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.
Job, in the book of the Bible he gave his name to, was a whiner’s whiner. His version of Happy Birthday includes the catchy lines “May the day of my birth perish and may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more.” Not a man to see a glass as half full or half empty, for Job it would be smashed on the floor and slice open your foot. So his words on precipitation are pretty much as you’d expect: “If He holds back the waters, there is drought; if He lets them loose, they devastate the land”.
To be fair, that was in the days before governments played “a key role in developing targeted policy responses to market failures that impede the efficient mitigation and allocation of drought and flood risks”, as the OECD Studies on Water report on Mitigating Droughts and Floods in Agriculture puts it. These responses, plus progress in agricultural methods and technology, mean that in most countries, droughts and floods don’t have the terrible impact on economies these days they’d had since biblical times.
In that respect, it’s interesting to look at the findings of Rudolf Brázdil from Masaryk University, Brno, in the Czech Republic and his colleagues in their study of data going back a thousand years on droughts in the Czech Lands. Nearer modern times you get data from instruments, but the earlier chronicles, diaries, tax data and so on describe a series of issues the OECD report talks about, too, such as competition for water resources and the way different impacts can interact. In the Czech case lack of rainfall is often described as not only damaging crops, but also making it impossible for water mills to grind what the farmers did manage to harvest.
It may seem odd taking Europe as an example when there are so many striking (and tragic) cases elsewhere. But one of the surprises for me in the OECD data was the figure below, showing the number and duration of droughts by continent. Europe is similar to Africa, and North America is worse than both of them. But their levels of resilience and vulnerability to risks, whether drought or flood, are very different. The report provides brief summaries of what these different terms mean: risk is the combination of the probability that something will happen and the impacts if it does; vulnerability is the capacity of a system to cope with a risk or combination of risks; and resilience is the system’s ability to recover after a shock.
Number and duration of droughts
Intuitively, you’d think that for risks you can’t eliminate, reducing vulnerability is the best policy. It’s not so simple: “Physical and economic interdependencies associated with specific characteristics of water imply there can be synergies and trade-offs in vulnerability reductions across water users and uses” says the report. Lord Smith, Chairman of the UK Environment Agency summed it up in February 2014 after particularly bad floods hit England, pointing out that flood defences cost money and the question was how much the taxpayer should be prepared to spend on different places, communities, and livelihoods. Or, as he put it, “this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?”.
There can even be trade-offs between shorter and longer term vulnerabilities. Increased irrigation could help farmers cope with a drought, but over time groundwater reserves may be used up and the land become damaged irremediably by erosion and over-exploitation.
Fortunately, there are also ways to make everybody better off, by improving the efficiency with which water is used for instance. Given that agriculture accounts for 44% of the groundwater withdrawn in OECD countries, even relatively small changes by farmers could have a significant impact, although if the water allocation system gives them cheap, plentiful water they would have little or no incentive to change their ways of doing things.
Dams and other hydrological infrastructures could help. The Aswan High Dam for example saved Egypt from the impacts of the droughts and floods that provoked so much misery before it was built, but the OECD report argues that big hydrology projects should complement water policies that try to influence demand rather than replace them. It argues, too, for the need to reconcile environmental, social, and economic objectives (or sustainable development as it’s sometimes called).
Even with all the best policies in place, though, the OECD thinks drought and flood risks are likely to become a growing concern in the future for three reasons: increased population and associated rising demand for food, feed, fibre, and energy in the context of rising competition for water resources and increasing water-related vulnerability; increased demand for flood protection and mitigation for urban areas; and climate change increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.
And the report reminds farmers of the need to look after themselves by taking out insurance and not just wait for help, for as Job so rightly pointed out, “Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune”.