Flood Disasters Highlight Urgent Need for "Green Infrastructure"

Ecological stormwater Management in Portland, Oregon
Ecological stormwater Management in Portland, Oregon
La-Citta-Vita @ Flickr
Bad news about climate disasters has been coming so depressingly thick and fast of late that major catastrophes are now going almost unnoticed by the US media. The states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in south India just suffered some of their worst flooding on record. Around 280 people were killed, a quarter of a million homes destroyed, and millions of acres of crops ruined. The region is now threatened with serious food shortages. Yet despite being an obsessive consumer of printed and electronic news, I only found out about the floods from a listserv on Indian water issues.

Even an activist friend who just returned to California from the UN climate negotiations in Bangkok, where the recent deluge to hit Manila was much discussed, had not heard of the south Indian flooding.

As my friend remarked, climate activists have always thought that the public and politicians would finally get motivated to address the climate crisis in the face of repeated climate disasters. Yet these disasters are happening -- and our response is not to get shocked into action, but to tune them out. The old saw about the frog dying rather than jumping out of the saucepan because he's unaware that he's being boiled alive comes to mind (as Joe Romm of Climate Progress has explained, the saying actually insults the intelligence of frogs - see "Glenn Beck proves he's a brainless frog" -- but it's a useful analogy all the same).

The most alarming aspect of these Indian floods, from the perspective of what we can expect as climate change accelerates, is the unprecedented nature of the downpour that caused it.

According to the Hindustan Times:

"About 400 mm of rain took place in three days. This has never happened before in India Meteorological Department (IMD) records," S.P. Kakran, senior official in the ministry of water resources, told HT. The IMD has measured rain since 1901.

"It was up to 600 per cent higher than average, up to 800 per cent higher in a few districts," said Dr Santosh Kumar of the home ministry's National Institute of Disaster Management."

This Indian deluge came just a week after Manila was hit by Typhoon Ketsana. Three hundred people drowned or were buried in landslides, with more than one month's "normal" rain falling on the Philippines capital in a single day.

And only two weeks after Ketsana, the Philippines got hit again by Typhoon Parma, which reportedly killed more than 200 people. The Parma disaster was reportedly worsened by sudden releases of water from dams, in particular the highly controversial San Roque Dam on the Agno River.

Filipino Senator Francis Escudero is reportedly considering filing a class suit against private operators of dams for failing to adequately warn residents about the sudden releases of water. Escudero pointed out that "What is ironic and more annoying about this is the head of the Agno River flood control project was also begging to be rescued after being trapped on the roof of his office."

(Mismanagement of releases from dams also reportedly worsened the damage from the south Indian floods).

And in-between the two typhoons in the Philippines, an eight-day downpour caused floods in Atlanta, Georgia that killed ten people. The US Geological Survey calculated the Atlanta rainstorm to be a 1-in-500-year event. (Although climate change means that the old hydrological technique of calculating probabilities of storms and floods is now basically redundant - in a changed and changing climate hydrologists no longer have a clue what the chances are of a particular weather event happening in any year). Amazingly even this homegrown disaster received very little attention in the notoriously insular US media.

Like the Indian floods, those in Atlanta came on the tail of record-beating droughts. Climate "change" just sounds too tame a term for the wild and deadly swings in weather we are now experiencing.

Thankfully there is some good news of late among the string of water disasters. A timely report from American Rivers reminds us that there are affordable and effective ways that we can increase our resilience to climate change-induced floods and droughts. Although it uses only US case studies, the report, "Natural Security: How Sustainable Water Strategies are Preparing Communities for a Changing Climate," has global relevance.

The report says that:

The same approaches we have used for centuries will not solve today's water challenges. We need to fundamentally transform the way we manage water.

A 21st century approach would recognize "green infrastructure" as the core of our water management system. Green infrastructure is the best, most cost-effective, and flexible way for communities to deal with the impacts of climate change. It has three critical components:
* Protect healthy landscapes like forests and small streams that naturally sustain clean water supplies.
* Restore degraded landscapes like floodplains and wetlands so they can better store flood water and recharge streams and aquifers.
* Replicate natural water systems in urban settings, to capture rainwater for outdoor watering and other uses and prevent stormwater and sewage pollution.

International Rivers has long advocated these "green infrastructure" strategies as superior methods to big dams for managing floods and water resources (see our reports on the "soft path" of flood management and on water strategies to relieve poverty). Even without climate change, these strategies make sense; add the ogre of climate change into the mix, and they become essential to our survival.

More information: 

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post

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