Again Disastrous Floods – Expectations, Probabilities, and Common Sense

Hochwasser Bayern - Deggendorfby Renard Teipelke

The Resilient Cities Congress in Bonn on the first weekend of June 2013 was thought of as an event where climate change, natural hazards, and urban resilience are discussed – most often with case studies from the Global South. If, for instance, the issue of floods is raised, Bangladesh, Thailand, or other South and South-East Asian countries are regularly mentioned. That was different this time: The flood has returned to Central Europe. What I have been working on for countries like Madagascar, Pakistan, or Cameroon has been ‘coming home’. I am attending the Resilient Cities Congress in Bonn, hear lessons about land use planning in flood-prone areas and on the TV screens horrible images are shown of the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany being hit by disastrous floods – my old hometown included.

While natural disasters quickly cause communal solidarity followed by public outrage, they usually also open windows of opportunity to implement policies and programs that are deemed necessary to protect people’s lives and properties. There is this short period after each catastrophe when people and parties join forces and enact safeguarding laws to make their places more resistant against natural hazards – most often through ‘hard’ structural measures of big infrastructure projects. However, urban resilience as an adaptive capacity to natural hazards is something different and requires long-term, strategic commitment by decision makers and citizens.

Hochwasser Bayern - DeggendorfWith regard to flood hazards (coastal or riverine), one key aspect is the correct understanding of statistics: As research has shown (cf. for instance Bell 2004), people tend to have their own thought sets of how to estimate the flood risk for their places. Furthermore, they will find vastly different interpretations for the probabilities assigned to these flood risks. The famous (and not undisputed) 100-year floodplain boundary does NOT describe a static line dividing two zones, one zone that will be flooded every 100 years and another one that is just safe. Many areas in Eastern and Southern Germany have now already been hit by a 100-year flood twice in a decade (a few places experienced statistically even less likely >200-year floods in these ten years)! There is a problem of working with historic data when modeling natural hazard probabilities because of the underlying assumption of a future that will be characterized by similar patterns of the past. Better assessment techniques exist, but it is a question of financial and human resources to apply them in every probable risk zone (I have discussed the alternative instrument of urban foresight here).

Prague (REUTERS, David W Cerny, 2013)Also in reaction to climate change debates, the no-regrets approach has proven viable: In order to make places more resilient against floods and other natural hazards, cost-effective measures are taken that will benefit these places (and also other sectors beyond hazard protection) no matter what the future development will look like. Flood resilient activities can emerge from various policy fields, such as settlement planning, economic development, public health and safety, climate change, and even tourism. In that regard, non-structural and non-regulatory instruments become relevant by softly introducing changes and giving people incentives to change (even though regulatory measures are sometimes indispensable).

Dresden 2002 (2002)One should not under-estimate the role flood risk maps can play in increasing people’s understanding, raising concerns in the public, and persuading decision-makers. Relating this back to the Resilient Cities Congress, one has to be cautious about well-experienced (Western) practitioners teaching public authorities (in the Global South) a lesson – one should always reflect on local contexts as well as available capacities, capabilities, and resources, because in the end, it is all about implementation and enforcement. Besides the forces of nature and possible statistical chance which are now causing lives, immaterial and material values, it appears that some stakeholders in the affected areas (and beyond) have not learnt the right lessons from the deadly floods of 2002. What remains is the (ongoing) flood tragedy of 2013 and a big (although ironic) window of opportunity for change.

Grimma 2002 (DPA)

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