when a “no-name storm” dumped three times as much rain onCan you swim Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina[3]. This disaster manifested despite the US having the largest global disaster emergency organisation and associated budget on the planet. But in countries with limited resources the challenge of flooding is more severe. Northern India went from extreme drought to flooding in 45 days[4] with the poorest and the elderly struggling to survive as a scorching summer gave way to an above-average monsoon; people who were praying for rain are now fleeing from it.

So how can we respond to this increasing flood risk in a way that doesn’t waste valuable resources? For example in Assam state, India, the state government depends on embankments to protect communities from the routine flooding of the Brahmaputra River. This year the Narayanguri embankment in Baksa district was washed away, this is the third time this has happened since 2004. Each time it is rebuilt to protect the local communities. Despite the presence of the embankments, villagers in Assam report losing their houses on multiple occasions[5]. Why have successive governments in Assam continued to rely on hard infrastructure as the only solution? Especially when the local development needs are huge and local government budgets are limited. Embankments are not cheap with an estimate that for the last three years Assam has spent £56 to £80 million, building and repairing flood embankments each year.

Flooding India

People forced to flee when the Narayanguri embankment failed

How can local governments and communities maximise their investment in flood resilience building in the face of a changing flood situation. Clearly floods are getting worse, more people are living in flood prone areas and money alone does not seem to be the solution. So how can we maximise investment in floods management to minimise the negative consequences? Last week I was fortunate enough to join colleagues from a number of global organisations to explore the potential that nature based solutions offer in the face of this challenge.

This workshop brought together experts from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), WWF, Asian Institute of Technology, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) with Zurich flood project staff from Practical Action. We gathered to explore how natural and nature-based methods can minimizing flood risk while maximizing social, environmental, and economic co-benefits of flood management approaches[6].

One of the sessions explored the question, “if nature based solutions are relatively cheap and freely available why aren’t they used more often”?

Why are we not seeing more natural and nature based techniques in flood risk management

The underlying logic of two of the groups are presented above. Based on these examples, clearly, political will, entrenched positions and understanding are vital obstacles to the mainstreaming of nature based solutions. As one participant eloquently put it, local politicians are unwilling to risk nature based solutions, fearing the question “How will planting trees protect me from a flood event, what am I supposed to do, climb the tree when the flood comes?”

There is clearly a knowledge gap. We need to do more to highlight not only the potential that nature based solutions offer in the face of increasing flood risk, but also the economic potential of nature based options to expand flood resilience to greater populations. The knowledge gap of appropriate nature based solutions, understanding of how nature based and more traditional approaches can be combined and a lack of evidence of how they can work and the benefits they can deliver. Nature based options are locally available and in many cases much cheaper then hard infrastructure. They can be managed using existing traditional practices and can therefore be maintained and repaired using local knowledge and local materials. Without even realising the workshop was making a great case for why Technology Justice[7] must be central to deliver effective flood resilience building efforts for current and future generations.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” E.F Schumacher

[1] http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/archive/2016/2015-global-temperature
[2] http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/climate-trends-continue-to-break-records
[3] http://news.trust.org/item/20160822234817-jobqu/
[4] http://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2016/08/03/drought-floods-45-days/
[5] http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/assams-embankments-crores-washed-away-1440868
[6] http://envirodm.org/post/need-a-new-approach
[7] http://policy.practicalaction.org/policy-themes/technology-justice

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