Category Archives: Water and Disaster

Delivering Water From Disaster


It is ironic that many of today’s water problems arise from the very solutions we administer. (NYT)

If one incident best highlights the perilous state of the world’s fresh waters, it’s the “pig spill” in China last March. After the slaughter and illegal dumping of a diseased herd, the authorities in Shanghai went fishing for 16,000 bloated carcasses in the Huangpu River, which flows through the city. Hardly the thing you wish to hear about if you use the Huangpu for drinking water.

On the other side of the world, Greg Lyons tends a stretch of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts as a citizen volunteer. One by one, Lyons collects some of the 8 million plastic treatment disks released by a wastewater plant that malfunctioned in March 2011. The disks, two-inch wafers caked with sewage, today serve as a reminder of how massive public waterworks designed to protect the environment can sometimes go haywire. Lyons’s catch by October 2011: 16,000 disks. The situation would have shocked 19th-century Transcendentalists who used the Merrimack to inspire a modern philosophy of humans in kinship with nature.

And then there is the Ganges, arguably the most polluted large river in the world. Each year it carries 16,000 tons of ash from cremated bodies along with a cocktail of sewage and toxic chemicals produced by a dense population and rapidly developing economy. This is no way to treat the goddess Ganga.

A panorama of our conflicted relationship with water is unfolding not only with the sensational fishing expedition for pigs or sewage disks, but with the countless decades of neglect and millions of misguided decisions we make daily regarding this essential resource. This was a chief finding of 350 water experts who recently issued the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security.

And yet waterborne threats remain under the radar. Exposure to unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation results in 3.4 million deaths, mostly poor children, each year from diarrhea, yet this fact never makes the news. Threats also are rising in rich countries like Australia. In January, after drenching rains, residents of Brisbane were asked to restrict water use after the city’s drinking water dwindled to just a six-hour supply. This occurred after the city’s main treatment plant became clogged with sediment washing down from poorly managed land upstream. Across the United States, despite advanced pollution controls, more than 200 million people live within 10 miles of degraded fresh water. Europe is a global hotspot of aquatic biodiversity loss.

It is ironic that many of today’s water problems arise from the very solutions we administer. Proliferation of costly, so-called hard-path engineering, like centralized sewers and large dams, provide undeniable benefits, such as improved hygiene and stable water supply. But they also degrade waters with pollution, obliterate natural flow cycles and block the migration routes of fish and other aquatic life. By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half trillion dollars a year worldwide, we’ve hung a huge technological curtain between the clean water flowing through our faucets and the background array of problems in our rivers, lakes and groundwater. It is no surprise that the public is largely unaware of this or its growing costs.

And virtually unknown to most is the collateral damage to freshwater biodiversity arising from mismanaged watersheds and waterways. Despite overuse and contamination, freshwater ecosystems host a trove of diverse life, almost 10 percent of all known species and one-third of all vertebrates. The 20,000 aquatic species now extinct or imperiled are sending us an important message about our stewardship of fresh water.

Although water has figured prominently in the U.N. development agenda for decades, the world is at a critical juncture as the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Goals take shape over the coming 12 months. In the wings looms a hastily designed and politically motivated post-2015 development agenda. The developing world argues for autonomy in pursuing whatever water-related goals it deems necessary for growth, with a more or less singular focus on the basics of clean drinking water and sanitation. In contrast, the developed world argues for all nations to adopt a broader perspective emphasizing environmental protection, yet is retreating from financial support for the poor to help realize this outcome.

These two perspectives can be reconciled. While it is imperative that we meet the water and sanitation needs of all people, it would be wildly counterproductive if success were achieved at the expense of nature. In a financially strapped world, it is hard to imagine how preservation and sensible use of the rivers, lakes and wetlands would not be a valued component of any long-term development plan. And with the specter of climate change, the very water systems we today abuse, if better managed, could climate-proof society, for example by employing wetlands as natural shock absorbers against floods.

The price tag and environmental damage of poor stewardship and hard-path water management strategies mean that we need to design solutions that deliver basic water services while preserving freshwater ecosystems for future generations.

We are not against sensible deployment of water engineering. But by exporting to poor countries identical versions of the developed world’s model for water management, we risk locking the development agenda into a vicious cycle of capital-hungry and energy-intensive solutions, resource degradation and overuse, and an expanding reliance on costly remediation. We advocate instead a do-no-harm strategy in lieu of emergency care and endless rehabilitation of damaged water systems.

If we fail, we will still have development — but not the sustainable kind.


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New Study: Coastal Nature Reduces Risk from Storm Impacts for 1.3 Million U.S. Residents


But could nature actually help reduce our risk from…nature? Specifically: could sand dunes, oyster and coral reefs, sea grasses and other coastal natural habitats blunt the effects of coastal storms — like surges and flooding? Could they even reduce the risk of fatalities and property loss from such storms? (

They already are — for at least 1.3 million people and billions in property value along the U.S. coastline, according to a new study just published in the journal Nature Climate ChangeNeglecting those habitats, the study adds, could double the number of U.S. residents at “high hazard risk” from storms — including hundreds of thousands of poor and elderly.

And with sea-level rise projected to make storm surges much worse over the coming decades, coastal nature might become even more important in reducing risk from coastal storms.

“This study shows how key a role nature plays in protecting our nation’s coasts, and it tells us where habitats matter the most for that purpose,” says Katie Arkema, the study’s lead author and a Stanford University scientist associated with the Natural Capital Project.

“If we lose these habitats, we will either have to make massive investments in engineered defenses or risk greater damage to millions of people and billions in property.”

16% of Immediate US Coastline at ‘High Hazard’ Risk; Florida, New York and California Benefit the Most from Coastal Habitats

Coauthored by scientists with the Natural Capital Project and The Nature Conservancy, the new study offers the first map of where natural habitats reduce coastal-storm risk for lives and property values along the entire U.S. coastline.

Key findings from the study:

  • About 16% of the immediate U.S. coastline (within one kilometer of the shore) is classified as in “high hazard” areas—home to 1.3 million people and  $300 billion in residential property;
  • 67% of the U.S. coastline is protected by natural habitat — which, if lost, would double the number of poor families, elderly people and total property value in the areas at highest risk from coastal hazards such as storm surges.
  • Florida, New York and California are the states where coastal habitats defend the greatest number of people (including the elderly and the poor) and the greatest amount in property values from storm risk.
  • Sea-level rise will increase the amount of highly threatened people and property by 30-60% by the year 2100.

“California, Florida and New York have both a lot of people at risk from coastal storms and intact coastal and marine ecosystems that are playing a very big role in terms of reducing that risk,” says Arkema. (New Jersey and Massachusetts rank just behind those states in both categories. See Figure 1 for more details.)

“And our analysis shows that, if you were to lose or degrade habitats in these places, you’d double or almost double the number of people at risk in each state.”

‘Engineering Shouldn’t Be the Default Solution’ for Our Coastlines

The study doesn’t factor in projected population increases or continued building construction along U.S. shorelines through 2100. It also only indexes risk for that 1-kilometer sliver of shoreline, and not the millions of people inland who might be affected by extensive storm surges.

But that doesn’t diminish the relevance of the findings to coastal communities thinking about how to combat the effects of storms and sea-level rise, according to Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

With 23 of the 25 most populous U.S. counties along the coast, he says the data couldn’t be more timely — especially since many planners don’t have good information on the full risk-reduction value of their natural habitats.

“Hardening our shorelines with sea walls and other costly engineering shouldn’t be the default solution,” says Kareiva. “They might be appropriate in some situations. But now we have data on those places and opportunities where nature contributes the most to protecting our coastal communities — and giving us all the other benefits it can provide, such as recreation, fish nurseries, water filtration and erosion control.”

Arkema adds that the new data could be especially useful at state and county levels — in places along the Gulf Coast; Pinellas, Hillsborough and Monroe Counties in Florida; and Kings County in New York, where reefs, vegetation and dunes play critical risk-reducing roles.

“State officials, NGOs and others can use these findings when, for example, they are making the case for how best to spend restoration funds flowing to the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon event,” says Arkema.

“The findings tell us which states have the most poor people at risk from coastal storms. State officials could also use the data to make targeted restoration investment decisions in the counties that are most vulnerable. And it enables them to make data-based arguments for such investments.”

The Model’s High-Risk Areas Correlate to Areas of High Fatalities from Past Storms

The analysis is built on a couple of layers of data. First, the researchers identified 9 types of coastal habitats that reduce risk, and then ranked the different levels of protection from storm effects those habitats provide — drawing on existing data about risk-reduction for well-measured habitats such as coral reefs and piecing together datasets for less-measured habitats such as eelgrass and oyster reefs. (Coral reefs and coastal forests turned out to provide the most protection.)

Then the authors mapped where those habitats occur along the whole U.S. coastline, along with variables (such as wind and wave exposure and geomorphology) that can be decisive for how much protection habitats really provide from storms.

“It’s not appropriate to quantify a habitat’s coastal protection just based on where that habitat is located — but often, ecologists and conservation biologists forget that,” says Arkema. “Big Sur in California has a ton of kelp forest, but it also has really high relief and rocky shores, so it’s not as at risk from waves causing erosion as, say, the Gulf of Mexico coastline, which is made up of low-relief, sandy shores and soft mud flats.”

Finally, using GIS analysis, the researchers located where different habitats were located in relation to each 1-km segment of coastline. If the habitat was within the distance deemed for it to provide risk reduction (“protective distance”), it was counted as providing protection.

They also created a “risk index” for the entire U.S coastline — the more people and exposure in a piece of coastline, the higher its risk index. To ground-truth the index, Arkema and her co-authors then did a hindcast with their model — comparing whether the areas that they had deemed as at “high-hazard” risk had actually suffered greater numbers of fatalities from coastal storms between 1995-2010.

The correlation between states with the most fatalities and states with “high-hazard risk” areas was excellent — as long as data about coastal habitat protection as well as exposure and geomorphology was part of the mix.

And the match got even better once data from Hurricane Sandy was included, according to Arkema. “The way to interpret that is that our model was predicting greater numbers of people exposed to hazard there then we had actually observed — until Sandy hit,” she says.

The Science We Still Need on Coastal Habitats and Risk Reduction

Despite the findings of this study, Arkema says there’s still a fair bit of science left to maximize the value of targeted habitat restoration for risk reduction.

Two specific gaps: 1) how exactly restoration needs to be deployed in specific local situations, and 2) how restoration might combine with “grey” (engineered) solutions where habitat alone isn’t possible or desirable.

“Understanding where and how we need to restore habitat or invest in its conservation is a next critical step,” she says. “Do we need more in an offshore direction or in a longshore direction, for instance, to maximize risk reduction? That’s going to vary by habitat and situation. So we need to continue building synthetic, process-based models that incorporate hydrodynamics, hurricane modeling, surge models, and economic valuation.”

Screenshot from Risk Explorer feature of Coastal, showing  where loss of coastal habitat will likely increase risk (exposure to hazard x social vulnerability, including older populations and families in poverty) along a section of Florida coastline.

Screenshot from Risk Explorer feature of Coastal, showing Charlotte Harbor, FL and where loss of coastal habitat will likely increase risk (calculated by multiplying exposure to hazard by social vulnerability measures, including older populations and families in poverty).

Such an example is Risk Explorer, a forthcoming feature of The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal tool, which has incorporated some of The Nature Capital Project’s more complex process-based models to explore the effects of oyster reef placement and design on shoreline erosion rates in the Gulf of Mexico. (See screenshot above for an example incorporating that work.)

“And secondly, there are going to be places where really high value or socially important infrastructure is right on the coast, and we might not be able to have natural habitat, so we’re going to need other approaches,” Arkema says. “This analysis doesn’t compare the cost-effectiveness of multiple or hybrid green-grey approaches in those situations, and we need to do that modeling.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


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New FEMA Study: Climate Change Will Greatly Increase Flood Risk, Debt


FEMA has predicted that areas at risk of flooding in the United States would increase 45 percent by 2100, largely because of climate change. (Huffington Post)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a study finally released last week after five years in the making, predicted that areas at risk of flooding in the United States would increase 45 percent by 2100, largely because of climate change. That prediction is dire news, not just for residents of flood zones, but for all taxpayers, who fund FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). With flood risk on the rise, the program will have to insure 80 percent more properties than it does today, and the average loss for each property could rise as much as 90 percent–an increase in payouts that our government can ill afford.

The ailing NFIP, which borrows taxpayer money from the Treasury to stay, well, afloat, is already one of the government’s biggest fiscal liabilities–it’s expected to go $25 to $30billion in debt after fulfilling claims from Hurricane Sandy–and is just one example of how global warming places tremendous stress on our economy. With its new study, FEMA at last joins a growing number of government agencies, including the Department of Defense and, more recently, the staid, nonpartisan, Government Accounting Office, warning that climate change is here–and that we need to be better prepared.

Today, the NFIP insures 5.6 million properties in flood hazard zones, the so-called “100-year” floodplains. These hazard zones, where the risk of flooding is one percent every year, are plotted on maps created by FEMA, based on historical data. But past flood records have proved to be a less-than reliable predictor of the extreme weather we’ve seen in recent years, or what we’re seeing this year, let alone what we’ll see next year. Carbon pollution in the atmosphere has been loading the dice in this annual gamble, turning once-in-a-lifetime risks into the new abnormal. Just ask the people of Binghamton, New York, hit by a “100-year” flood in 2005, a “500-year” flood in 2006, and then Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, prompting residents to ask, “What year flood is this?”

Or the Midwestern farmers who watched their corn shrivel in the fields during last year’s punishing drought, only to have to delay planting this spring because of heavy rains and record flooding along the Mississippi, Illinois, and other rivers.

Just ask private insurers like Allstate and State Farm, who started canceling policies in parts of Florida and Long Island years ago, no longer willing to face the enormous risks of coastal flooding and storm damages. While these insurers moved to disengage their business from a future of unsustainable losses, the NFIP continues to provide below-market-price insurance to flood-prone properties, essentially using billions in taxpayer money to subsidize people to live in harm’s way.

FEMA, which administers NFIP, has largely disregarded climate change in its calculations, until now. This analysis is long overdue. Last year alone, extreme weather caused $139 billion in damages, and taxpayers footed the bill for $96 billion of those costs. That’s more than we spent on education or transportation. That’s 8 times the budget of the EPA, and 8 times total government spending on energy.

In other words, we’re spending a lot more money on cleaning up after the fact than we are on solving the problem in the first place.

And we do know how to solve it. First, we can act now to slow global warming by cutting carbon pollution from its biggest source: power plants. President Obama can use his authority under the Clean Air Act to do this, and NRDC has an innovative, fair and flexible plan that can get it done quickly and cost-effectively.

Second, FEMA needs to factor climate change into state plans for dealing with disasters, instead of approving plans that rely only on historical data as an indicator of future extreme weather events. FEMA is an emergency management agency–it’s responsible not only for disaster recovery, but for helping states prepare and possibly avoid disasters in the first place. NRDC filed a petition with FEMA in 2012 asking them to do just this, but we have yet to get a response.

FEMA might be a little slow on the uptake, but some states and cities aren’t waiting to get climate smart. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a 2008 deluge left 14 percent of the city underwater and 10,000 residents displaced, began a voluntary buyout program for damaged homes and business to reduce the risk of future flooding. New York City recently doubled its estimate of city residents living in the 100-year flood plain in 2050 to 800,000 people. (By comparison, FEMA’s estimate, prior to Hurricane Sandy, was about 200,000 people.) The city aims to reduce its carbon pollution 30 percent, and is making plans to adapt its infrastructure to prepare for the increased likelihood and scope of storms and flooding.


In Nebraska, where climate change was once barely considered, the state’s Climate Assessment Response Committee is now required to evaluate the impacts of climate changeon water resources, agriculture, and other key sectors, as well develop recommendations to address these impacts.

More states and cities should start similar plans for climate change. With NRDC’s Climate Smart how-to guide on climate preparedness, there’s no excuse to follow North Carolina’s head-in-the-sand example. The state passed a law last year forbidding the consideration of climate change by state agencies in any decision-making. This is sheer folly, especially in a state where sea levels are rising 3 to 4 times faster than the global average.

Finally, flood insurance needs to be priced commensurate with its risks in order for the NFIP to survive. The program was meant to be a deterrent to building in flood plains, and instead, it’s become a resource that encourages developers to do so.

Failing to prepare for climate change not only affects those who live and work in the path of severe storms and wildfires, in flood plains and drought zones. It takes a broader economic toll on the nation, with very tangible costs for all of us.

As a parent, you tell your kids that it is easier to not spill in the first place than to clean up after a spill. In my career as an environmental lawyer, I saw that it was far cheaper to not dump toxic chemicals than to try to clean up afer they were in the ground. And now, on a larger scale, we’re seeing that it is cheaper to curb carbon pollution than it is to repair the damage caused by the extreme weather disasters brought on by climate change.


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India Floods: A Man-made Disaster

Government’s lack of oversight of nearby mining and dam construction sites, and unenforced regulations exacerbated the damages and death tolls in the recent India flooding.


The terrible floods in India’s tiny north Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which killed more than 1,000 people, left 70,000 stranded for days and destroyed livelihoods, have been officially termed a natural calamity caused by cloudbursts and unprecedented heavy monsoon rainfall.

However, the true causes of the epic tragedy lie in the grievous damage recently wrought on the region’s ecology by the runaway growth of tourism, unchecked proliferation of roads, hotels, shops and multistory housing in ecologically fragile areas, and above all mushrooming hydroelectricity dams that disrupt water balances. Underlying the disaster are multiple governance failures, too.

These man-made factors turned an extreme weather event into a social catastrophe. True, the region experienced heavy rainfall of 340-370mm within 24 hours on June 16-17, leading to flash floods. But such precipitation isn’t unprecedented. Uttarakhand has recorded single-day rainfall in excess of 400mm several times, including 450mm in 1995 and 900mm in 1965. Cloudbursts, floods and rapid swelling of fast-flowing rivers aren’t uncommon.

But this time the floodwaters, laden with tens of thousands of tonnes of silt, boulders and debris from dam construction, found no outlet. The routes they took in the past, including ravines and streams, were blocked with sand and rocks. The waters inundated scores of towns and villages, submerging some buildings under several feet of mud, smothering life.

Aggravating the devastation were two downpours of water and rocks from the higher mountain ranges, in all probability caused by glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which deluged the Kedarnath temple, a major Hindu pilgrimage centre. GLOFs, or the explosive bursting of glacier lakes, are thought to be a consequence of human-induced climate change, which is causing rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, themselves warming at twice the global rate.

Such a massive loss of life could have been greatly reduced if an early warning system, effective evacuation plans and a responsive disaster management system were in place. They weren’t. In fact, as the comptroller and auditor general pointed out in April, the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority, formed in October 2007, has never met or formulated “rules, regulations, polices or guidelines”. Modestly priced radar-based technology to forecast cloudbursts would have saved lives. But it wasn’t installed. Nor were emergency evacuation plans drawn up.

There was local-level governance failure, too. Haphazard, unregulated construction of roads and bridges was allowed on crumbling, landslide-prone ridges and steep slopes, ignoring the region’s fragile geology and high earthquake vulnerability. Forests were destroyed on a large scale. Hundreds of buildings were constructed in the flood plains of rivers, their “natural” terrain, which should be no-go areas. Riverbeds were recklessly mined for sand. As construction debris accumulated, land contours and flows of streams and rivers changed.

Indiscriminate building of hydroelectric dams was the worst culprit. These involve drilling huge tunnels in the hills by blasting rocks, placing enormous turbines in the tunnels, destroying soil-binding vegetation to build water channels and other infrastructure, laying transmission lines and carelessly dumping excavated muck. Many dams have been built on the same river so close to one another that they leave no scope for its regeneration.

Dams steal water from local people. They alter the hydrological cycle and natural course of rivers. Uttarakhand’s 70 completed large dams have diverted more than 640km, equivalent to half the length of its major rivers. They have profoundly destabilised its ecology. Yet another 680 dams are reportedly in various stages of commissioning, construction or planning, mainly by private companies, which would be largely unaccountable.

2009 CAG report complained that the government was “pursuing hydro-power projects indiscriminately”, ignoring the damaging “cumulative effect” of multiple run-of-the river dams. Technically, India’s environment ministry follows an environmental impact assessment process, but that’s badly compromised by the Indian elite’s insatiable appetite for electricity and promoters’ pressure.

When I was on the expert appraisal committee (EAC) on river valley projects in the 1990s, none of the dozens of projects we examined had adequate documentation on the impact on forests, wildlife, hydrology or rehabilitation. All were rejected. The present EAC has approved all 262 projects placed before it over six years, without seriously evaluating their impact or the rivers’ carrying capacity. This is a recipe for yet more Uttarakhands.


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India’s Death Toll in Aftermath of Floods Reaches 1,000

Landslides and monsoon floods in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhan (northeast of New Delhi) bringing the death toll from torrential rains above 1,000. (The Guardian)


Soldiers recovered more bodies as they cleared debris in villages flattened by landslides and monsoon floods in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, bringing the death toll from torrential rains above 1,000, the home minister said on Monday.

Army officials suspended rescue operations after bad weather early Monday reduced visibility in the mountainous area. Army troops are attempting to rescue more than 10,000 stranded people, many in the temple town of Badrinath.

Two landslides early on Monday blocked roads that had been cleared by soldiers only a few days earlier.

“We are just waiting for the weather to clear up and visibility to improve before the aircraft can take off,” said R.S. Brar, an air force official in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand.

Meteorological officials predicted more heavy rain in Uttarakhand over the next few days.

Home Minister Sushikumar Shinde told reporters that the death toll will exceed the figure of 1,000 given on Sunday by the Uttarakhand government. More bodies were being found as troops and disaster rescue teams cleared debris from buildings and houses destroyed by flood waters, Shinde said.

The unprecedented heavy rains triggered landslides and floods in the Ganges River last week, washing away thousands of houses and roads and cutting communication links in large areas of Uttarakhand.

Uttarakhand is a popular summer vacation destination for tourists seeking to escape the torrid heat of the plains. It is also a religious pilgrimage site with four temple towns in the Garhwal Himalayan range. Most of the people stranded in Uttarakhand are Hindu pilgrims at the four revered shrines.

The tourists usually return before monsoon rains begin in July. But this year, early rains caught hundreds of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and local residents by surprise.

Twenty other people died from monsoon floods in Uttar Pradesh state. Across the border in Nepal, the home ministry said at least 39 people died and 20 others were missing in landslides and monsoon flooding.

Flooding is an annual occurrence in India, which depends on monsoon rains to sustain agriculture. But the heavy downpours also cause extensive loss of lives and property.


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