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Climate Change + Population Growth + Economic Expansion = More Severe Flooding

Climate

By Giulio Boccaletti

Defending homes and businesses from flooding is an expensive business. After catastrophic inundations in the north of England, the British Government has increased spending on flood defenses by $1 billion. South Carolina, hit by October floods that left 40,000 people without clean drinking water, will spend $190 million to cover the damage the disaster caused. These sums would be dwarfed by requirements in Asia. In South Asia alone 200 million people are exposed to flood hazards, with Pakistan losing 4.75 percent of its GDP every year to flooding.

Already the most destructive and deadly of all natural disasters, science tells us that flooding events will increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. Meanwhile population pressures will continue to see more and more building in low-lying coastal areas and flood plains. Investment in adequate defenses will need to grow massively to protect against this advancing threat.

The engineering challenge comes when excess water, usually from too much rainfall or melting snow, flows where and when people do not want it. “Grey infrastructure"—walls, barriers, dams, dikes, levees, tunnels and drains—is the traditional solution but cannot offer sufficient protection. If you bottle up the power of a river and the levees burst, there is often far greater devastation than if the river followed its natural course. We have seen this many times, going back at least to the great Mississippi floods in 1927.

On April 15 that year, heavy rains swelled the river to a massive size and the levees started to break. Over the next few weeks the entire levee system gave way, inundating more than 23,000 square miles of land and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. About 250 people died. After much soul-searching, a new era of adaptive management shifted focus from levees to include floodways and tributary management. This allowed strategic floodplain areas to fulfill their original purpose of absorbing excess water. In 2011 and then again last month when floods levels in certain reaches of the Mississippi surpassed 1927 records, hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. But the adaptive management held, saving cities downstream from far worse.

An aerial view from a Missouri National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter shows the effects of flooding in Pacific, Missouri, Dec. 30, 2015. Photo credit: Missouri National Guard photo

Despite this success, natural flood defenses remain poorly understood and rarely deployed around the world even though they are often cheaper than concrete. But change is afoot. Holland, a country whose existence depends on flood prevention, has decided that natural defenses can be cheaper and more effective than grey infrastructure. The Dutch are now investing in setting aside polders to give rivers room to flood.

In the city of Pickering in northern England, research by universities and others prompted community investment in hillside reforestation to slow hillside run-off as well as natural catchments to hold back water. This winter these efforts succeeded in preventing the city from being flooded, while others in the area were inundated. Parliamentary hearings and hints from the Environment Agency indicate that natural flood defenses are gaining in currency. There is still no systematic approach in the UK to their deployment, however.

Natural flood defense measures are a huge missed opportunity, in developed countries and developing. Innovative approaches to funding can align economic interests such as agriculture or property development with flood prevention measures. This is all consistent with integrating Disaster Risk Reduction into development policy and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), now known as Agenda 30.

Better use of green spaces in cities is an exciting innovation. Washington, DC has a massive problem with rain runoff which overloads its sewers and dumps up to 3.2 million gallons of contaminated water into its rivers every year. Complementing a new $2.6bn tunnel system, a market in tradable “retention credits" has been set up to encourage property owners and developers to make green surfaces more permeable so that excess water sinks into the ground and never reaches the river. This model could easily be replicated as a flood prevention measure in affected cities.

Climate change, population growth and economic expansion are all incentives to move faster towards blending gray infrastructure with natural solutions and green finance. Overcoming vested interests such as construction companies and local politicians, for whom grey infrastructure is still the reflex response, can be challenging. But in doing so, we could save thousands of lives, spare millions from the scars of destruction and boost economies around the world increasingly prone to the vagaries of climate change.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.