Hundreds of people killed, homes destroyed and mass evacuations. The floods in Thailand and Central Asia are in the news at the moment but they won’t be the last. Flooding affects one or more countries every year. Crisis expert Eelco Dykstra points out that a whole industry has developed around prevention but there is much less focus on the consequences.
Flooding will undoubtedly be under discussion at the International Water Week being held in Amsterdam from 29 October. Professor Dykstra, formerly visiting professor of international crisis management at George Washington University in Washington DC, argues that meetings of these kinds tend to discuss risks - but not in a way that demonstrates a good grasp of reality:
“Their view is that everything can be managed. But not all disasters can be predicted, even though there are complex statistical models which indicate that a major flooding event occurs only once every hundred years."
"The problem is: that flood could still take place tomorrow. That’s why you have to concentrate more on the consequences of a flood disaster, the total collapse of the infrastructure: transport, energy, communications, water, food and healthcare."
"If the system goes down everyone has a problem. That’s when the fight for survival begins.”
Flood disaster industry
He adds: “Governments can help prevent this accumulation of suffering by being honest to their citizens. They could tell them what degree of protection or help they can provide and what people will have to do for themselves. That doesn’t often happen.”
The Netherlands has a good reputation for major water management projects. There is a whole industry which has grown up around the prevention of flood disaster. “That’s valuable, but it’s only one side of the story.”
The flipside is the effect of the flooding on the population. The professor warns “Don’t pretend you can offer 100 percent protection - experience shows that you can’t.”
Eelco Dykstra would prefer an approach that tackles prevention and impact simultaneously but, according to Han Vrijling, professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft University of Technology, that’s impossible. The choices made, he argues, are primarily economic and it’s one or the other. That’s a global principle.
Professor Vrijling advises the Vietnamese government on the approach to flooding issues. First it has to decide what its priorities are:
“Vietnam is a country making the shift from a rural to an industrial society. They are accustomed to their dykes being breached every few years. When they do, there is little that can be done about the flooding. Only when countries like Thailand and Vietnam are richer will they be able to invest in prevention measures - modern dykes, for example. But it will happen gradually.”
Thailand, Vietnam and countries in Latin America generally can’t afford to tackle all their problems and so safeguard themselves from flooding. Professor Vrijling is therefore advising Vietnam to concentrate on the most valuable areas:
“That means protecting the cities and industrial areas with dykes and pumping stations and using the agricultural land for overflow. It’s a practical solution, one born of necessity. Apart from that, we leave things as they are.”