Humanities in the Anthropocene (II): Some Remarks about Urban Floods and Resilient Cities

15.09.2016 Jasmin Hettinger

„Climate change exposes people, societies, economic sectors and ecosystems to risk. Risk is the potential for consequences when something of value is at stake and the outcome is uncertain, recognizing the diversity of values.“

Thus reads the “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), introducing the chapter on “Risk and the Management of an Uncertain Future”.1 This panel had been founded in 1988 in order to assess environmental risks caused mainly by anthropogenic climate change and provide stakeholders with a scientific basis on which they can work out effective preventive and protective measures. Lately, the concept of resilience (and its counterpart vulnerability) gets more and more important in the context of climate adaptive city planning. This is mainly based on the new paradigm that an effective protection against all sorts of natural hazards in the wake of climate change cannot be achieved by means of structural, i.e. technical measures alone. Let’s take urban flooding as an example.

Flooding of urban areas has been a problem for human activities ever since man started to settle down in low-lying floodplains, meadows and other water-logged landscapes. This does not mean that they were not being aware of the risk of flooding but rather shows their disposition to cope with this risk while taking advantage of the waterscape in many ways. Rivers served many purposes of which drawing water for drinking or watering plants are only two amongst many others. In former times, it was especially their function as “watery highway” that was most attractive for communication, transport and trade. And there were many more functions, as is easily imaginable.

Despite of the great service that rivers have been rendering to the human societies from the very beginning, seasonal flooding had always been an issue. As a natural characteristic of rivers, water levels change various times during the year (of course depending on their geographic location). This is the reason why flooding is by far the most frequent natural hazard that societies have to deal with everywhere in the world. But seasonality can also be an advantage since it renders river flooding more predictable as other natural hazards, e.g. earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. By adapting human activities to the seasonality of naturally occurring flood events, it is possible to build up a certain resilience of cityscapes and that is exactly what current flood resilience building aims at. And historical case studies concerning flood plain management can provide empirical data, examples for effective and not-so-effective ways to live with urban flooding. Although every historical era and society responds to its own specific cultural and social conditions (or values as it is labelled in the IPCC report), it is possible to identify certain behavioral patterns towards floods that can be found in every historical and cultural context. So, in order to analyze different preventive practices and reactions to floods throughout history and even today, especially when dealing with non-western societies, it might be helpful to first identify these coping patterns within which different groups of actors as well as individuals concerned with flood risk and flood management could act and react. These patterns include e.g.

  • The tendency to “forget” catastrophic events and, as a result, to neglect preventive practices during disaster gaps, thus leading to new and aggravated disastrous events,
  • The development of new organizational networks as well as the modification of existing ones, mainly as a “bottom up movement” initiated by local elites or other affected urban groups,
  • The formation of false incentives to settle in flood plains by establishing apparently well-functioning security measures like dykes and dams or even security belts without permanent constructions along the river banks,
  • Paradigm shifts within flood management practices evoked by severe flood events etc.

Comparing historical case studies dating from various epochs and backgrounds using the concept of environmental coherence and thus taking account of differences in cultural values (I talked about it in my last blog entry), will show that coping patterns from pre- and proto-modern societies in the end are not as significantly different from our modern and post-modern ones as commonly stated in terms of well-known master narratives of modernity. Foresight and prevention cannot be labelled as exclusive characteristics of modern and westernized societies, even less so in the context of river flooding. Once challenged and overcome this point of view, the pan-epoch study of urban flood prevention and flood risk management can help us to widen our perspectives on possible ways to cope with flood risks on a daily communal basis.

Resilience building in the end has something to do with understanding the natural environment in which one is living. And a deep understanding – especially of long-term effects of human-nature-interactions and related path dependencies – can only be provided by a historical perspective.

One more fundamental environmental history site on the web is:

https://www.eh-resources.org/

Unfortunately, I forgot to include it in my first list. This excellent and well researched website by Dr. Jan Oosthoek includes audio podcasts on a huge variety of subjects (case studies and methodological discussions) concerning environmental history.

Read the first Article here.

  1. Official Webpage of the IPCC containing the text of the Synthesis Report 2014: http://ar5-syr.ipcc.ch/topic_introduction.php []

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