Development Dialogue: Urban Flood Risk Management: Challenge Profile

The Growing Challenge of Urban Floods: Complex, Costly and (Potentially) Dangerous

Floods are undoubtedly the most frequent type of natural disasters, especially in the last 20 years during which flood events have become more dangerous, particularly for coastal cities and in peripheral areas of sprawling cities. Yet, although climate change may contribute to weather extremes, many coastal cities are still more exposed to flooding due to poor ground water management rather than from rising sea level. More population density in urban areas also means that exposure of assets and settlements widens especially with poorly managed urbanization (clogged drains, unregulated spatial expansion, inadequate housing). At a household level, the impact of floods also exacerbates the hardships of the urban poor as it amplifies their vulnerability through water-borne diseases, lower nutrition, less education possibilities and disrupted sources of livelihoods.

Even if it is impossible to completely eliminate flood risk (even in highly resilient countries), far more still needs to be done by policy-makers to better understand, effectively manage existing risks and anticipate future hazards. As for pressing issues, there is a clear need to mainstream quick impact measures such as early warning systems, minimize socio-economic vulnerabilities, and rethink how at-risk populations can be resettled in the most preventive and sustainable measure. The good news is that, in spite of rapidly urbanizing countries, the toolbox of flood risk management measures has never been as comprehensive and innovative as before, and is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and flexible.

An integrated approach to flood risk management that relies on both structural (such as ‘heavy’ engineering) and non-structural measures (such as ‘softer’ community-driven solutions) will also need to be carefully implemented to ensure that local institutions and urban infrastructures can cope effectively. An integrated approach also needs to be gradually incorporated into regular urban planning to maximize the level of resilience of urban areas. Actions to reduce flood risk need to employ tools and techniques to understand current and upcoming trends assess alternative scenarios and build integrated scenarios across different sectors.

Such measures will also include a wider range of instruments such as risk-informed land use planning and development, improving building standards and codes, ensuring safety and functionality of infrastructure and urban services, increasing public awareness of disaster risks and implementing necessary institutional and financing arrangements. Yet, it is also important to recognize that a residual risk will subsist however careful flood risk preparation may be. Strengthening hazard monitoring, forecasting and warning systems, emergency response and management as well as fiscal resilience (contingency planning, risks transfer mechanisms) can also be put in place to save lives, minimize shocks and provide cost-effective solutions to decrease the impact of urban flooding.

Join development leaders, expert practitioners and policy-makers during this thought-provoking two-week online forum to discuss how we can better design, implement and integrate different approaches to urban flood risk management, and ensure that cities and towns in the future are more informed, better equipped and sufficiently prepared to face natural disasters such as floods.