Making Waves in Resilience: Managing Water to Reduce Disaster Risk

Author(s) Toshihiro Sonoda, Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist, World Bank, the
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What do you think of when you hear ‘water issues’? You may think of water supply, sanitation or even food security.

Water issues in fact vary from ecosystem preservation to water quality, from hydropower to urban and industrial water supply, and from inland navigation to water-related disasters such as floods, drought, and landslides.

Water-related disasters are sometimes lost from the idea of ‘water issues,’ yet they are closely aligned with five Sustainable Development Goals of poverty, hunger, urban, climate, and, of course, water. In most countries, water-related disasters cause more damage than any other type of disaster. From a development perspective, these disasters disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable groups, significantly impact the local and national economy, and roll back development gains.

It was said in ancient China, “Those who govern water govern the country.” But governing water is more than simply irrigating crops or reducing flood risk; it’s a holistic approach to managing water for the entire country and its people.

River basin management, an age-old concept, is a clear example. Developed countries have seen rapid urbanization’s effect on river basins: Changing patterns of land use have raised peak floods and cut down on how long we have to react to them, drastically worsening floods and disasters.

Economic development and changing land use also affect water resources, impacting competitive demands for water use and the quantity and quality of river flow – and, consequently, vulnerability against drought. Adding to these challenges is climate change, which alters the hydrological cycle and can lead to more frequent and more severe floods and droughts.

It’s therefore not surprising that for all regional capitals of Ethiopia, and many other mega-cities in the world, floods are a major challenge during economic development. Long droughts often follow the floods, so these mega-cities also struggle with the related challenge of reliable water-supply sources. But in urban areas, integrated flood risk management in river basins is more effective than investments that simply react to crises.

Multiple national and international efforts have aimed to strengthen river basin management. In 1964, Japan amended its River Law to address flood, drought, and water-resources management in river basins. In 2000, the European Union set up integrated river basin management for Europe through the EU Water Framework Directive.

The good news is that developments in science and technology can help address water-related disasters more effectively. Today, much of the data crucial for reducing disaster risk comes from earth observation. This information – including land use, surface water, and near real-time rainfall data – was hard to collect a few decades ago. In combination with ground observation data, we can now produce timely flood warnings. Those warnings, when linked with community engagement, can save lives.

These advancements also helped produce a paradigm shift in the planning and design of infrastructure. It was not long ago that concrete channels were regularly used to drain flood streams. Now, science and engineering are enabling nature-based solutions that take into account the environment’s reaction to work done on rivers.

A side event on Water and Disasters at the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (May 24), led by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), will share illustrative cases in Water and Disaster Management, and discuss key trends and approaches in:

  • Institutional frameworks
  • Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) through the hydrological cycle
  • Nature-based infrastructure
  • Innovative risk assessments and early warnings
  • Community engagement for preparedness and emergency response

This event is a part of broader effort by GFDRR and the World Bank, to help countries become better equipped to deal with water-related disasters – to help them build resilience, and govern water.

(“Water and Disasters: Sustainable, Resilient and Innovative Water Cycle Management” will be held on May 24, 13:30 - 14:25, at Sunrise 12. Contact:


Toshihiro Sonoda is a Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist and a member of GFDRR’s Hydromet Team. He brings over 20 years of extensive experience on water-related disaster management. Prior to joining GFDRR, Mr. Sonoda was a programme specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where he lead on-site disaster risk reduction and capacity development projects, as well as the production of a series of guidelines on Integrated Water Resources Management at the river basin level. He also contributed to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction project as an external lead researcher. A Japanese national, Mr. Sonoda holds a master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Tokyo, and a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the same university.

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