As USAID and the international community know, if infrastructure fails during a crisis, the implications on human lives are enormous. To ensure future floods and other extreme weather events don’t cause the level of damage and misery seen in the wake of Idai and Kenneth, there are two myths that we urgently need to dispel: that gray single-purpose infrastructure is the solution for protecting against increasingly frequent and intense floods and other hazards, and the fallacy of the “100-year flood.”
I have just returned from leading a Post-Event Review Capability (PERC) in areas affected by Tropical Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which devastated parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in March and April 2019. Almost one year later, it is clear that communities across these countries are still dealing with the aftermath of these disasters and there is an immediate need to address certain fallacies in humanitarian and disaster risk reduction (DRR) work.
The PERC team deployed to Mozambique has been meeting with stakeholders, including USAID representatives, to review lessons learned from responding to and providing longer-term recovery efforts to affected communities. USAID has a long history of supporting DRR efforts in Mozambique, for example through shelter and WASH programs.
Adequate early warning and actionable warning messages, as well as availability and knowledge of safe shelter arose as critical topics in the review. Food distribution, fighting malnutrition, and enabling people to restore their livelihoods all rank among the priorities discussed for a successful combination of DRR and development.
One of the organizations we work with in this effort is Zurich Insurance Group, a member of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, a multi-sectoral partnership using our expertise in flood resilience and climate-resilient community programming to support communities in finding practical ways to strengthen their resilience to flooding and related impacts caused by events like Idai.
There are two myths that we urgently need to dispel: that gray single-purpose infrastructure is the solution for protecting against increasingly frequent and intense floods and other hazards, and the fallacy of the “100-year flood.”
The Alliance advocates for a move away from hazard protection and infrastructure efforts focused predominantly on gray prevention structures (e.g., dams, levees, and dykes) and towards approaches that incorporate integrated gray and green approaches and including nature-based solutions in development planning. This also means re-thinking the popular term “100-year flood,” which has been used to help communities predict the recurrence interval for severe floods but does little to communicate the actual risks that these events may pose due to extreme changes in climate. As in the cases of Cyclone Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique, this term can create a false sense of security among communities that the likelihood of severe events recurring in any given year are much lower than in reality.
An improved approach to risk-informed infrastructure and development that properly accounts for intensifying flood events should include:
- Promotion of nature-based solutions when building new infrastructure. Nature-based solutions and green/blue approaches should be considered first when implementing integrated climate resilience and risk management strategies. This approach was adopted by Alliance partner Practical Action for USAID’s End-to-End (E2E) Early Warning System project in the Nepali Kankai River Basin (2014-2017), which strengthened risk communication systems and used community-based DRR strategies to build flood resilience. These methods can replace the need for (or at least complement) gray infrastructure when designing flood risk reduction interventions.
- Re-assessing the way cost and benefit calculations of gray and green projects and developments are carried out. Factor in the co-benefits beyond flood risk reduction which green infrastructure provides (e.g., improved air or microclimate quality, biodiversity, improved water percolation, water quality, erosion reduction). At the same time, it is important to assess realistically the negative consequences that hard infrastructure, such as levees, often have and incorporate those consequences fairly and transparently into cost-benefit analyses. Ideally, these new cost-benefit models should also highlight the “cost of inaction” associated with not investing in preventative measures, compared to dealing with the aftermath of flooding.
- Avoiding the creation of new risk (e.g., not building more assets in hazard-prone areas). Removing the false sense of security provided by flood barriers in flood-prone areas of Zimbabwe and Mozambique gives communities more opportunities not only to plan and prepare for floods, but to avoid developments in hazardous areas. This in turn reduces the cost and total risk compared to an approach where new risk is created and expensive gray infrastructure has to be built to try to protect these risk-prone assets. As partners in USAID’s long-term response to Idai and Kenneth victims, Alliance members focus efforts on recovery and resilience-building programs that avoid creating new risks, including promoting conservation agricultural practices and establishing disaster management committees.
- Nature-based solutions programs should include a long-term assessment component. There is emerging evidence that ecosystem solutions to protect against natural hazards are outperforming gray-only solutions, but a consistent and more comprehensive approach to the assessment is necessary.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Cyclone Idai, March 15 for me will be an important reminder that we are now in a decisive Year of Action on Climate Adaptation. Adopting these resilience strategies is more important than ever if we are to help create true resilience for communities facing catastrophic, climate change-related events around the world.
Working with USAID, the Alliance and its partners are implementing and reviewing these approaches to better understand how to build infrastructure and development resilience in affected areas and avoid past mistakes in planning for the next major cyclone. For more information on the work of the Alliance and its partners, visit our website and read other stories around building community flood resilience across the globe on our blog.
Michael Szönyi is a member of executive staff in the Group’s Sustainability function with Zurich Insurance. He leads Zurich's award-winning Flood Resilience Program, a multi-sector alliance with academia, humanitarian organizations and the private sector, aiming to enhance community flood resilience. The program, originally started in 2012, was recently extended to run in a second phase from 2018-2023.
With his natural hazards expertise, Mr. Szönyi is also responsible for advising the company and all alliance partners on risk insights and risk mitigation strategies as part of the program. A centerpiece is the implementation of the self-developed flood resilience measurement framework across our program countries. In addition, Michael is leading the post-event review function PERC which helps learn how big natural events turn into humanitarian disasters.