Living with climate change: resilience to urban flooding
By David Nash
This week is the EU’s Green Week, which will focus on building sustainable cities in the face of climate change. To mark this, David Nash, head of the Zurich Z Foundation, focuses on the special challenges that affect how people in cities are coping.
Human beings are social animals and tend to congregate together. In fact, according to Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Homo Deus” the ability of humans to collaborate in large groups is the key distinction between homo sapiens and other animals, which has led to human success. Over time, then, is it any wonder that human settlements are growing significantly, with more than 4 billion of the world’s population now living in cities – a four-fold increase in just 60 years. And it’s set to increase even further as rural livelihoods decline, driving more and more people to seek work in the cities.
This congregation of people in ever denser quantities puts enormous pressure on resources. There is simply not enough quality resources in a city to go around, which leads to over-development, scarcity and breakdown.
Flooding on the streets of Solo
On a visit to Solo City on Java Island Indonesia in February this year, I saw for myself one effect of urbanization very starkly.
As more people moved to the city, infrastructure needs grew – more roads and houses were built across land that was previously natural drainage, near to the river. Now when it rains, because of the increase of concrete, water no longer drains away. The resulting flooding, disrupts lives and livelihoods for some of the poorest city dwellers across Solo. This disruption is made even worse by the unpredictability in the frequency and intensity of rainfall resulting from climate change.
As part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Program’s work in Indonesia, the local Red Cross (Palang Merah Indonesia – PMI) have been working in areas such as Solo City to try to reduce the impacts of flooding. By digging “bio-pore holes” and installing “absorption wells”, they are able to replace some of the natural drainage, now buried under the road surface. That may still not deal with all of the flooding problems, so to further reduce the impacts they have also made best use of the limited space available in an urban landscape. The low-cost planting system (known as an aquaponic system) can provide access to essential foodstuffs on the doorstep, if access to the local markets are disrupted.
More focused investment
The way I see it, it is unlikely in the short term that the trend to urbanization will be reversed – quite the opposite in fact. The unpredictability of rainfall is also an increasing challenge driven by climate change. Combined, this implies that the need to find solutions to enable people to live with the consequences are becoming more urgent.
Whilst the Z Zurich Foundation and our corporate parent are investing significantly – alone we are a drop in the ocean. And so we, and our Alliance partners, aim to use our experiences to drive debate on this issue. Over the coming 5 years, we aim to influence others to make significantly more of the right investment in building flood resilience – in both urban and rural areas – in developing and developed countries – helping people manage the pressures.