Flood Risk: The Holistic Perspective

Flood Risk: The Holistic Perspective

by Zoran Vojinovic


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780405322
Publisher: IWA Publishing
Publication date: 07/30/2015
Series: Urban Hydroinformatics Series
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.75(d)

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Floods in urban areas


Floods are commonly defined as an overwhelming flow of water onto land that is normally dry and which under certain circumstances can cause unprecedented losses and devastation. The argument put forward in this book is that these losses are often the result of a wide range of interactions between different actors and processes which can be natural, human and technology related. Therefore, flood-related problems should be viewed from as many different perspectives as possible before a way of dealing with them is selected. The purpose of the discussion in this opening chapter is to illustrate the complexity of flood-related problems and to suggest the way forward.

According to the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT), over the last seventy years, the incidence of floods has shown the fastest rate of increase relative to other types of disasters (see also Guha-Sapir et al. 2012), Figure 1.1. Devastation due to these events occurs almost daily. Even though our technological capabilities for dealing with floods have advanced rapidly over the same period, and while global economic growth per capita has doubled, flood events have become ever more disastrous (see for example, Pelling, 2011). Does this mean that our technological developments have advanced independently from the social and wider ecological needs? This paradoxical situation can be viewed as a result of our narrow and fragmented perception of reality which has proved to be inadequate for dealing with some of the greatest problems of our time. As pointed out some time ago by Burton and Kates (1964), the perception of floods and other natural disasters as 'those elements of the physical environment harmful to man and caused by forces extraneous to him' has led to the preference for physical rather than social treatment of floods, with urban societies being allowed to live under the shadow of increasing risk. This view of floods has brought not only ineffective solutions, but also conditions for ever increasing risks and greater disasters. This is largely due to the fragmented and piecemeal way of thinking which has been characteristic of our academic disciplines and government agencies, and which is predominantly based on a disciplinary treatment of floods supported by quantification, ordering, numbering, counting and measuring (Heidegger, 1963; Abbott, 1991; Vojinovic & Abbott, 2012). We shall also recall the earlier work of Ackoff and Emery (1972) who noted:

Nature does not come to us in disciplinary form. Phenomena are not physical, chemical, biological and so on. The disciplines are the ways we study phenomena; they emerge from points of view, not from what is viewed. Hence the disciplinary nature of science is a filing system of knowledge. Its organisation is not to be confused with the organisation of nature itself. (p. 4)

With growing evidence to date, it has become obvious that most flood-related disasters, although commonly referred to as natural disasters, are not in fact the results of nature-related processes alone. They are due to an ever increasing extent directly attributable to various social, economic, historical, political and even cultural causes. As noted in Vojinovic and Abbott (2012), in some cases, gender, race and ethnicity issues represent yet another dimension of complexity which in certain conditions may amplify disastrous outcomes. Observations also show that the level of knowledge and understanding of flood risk in a given area is directly related to people's decisions to either adjust their lives to such a risk or simply to ignore it. However, most of the time, the deepest root causes lie in the dominant processes and values of the political economy that increasingly give rise to profound social and environmental injustices (see also Pelling, 2011). It is often the urban poor who take a larger toll.

The urban poor are often located at sites vulnerable to floods and landslides, earthquakes and fires, infrastructure is weak or lacking, and housing is substandard and prone to collapse, Figure 1.2. In such situations making the right choices so as to achieve some measure of 'distributive justice' in the redistribution of risks and allocation of flood protection funds within a society has been a difficult, and in many cases, unachievable, task. Thus, planning for more effective flood resilience requires not only sound engineering knowledge but also a much deeper understanding of social, cultural and ethical aspects, while any ignorance, either intentional or unintentional, of such aspects can only lead to ever increasing risks and greater disasters.

Climate change (or climate extremes), population growth and urbanisation processes are certainly bringing some of the greatest challenges of our time which in turn reinvigorate the significance of adaptation, resilience and transformation (i.e., transcendence). It has been acknowledged that urban areas cause 70% of humanity's ecological footprint as they represent places where most of the resources are consumed (Global Footprint Network, 2012). The way that urbanisation patterns emerge and their impacts on land and ecosystems are shaped by interdependencies and interrelations between different drivers and actors, and their corresponding impacts, and responses to these dynamics. Unfortunately, dealing with adaptation and resilience is too often seen as an act of technological advancement, and the evidence to date suggests that such questions are not only technological but also significantly social, economic, organisational and political (see White et al. 2001; IRDR, 2009; Pelling, 2011; Vojinovic & Abbott, 2012). Discussing the significance of adaptation for sustainable development, Adger et al. (2009) highlights that climate change adaptation decisions have justice consequences across as well as within generations. Pelling (2011) argues that adaptation requires questioning power relations in the society as power held by an actor in a social system plays a great role in shaping an actor's response towards change. Following Bruno Latour (2005) we note that when entities connect and preserve their heterogeneity, they change 'what they can do' as an assemblage, they change the 'script', implying that decision making processes fundamentally change when modes of representation are altered.

What follows from all of the above is that the search and evaluation of different adaptation pathways and their subsequent outcomes should be approached from interactions between decisions of individual actors. This in turn necessitates understanding of interdependencies and interrelations between, for example, a network of actors who may have different forms of power (e.g., legislative, policy and economic) and to examine how their interactions and various forms of decision making processes shape the risk (see also Teisman et al. 2009).

Without doubt, the search for adaptive solutions, which are not only technologically and economically efficient, but more importantly are in harmony with the natural and social environments, represents an immense challenge, not only to planners, engineers and scientists but to urban societies as a whole. Besides this challenge, our search for adaptive solutions also brings the opportunity to question our current values which are often at the root cause of deeper social inequalities and our unsustainable relationships within society and with nature, Figure 1.3. Can the need for adaptation and resilience be a lever to address some of the deepest questions of sustainability and justice? Addressing this question requires a closer look at the values which drive our relationships within the society and with the nature.


The predominance of almost exclusively technocentric and piecemeal approaches which put the economic prosperity and growth as first (or most dominant) values to be preserved, above social, cultural and ecological well-being, has led to the development of less sustainable and less efficient means of responding to any kind of crisis – where floods and flood-related disasters are just one part. Unfortunately, economic prosperity and growth are all too often interpreted as wealth and measured exclusively in terms of money (e.g., GDP and GNP) and as such they are closely linked to outer and materialistic values. What is terribly missing in such notions of prosperity is the true essence of the prosperity of a society. The qualities such as self-transcendent values of benevolence (being honest, ethical, helpful and loyal) and universalism (caring about environment, health, a peaceful world and social justice) are not reflected as they are impossible to be measured in monetary terms: see also Crompton and Kasser (2009) and Vojinovic and Abbott (2012). Furthermore, a variety of studies have shown that such measures are more likely to create negative rather than positive attitudes (i.e., people are less likely to work with each other, support social cohesion and care about environmental well-being): see for example Saunders and Munro (2000), Schultz et al. (2005). Moreover, such measures disregard unsustainable facets of growth, particularly those in relation to global warming and the overuse of natural resources. With such shortcoming we should perhaps consider alternative measures such as the Kingdom of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness (GNH), Redefining Progress' Genuine Progress Indicator (Talberth et al. 2006) and the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index (NEF, 2006). To quote Mr. Jigmi Y. Thinley, the former prime minister of Bhutan (Royal Government of Bhutan, 2012):

We desperately need an economy that serves and nurtures the wellbeing of all sentient beings on earth and the human happiness that comes from living life in harmony with the natural world, with our communities, and with our inner Selves. We need an economy that will serve humanity, not enslave it. It must prevent the imminent reversal of civilization and flourish within the natural bound of our planet while ensuring the sustainable, equitable and meaningful use of precious resources.

Unfortunately, our distorted way of thinking does not stop only with GDPs and GNPs and one can easily find other examples. Yet another example is the present-day obsession of the Western academic institutions with the so-called h-index which has naively led many people to believe that the personal growth of an academic can be measured with such metrics, which is in essence a culmination of the same absurdity. We shall recall for a moment the great work of Ivan Illich (1970) on education, schooling and the awakening of awareness:

The institutionalised values school instils are quantified ones. School initiates young people into a world where everything can be measured, including their imaginations, and, indeed, man himself.

But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else's achievements.

Within the field of our endeavour we can also observe that some researchers and practitioners tend to apply the so-called 'monetized value of risk' in their analysis including the possibility to express the value of human life in monetary terms. Correspondingly, our obsession that everything and anything can be measured and expressed in numerical (and/or monetary) form, including the qualities (and even human life), is a reflection of the level of distortion of the present-day ideology and limitations of modern science, where we may borrow from the work of Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2002) the beautiful definition of Louis Dumont: 'L'idéologie est le système d'idées et des valeurs qui gouverne l'imaginaire d'une société donnée' // 'The ideology is the system of ideas and values that govern the imagination of a given society'.

In view of the limitations of modern science, and consequently of the present-day ideology, which have now become so evident, and if we want to truly incorporate those primary values (to repeat ourselves again, these are self-transcendent values of benevolence and universalism) into the decision making processes we should then consider making a paradigm shift. A shift towards a holistic paradigm which has a focus on interaction and interrelatedness (i.e., coevolution) and which takes into account interests of future generations, non-human entities and the marginalised. The present book suggests that our initial response to this and many other challenges is to change our perception from a disciplinary and defensive one into a transdisciplinary one, that is, the one that transcends the boundaries of scientific disciplines by bringing together humanities, science and technology, into a progressive mindset, that is, the one that turns challenges into the possibilities for a change that can re-shape our future. This implies that our views to adaptation must also shift from the one that views adaptation as a process of dealing with how to preserve the things, which is a defensive view, to what can be reformed and gained, which is rather a progressive or a transcendental view (see also Pelling, 2011). A new paradigm also requires a new economy that can provide a better reflection of the wellbeing of all sentient beings on earth and the human happiness. For this purpose, we shall discuss a new economic paradigm proposed by the Royal Government of Bhutan (2012) and look into the possibilities of how such thinking can be placed in the context of flood resilience.


In view of the current limitations, the way forward can be found only if we broaden our view and learn how the natural or social phenomena can provoke a response in a society, or a social group, which in turn can trigger the technical developments, and so on, again and again, in what has the potential to become a network of interactions and relationships through positive feedback (or coevolving) cycles, see Figure 1.4.6 Figure 1.4 illustrates how flood risk is shaped by the interaction between social, technical and nature-related root causes. In this book we shall take a holistic view of sociotechnical interactions towards the formation, propagation and accumulation of risk, which is very much a functional, teleological, or purposeful view. Such a holistic perspective however may raise the following question: If everything is connected to everything else, how can we ever hope to understand anything? Our response draws from the understandings brought by phenomenology and complexity theory where individual elements coevolve together both in development and application. This recognition opens a new way of analysis which goes beyond the direct objects or actors of concern (development of policies, development of technology for flood mitigation and design of adaptive systems for example), and into the relationships between them. This way of thinking requires a shift in focus from parts to irreducible wholes which in turn forms a key to our perception. Such a view also requires combining different kinds of knowledges into a holistic point of view (which can be achieved through transdisciplinary ways of working) so we can have a more comprehensive encounter with the complexities that we are dealing with.

Apart from looking at phenomena through interactions and relationships, a holistic way of working towards adaptation and resilience would also aim for a profound engagement in activities by seeking multiple benefits to services and functions of ecosystems. The search for multiple benefits to ecosystems services can be seen as a purpose of a larger whole that consists of a variety of purposeful (i.e., teleological) sectoral activities (i.e., activities of 'smaller' wholes) that all contribute towards the larger purpose. This can be illustrated by a hierarchical representation (see for example Figure 3.4 in Chapter 3). Therefore, in addition to minimising the likelihood of flood risk, our efforts should seek those cross-sectoral solutions that can be also responsive to multiple challenges: drought, increased ecological landscapes (i.e., creation of a function of forest and wetlands in urban areas), social amenity and urban health, reduced air pollution and noise, mitigation of urban heat islands (Figure 1.5), enhanced energy efficiency of buildings and enhancement of biodiversity and quality of life.

To illustrate the holistic way of thinking and working we can consider for a moment problems associated with climate extremes that are nowadays causing extreme rainfall and flooding on one side and drought and heat waves on the other. In response to threats from droughts, some cities in the coastal zone have embarked on building desalination plants as a measure to mitigate shortages of drinking water. Looking from a wider (or a holistic) perspective, this measure is only shifting dependency from rainfall (which is needed to fill reservoirs and dams) to dependency on energy (which is very much needed to operate such plants) which does not seem to be sustainable in the long run. At the same time, we are not sufficiently harvesting our other sources of water which can be used to preserve our drinking water reserves. As we shall show later on in Chapter 5, there are many opportunities to utilise rainwater, and amongst others, it can be used for various non-drinking purposes such as the flushing of toilets or irrigation of green spaces. Storing rainwater on sites which have multifunctional purposes can bring greater efficiency in land use.

Since the availability of space is scarce in urban areas, we can also consider how to utilise the actual water surface in a multifunctional way. A good example of multifunctional use of the water surface is the construction of floating buildings.


Excerpted from "Flood Risk: The Holistic Perspective"
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Copyright © 2015 IWA Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Michael B. Abbott, xi,
Foreword by Kuniyoshi Takeuchi, xiii,
Preface, xv,
Acknowledgements, xix,
Chapter 1 Floods in urban areas, 1,
Chapter 2 Holistic thinking, 23,
Chapter 3 Moving beyond traditional practices, 39,
Chapter 4 A. Holistic risk assessment, 57,
Chapter 5 B. Holistic scenario analysis, 81,
Chapter 6 C. Holistic decision-making, 143,
Chapter 7 Tracing the root causes of floods in the Pasig-Marikina River Basin in Metro Manila, Philippines, 173,
Chapter 8 Some notable reflections from the 2011 Thailand floods, 191,
Chapter 9 Combination of different types of measures enhances Beijing's best practices, 209,
Chapter 10 Holistic risk governance – where do we stand?, 223,
Afterword, 235,
References, 237,
Appendix, 249,
Glossary, 257,
Index, 267,

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