This past week, Doug Plasencia and I spent a couple days at an International Flood Risk Management Workshop in Washington DC. Some 19 nations were represented—a number from Europe, Japan and China, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico and the Philippines. European nations included the U.K., Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, France and others. A number of experts from the U.S. participated, including those from USACE, FEMA, NOAA, EPA the insurance sector, academia and NGOs like ASFPM.
The discussion revolved around the various challenges and the different approaches used by various nations in managing flood risk that all of us face. What was most striking is that the nations all face the same challenges of getting citizens to understand and accept their flood risk, and to share the responsibility of managing and/or reducing that risk. The issues related to structural approaches of levees, dams, etc. are the same, with operation & maintenance, changing flood conditions and larger flood events leading to catastrophic disasters. This is true in spite of the fact most nations use a much higher level of protection for levees than the U.S. does. Nations struggle to implement non-structural, more resilient approaches and to preserve and/or restore the floodplain’s natural resources and functions to allow nature to reduce flood impacts.
The U.S. is the only nation where the federal government underwrites flood insurance. In most nations flood insurance is available only through the private sector, is generally voluntary (although in France everyone must have homeowners insurance, which must include flood insurance) and is generally expensive. Not all nations provide disaster relief to those who experience flooding, and the threshold for when the federal government might provide relief varies considerably. An interesting observation was in the Philippines, where the general public, after it became clear the federal government would be unable to afford to help them reduce risk or recover, has begun to accept responsibility and help each other take action. Obviously, we have not reached that point in the U.S.
Most nations identify the risk with flood maps, with some showing variable risk (in the U.S. we have up until now just mapped the one hazard—100 year flood—and everyone in the hazard zone is shown to have the same risk). A number of nations already consider climate change when showing risk. Land use as a means to reduce risk is increasingly used, similar to what we do in the U.S., but many nations build land use requirements into planning, not as a separate add on that comes into play at the time of development, which is generally the U.S. approach.
A key difference among nations is governance—i.e. the role of the federal, state, local governments and the private sector, which does impact what can be done and when. In China, the national government decides which levees may be breached in major events—and in general, the areas with more population or critical economic factors may be protected by breaching levees in other areas to provide flood storage. At the same time, those areas and people flooded have elaborate, mandatory evacuation plans and some compensation is provided to them if forced to evacuate. In this nation, we should perhaps consider having large urban buy easements from less populated or farm areas to allow flood storage to protect the urban areas, rather than trying to protect all areas for vast reaches of streams.
Of interest in Europe is the added impetus to flood risk identification and planning from the European Union (EU). Most of the European nations now belong to the EU, which sets some overall goals, and sets time lines for each nation to achieve them. These are not mandates, and more general in nature. For flood risk, the EU, set out a 10 year time frame with milestones for nations to identify their flood risk, assess the risk, and to build flood risk management into watershed planning. All of this is to be accomplished by 2015, but each nation can decide how it will do so. The interesting aspect of this is that it allows each nation to accomplish this, using the cover that it must be done to meet the EU directive. This is similar to having FEMA set standards for floodplain management ordinances, then the local or state governments telling their citizens it must be done this way in order to obtain federal benefits like flood insurance, disaster relief, etc. It gives collective cover in order to do the right thing.
In summary, discussing flood risk management approaches with other nations has some value. While not all nations can use the same approaches, we can usually pick up ideas or approaches that may work under some circumstances. Some approaches the group felt are particularly transferable include risk communication, Regional data on climate change and planning and managing catastrophic events. For those interested in reading some of the papers presented at this workshop and flood risk management approaches used in different nations, you may want to visit the workshop web site below.