Paris Floods: A Local Disaster, A Global Challenge

Rolf Alter, Director of the OECD Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate @raltergov

The feet of the “Zouave” statue of the Alma bridge in Paris have been covered by the rising level of the Seine. It is the classic indicator for Parisians of a significant flooding of the river and a stark reminder of the historic 1910 event when the water reached the Zouave’s shoulders. If, as is the case today, only one tributary of the Seine is overflowing, what would happen if others did the same, as in 1910?

A major flood similar to 1910 would have direct and indirect impacts on nearly 5 million citizens, many companies and the life of the city for several months. In a 2014 OECD report, Seine Basin, Île-de-France: Resilience to Major Floods, the economic damage of a major flood in the Paris region was  estimated at a minimum of EUR 3 billion up to a staggering EUR 30 billion for direct damage. The significant macroeconomic impact in terms of GDP, jobs lost and public finances also need to be taken into account.

One of government’s key responsibilities is to ensure that large metropolitan areas are resilient to major risks, to guarantee the safety and welfare of the public and maintain public trust. This is a major governance challenge. The governance of risks includes the need to develop a long term flood management strategy, to strengthen the risk culture, to foster urban resilience, particularly for critical infrastructure, and to develop a long-term financial strategy.

This is not only a challenge for Paris but is affecting countries across the world as vulnerabilities to climate change and its impact on precipitation patterns begin to be felt. OECD countries come together to discuss and share their experience with us in our High Level Risk Forum and OECD research and good practice support efforts to build resilience to major shocks and promote adaptation to climate change.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake or the flooding associated with Hurricane Sandy in New York, governments, local authorities and civil society have become increasingly aware of the fragility of major urban centres when disasters occur and of the degree to which critical infrastructure are interconnected.

We need to assess the capacity of cities to adapt to extreme weather, water or climate events and look for innovative solutions to build resilience. Preventing such shocks from happening and limiting the damage they cause should be a public policy priority. The Paris floods are another call to action for the international community.

Useful links

Seine Basin, Île-de-France, 2014: Resilience to Major Floods  Version française ici

Financial Management of Flood Risk

OECD Recommendation on the Governance of Critical Risks

OECD work on risk governance

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