Houston, you have a problem

  • A new paradigm that helps us thrive in the face of increasingly severe climate risks needs to be put in place

Oct 3, 2017-

In April 1970, a Saturn V rocket dispatched the Apollo 13 mission towards the moon with astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. But the spaceship faced technical hitches and could not continue travelling to the moon. From the crippled Apollo 13 module, commander Lovell notified flight controllers back at the NASA Space Centre in Houston, Texas by saying “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Generally known for oil, its vast physical expanse, and NASA’s Johnson Space Centre, the city of Houston was in the news in August 2017 because of the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. The rains from Harvey broke all past records in the US and the US National Weather Service even had to change the colour scheme of its satellite based precipitation map to indicate the extraordinary rainfall over the city. In a few days, almost 34 billion cubic metres of rain turned Houston’s highways into rivers and inundated thousands of homes. The flood killed 47 people and displaced about a million more. Harvey was followed a few days later by Hurricane Irma, which hit southern Florida directly, and again by the catastrophic storm Maria decimating the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. 

Before Harvey made landfall, Nepal, Bangladesh and various places in India like Bihar and Mumbai faced massive flooding that killed 1,200 people and displaced about 40 million people. The year 2017 also saw Vietnam, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Niger and Sierra Leone receive heavy rains, inundation and mudslides, triggering extensive losses and deaths. Despite the US’s institutional capacity, the recovery from destruction by the hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria will be slow and daunting. In the Global South, flood disaster risk reduction tasks are significantly more challenging than they are in the US.

Lessons unlearned

We have failed to learn lessons from past flood disasters in the US, South Asia and other countries. Referring to the Houston flood, Andrew Dessler and colleagues on 2nd September 2017 wrote in the Houston Chronicle, “Houston’s expansion has paved over former grassland, challenged urban planning and limited evacuation routes.” Blocking flood evacuation routes and paving green areas is typical of unregulated urban growth and is common across the world. Mostly, infrastructures are sought to minimise flood risks even as haphazard growth is turning urban areas into crucibles of disaster. South Asia’s Ganga basin, for example, houses 650 million people. In 20 years, the population living in the basin’s urbanising areas will steadily increase. If weather anomalies similar to August 2017 are to occur again and if risk-minimising strategies are not systematically mainstreamed, the impacts on the Ganga plains will be severe. Embankments along major rivers that are poorly conceived, poorly placed and poorly maintained will further magnify damages to the basin’s urban and rural areas.

At their core, the impacts from the floods were not natural but the outcomes of significant failures of governance and land use planning, the over-confidence in infrastructure solutions, and weaknesses in response and recovery efforts. Across South Asian and other developing countries, a lack of secure livelihoods further leads to higher levels of vulnerability to floods and more intense and long-lasting impacts on people’s lives and their ability to recover. The low economic and institutional capacities of governments in the Global South directly translate into high negative impacts on the millions of poor and vulnerable people living in flood plains. When floods strike, they simply cope as best they can and are pushed further towards poverty. The recent hurricane disasters have made poor urban governance evident even the US, despite its  higher capacity to recover quickly from flood losses.

Climate change influence 

Our current development pathway, based on the guzzling of fossil fuel, is adding new and unforeseen risks in the form of a changing climate while promoting haphazard and unequal urban growth and dramatically failing to minimise flood risks. Preliminary analysis confirms that warm waters induced by climate change in the Gulf of Mexico contributed to the increase in the strength of Atlantic hurricanes. The warming of our atmosphere is making weather systems across the world more erratic, posing new threats to rural and expanding urban areas.  

Large cities across Asia like Mumbai, Dhaka, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Karachi, Manila, and Bangkok, driven by massive urbanisation pressures, have followed similar broad contours of development that include paving of green surfaces, encroaching on wetlands that could cushion flood peaks, and blocking natural flood evacuation routes. Even smaller cities like Kathmandu, Phnom Penh and Ahmedabad are following suit. Cities on the coast or close to oceans not only face increasing inland floods but also high risks from the rise in sea levels and surges from storms. The preference for unsustainable urban models based on fossil fuels and as the UN Habitat suggests, ‘more well-serviced richer neighbourhoods and gated communities’, more cars, more badly built and poorly maintained roads, and dramatic changes in natural landscapes are all exacerbating flood risks.

However, such risks are not distributed evenly within cities. Large proportions of the urban poor live in vulnerable locations, have limited access to core municipal services, and have a limited voice in decisions that have significant impacts on their lives. Very little investment has been made in disaster preparedness, except for perhaps a few early warning systems. In the US, hurricane warnings provided enough lead time for evacuation, while in Nepal, less sophisticated warning mechanisms that combined scientific information with community knowledge saved many lives from floods. Such types of efforts must be systematically upgraded, replicated and scaled up across countries.

Rethinking flood risk management

It is true that conventional responses to flood mitigation focusing on hard infrastructure measures like embankments and levees have provided some immediate benefits when the water levels remain within the embankment heights. Unfortunately, many embankments are regularly breached and this dramatically alters the local hydrological dynamics with adverse consequences on local communities. These are the lessons of past hurricanes and floods in the US and in the plains of South Asia. In the new normal brought about by a changing climate, as extreme rainfall induced river flow thresholds will be crossed more frequently, embankments and levees will fail more, exposing more people to flood disasters. 

The 2017 flood disasters should urge us to rethink the way we deal with floods and work to minimise their risks to our lives and livelihoods. We need to begin with the basic premise that all evacuation routes, for people as well as for the floodwaters, must remain uninterrupted. For minimising climate induced disaster risks, much more must be done on the ground. We must fundamentally alter our current development pathway, driven by an engineering hubris of controlling and dominating nature. A new paradigm that allows us to manage and work with different natural processes and helps us thrive in the face of increasingly severe climate risks needs to be put in place. The transition to such a future requires significant and quick decoupling of development and carbon burning. Bringing astronauts from the crippled Apollo 13 mission safely to Earth was a monumental feat of human endeavour and ingenuity. We need to employ similar passion, knowledge and creativity to deal with increasingly frequent disasters and emerging urban challenges.


- Dixit is Executive Director at ISET-Nepal; Friend is a Lecturer in Human Geography in the Environment Department at the University of York, UK

Published: 03-10-2017 08:04

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