Monday 17 March 2014

Fighting the tide

This post by Kathleen Dominique from the OECD Environment Directorate is part of the Wikiprogress series on 'Water' and the 'Environment'. 

Preparing for the water-related impacts of climate change

Headlines of record‑breaking water-related disasters around the world – whether flood or drought – are a sign of things to come. As Lord Stern recently warned, the extreme weather events witnessed in many parts of the world reflect “a pattern of global change that it would be very unwise to ignore”. Recently, the UK and French floods have been in the news, but flooding is just one type of natural disaster and in fact, if you look at 2012 data from Munich Re, floods account for less than 13% of economic losses from natural hazards compared to 59% for storms and 16% for forest fires and droughts – hence the need to think broadly about water security.
Water-related impacts are one of the main ways that we are seeing and feeling the effects of climate change. We can expect more torrential rains, floods and droughts in many areas. Events that were once considered “exceptional circumstances” are now becoming commonplace.

The cost of impacts of these events can be substantial and are set to rise in the future. According to data gathered in a recent OECD survey on water and climate change adaptation, flood risk is projected to increase significantly across the UK. Annual damage to UK properties due to flooding from rivers and the sea currently totals around GBP 1.3 billion. For England and Wales alone, the figure is projected to rise to between GBP 2.1 billion and GBP 12 billion by the 2080s, based on future population growth and if no adaptive action is taken.

A recent OECD review of actions governments are taking to prepare for water-related impacts of climate change found that nearly all OECD countries ranked extreme events (floods and droughts) among their primary concerns. This comprehensive review of policies for water and climate change adaptation is one way that the OECD has been tracking progress on preparing for a more risky and more uncertain future.

At the OECD, we recommend governments undertake a robust assessment of risks – and that’s somewhere we’re seeing progress. In fact, it’s one of the most active areas of climate change adaptation in OECD countries. This is positive – but this evidence base then needs to spur action. Governments need to determine what is an “acceptable level” of risk by balancing the benefits and costs of taking pre-emptive action. On the one hand, nobody wants to have their property flooded, but on the other, completely eliminating flood risk is often not possible and a high-level of protection is very costly. Once an acceptable level of risk has been set, governments need to explore the options open to them, and that includes sharing responsibility between the public and private sectors when investing in infrastructure, devising insurance schemes, as well as in emergency response.  

As we expect to see more severe weather events around the world, we need to understand that anticipation can avoid future costs. For example, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre estimates that EUR 1 invested in flood protection can result in EUR 6 of avoided damage costs. Investments in early warning systems and emergency preparedness have significantly reduced casualties in Hurricane-prone countries. Austria and Germany made smart investments in flood defences after floods in 2002, and that served them well when water levels rose again last year.

However, sometimes avoiding risks altogether is cheaper than building infrastructure to protect against them. Protection measures are not only about building hard infrastructure but we can use innovative architecture and landscape solutions – such as “green roofs”, “blue belts” or restored wetlands – so that nature is part of the solution.

That said, since we can’t predict the exact timing or magnitude of weather events, it’s very hard to get the timing and investment level right when taking preventative action. At a time when many governments are working under tight budget constraints, it’s even more vital that investments are well-thought out. The most cost-effective approaches to climate change adaptation are the most flexible and forward-looking ones, and the OECD has recommended a range of policy tools and investment approaches. This includes infrastructure design and financing techniques that can be scaled up or down over time, as needed. 

To see what OECD countries are doing to help prepare, check out

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