Brenden Jongman, Hessel C. Winsemius, Stuart A. Fraser, Sanne Muis, and Philip J. Ward
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Flooding of rivers and coastlines is the most frequent and damaging of all natural hazards. Between 1980 and 2013, total direct damages exceeded $1 trillion, and at least 220,000 people lost their lives. Events with major economic losses include the 2011 flooding in Thailand ($40 billion) and the 2013 Central Europe floods ($16 billion). Flooding also triggers great humanitarian challenges. The 2015 Malawi floods were the worst in the country’s history and were followed by food shortages across large parts of the country.
Flood losses are increasing rapidly in some world regions, driven by economic development in floodplains and increases in extreme precipitation events and global sea level due to climate change. The biggest increase in flood losses is seen in low-income countries, where population growth is rapid and many cities are expanding quickly. At the same time, evidence shows that adaptation to flood risk is already happening, and that a large proportion of losses can be successfully contained by effective risk management strategies. Such risk management strategies may include floodplain zoning, construction and maintenance of flood defenses, reforestation of land draining into rivers, and use of early warning systems.
To reduce risk effectively, it is important to know the location and impact of potential floods, under current and future social and environmental conditions. In a risk assessment, models can be used to map the flow of water over land after an intense rainfall event or storm surge (the “hazard”). Modeled for many different potential events, this provides estimates of potential inundation depth in flood prone areas. Such maps can be constructed for different scenarios of climate change, based on changes in rainfall, temperature, and sea levels specified in climate change scenarios.
To assess the impact of the modeled hazard, that is, the cost of damage or lives lost, exposure (including buildings, population, and infrastructure) must be mapped using land-use and population density data, as well as construction information. Population growth and urban expansion can be simulated by increasing the density or extent of the urban area in the model. The effects of flood on people and on types of buildings and infrastructure are determined using a vulnerability function. This indicates the damage expected to occur to a structure (or group of people) as a function of flood intensity (i.e., inundation depth and flow velocity).
Potential adaptation measures such as land-use change or new flood defenses can be included in the model, to understand how effective they may be in reducing flood risk. This way, risk assessments can demonstrate the possible approaches available to policy makers to build a less risky future.
Gabriele Villarini and Louise Slater
Flood losses in the United States have increased dramatically over the course of the past century, averaging US$7.96 billion in damages per year for the 30-year period ranging from 1985 to 2014. In terms of human fatalities, floods are the second largest weather-related hazard in the United States, causing approximately 80 deaths per year over the same period. Given the wide-reaching impacts of flooding across the United States, the evaluation of flood-generating mechanisms and of the drivers of changing flood hazard are two areas of active research.
Flood frequency analysis has traditionally been based on statistical analyses of the observed flood distributions that rarely distinguish among physical flood-generating processes. However, recent scientific advances have shown that flood frequency distributions are often characterized by “mixed populations” arising from multiple flood-generating mechanisms, which can be challenging to disentangle. Flood events can be driven by a variety of physical mechanisms, including rain and snowmelt, frontal systems, monsoons, intense tropical cyclones, and more generic cyclonic storms.
Temporal changes in the frequency and magnitude of flooding have also been the subject of a large body of work in recent decades. The science has moved from a focus on the detection of trends and shifts in flood peak distributions towards the attribution of these changes, with particular emphasis on climatic and anthropogenic factors, including urbanization and changes in agricultural practices. A better understanding of these temporal changes in flood peak distributions, as well as of the physical flood-generating mechanisms, will enable us to move forward with the estimation of future flood design values in the context of both climatic and anthropogenic change.
Evolution of Strategic Flood Risk Management in Support of Social Justice, Ecosystem Health, and Resilience
Throughout history, flood management practice has evolved in response to flood events. This heuristic approach has yielded some important incremental shifts in both policy and planning (from the need to plan at a catchment scale to the recognition that flooding arises from multiple sources and that defenses, no matter how reliable, fail). Progress, however, has been painfully slow and sporadic, but a new, more strategic, approach is now emerging.
A strategic approach does not, however, simply sustain an acceptable level of flood defence. Strategic Flood Risk Management (SFRM) is an approach that relies upon an adaptable portfolio of measures and policies to deliver outcomes that are socially just (when assessed against egalitarian, utilitarian, and Rawlsian principles), contribute positively to ecosystem services, and promote resilience. In doing so, SFRM offers a practical policy and planning framework to transform our understanding of risk and move toward a flood-resilient society. A strategic approach to flood management involves much more than simply reducing the chance of damage through the provision of “strong” structures and recognizes adaptive management as much more than simply “wait and see.” SFRM is inherently risk based and implemented through a continuous process of review and adaptation that seeks to actively manage future uncertainty, a characteristic that sets it apart from the linear flood defense planning paradigm based upon a more certain view of the future.
In doing so, SFRM accepts there is no silver bullet to flood issues and that people and economies cannot always be protected from flooding. It accepts flooding as an important ecosystem function and that a legitimate ecosystem service is its contribution to flood risk management. Perhaps most importantly, however, SFRM enables the inherent conflicts as well as opportunities that characterize flood management choices to be openly debated, priorities to be set, and difficult investment choices to be made.
Dennis John Parker
Humankind is becoming increasingly dependent on timely flood warnings. Dependence is being driven by an increasing frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events, a growing number of disruptive and damaging floods, and rising sea levels associated with climate change. At the same time, the population living in flood-risk areas and the value of urban and rural assets exposed to floods are growing rapidly. Flood warnings are an important means of adapting to growing flood risk and learning to live with it by avoiding damage, loss of life, and injury. Such warnings are increasingly being employed in combination with other flood-risk management measures, including large-scale mobile flood barriers and property-level protection measures.
Given that lives may well depend on effective flood warnings and appropriate warning responses, it is crucial that the warnings perform satisfactorily, particularly by being accurate, reliable, and timely. A sufficiently long warning lead time to allow precautions to be taken and property and people to be moved out of harm’s way is particularly important. However, flood warnings are heavily dependent on the other components of flood forecasting, warning, and response systems of which they are a central part. These other components—flood detection, flood forecasting, warning communication, and warning response—form a system that is characterized as a chain, each link of which depends on the other links for effective outcomes. Inherent weaknesses exist in chainlike processes and are often the basis of warning underperformance when it occurs.
A number of key issues confront those seeking to create and successfully operate flood warning systems, including (1) translating technical flood forecasts into warnings that are readily understandable by the public; (2) taking legal responsibility for warnings and their dissemination; (3) raising flood-risk awareness; (4) designing effective flood warning messages; (5) knowing how best and when to communicate warnings; and (6) addressing uncertainties surrounding flood warnings.
Flood warning science brings together a large body of research findings from a particularly wide range of disciplines ranging from hydrometeorological science to social psychology. In recent decades, major advances have been made in forecasting fluvial and coastal floods. Accurately forecasting pluvial events that cause surface-water floods is at the research frontier, with significant progress being made. Over the same time period, impressive advances in a variety of rapid, personalized communication means has transformed the process of flood warning dissemination. Much is now known about the factors that constrain and aid appropriate flood warning responses both at the individual and at organized, flood emergency response levels, and a range of innovations are being applied to improve response effectiveness. Although the uniqueness of each flood and the inherent unpredictability involved in flood events means that sometimes flood warnings may not perform as expected, flood warning science is helping to minimize these occurrences.
Glacier retreat is considered to be one of the most obvious manifestations of recent and ongoing climate change in the majority of glacierized alpine and high-latitude regions throughout the world. Glacier retreat itself is both directly and indirectly connected to the various interrelated geomorphological/hydrological processes and changes in hydrological regimes. Various types of slope movements and the formation and evolution of lakes are observed in recently deglaciated areas. These are most commonly glacial lakes (ice-dammed, bedrock-dammed, or moraine-dammed lakes).
“Glacial lake outburst flood” (GLOF) is a phrase used to describe a sudden release of a significant amount of water retained in a glacial lake, irrespective of the cause. GLOFs are characterized by extreme peak discharges, often several times in excess of the maximum discharges of hydrometeorologically induced floods, with an exceptional erosion/transport potential; therefore, they can turn into flow-type movements (e.g., GLOF-induced debris flows). Some of the Late Pleistocene lake outburst floods are ranked among the largest reconstructed floods, with peak discharges of up to 107 m3/s and significant continental-scale geomorphic impacts. They are also considered capable of influencing global climate by releasing extremely high amounts of cold freshwater into the ocean. Lake outburst floods associated with recent (i.e., post-Little Ice Age) glacier retreat have become a widely studied topic from the perspective of the hazards and risks they pose to human society, and the possibility that they are driven by anthropogenic climate change.
Despite apparent regional differences in triggers (causes) and subsequent mechanisms of lake outburst floods, rapid slope movement into lakes, producing displacement waves leading to dam overtopping and eventually dam failure, is documented most frequently, being directly (ice avalanche) and indirectly (slope movement in recently deglaciated areas) related to glacial activity and glacier retreat. Glacier retreat and the occurrence of GLOFs are, therefore, closely tied, because glacier retreat is connected to: (a) the formation of new, and the evolution of existing, lakes; and (b) triggers of lake outburst floods (slope movements).
Russ S. Schumacher
Heavy precipitation, which in many contexts is welcomed because it provides the water necessary for agriculture and human use, in other situations is responsible for deadly and destructive flash flooding. Over the 30-year period from 1986 to 2015, floods were responsible for more fatalities in the United States than any other convective weather hazard (www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml), and similar findings are true in other regions of the world. Although scientific understanding of the processes responsible for heavy rainfall continues to advance, there are still many challenges associated with predicting where, when, and how much precipitation will occur. Common ingredients are required for heavy rainfall to occur, but there are vastly different ways in which the atmosphere brings the ingredients together in different parts of the world. Heavy precipitation often occurs on very small spatial scales in association with deep convection (thunderstorms), factors that limit the ability of numerical models to represent or predict the location and intensity of rainfall. Furthermore, because flash floods are dependent not only on precipitation but also on the characteristics of the underlying land surface, there are fundamental difficulties in accurately representing these coupled processes. Areas of active current research on heavy rainfall and flash flooding include investigating the storm-scale atmospheric processes that promote extreme precipitation, analyzing the reasons that some rainfall predictions are very accurate while others fail, improving the understanding and prediction of the flooding response to heavy precipitation, and determining how heavy rainfall and floods have changed and may continue to change in a changing climate.
Brett F. Sanders
Communities facing urban flood risk have access to powerful flood simulation software for use in disaster-risk-reduction (DRR) initiatives. However, recent research has shown that flood risk continues to escalate globally, despite an increase in the primary outcome of flood simulation: increased knowledge. Thus, a key issue with the utilization of urban flood models is not necessarily development of new knowledge about flooding, but rather the achievement of more socially robust and context-sensitive knowledge production capable of converting knowledge into action. There are early indications that this can be accomplished when an urban flood model is used as a tool to bring together local lay and scientific expertise around local priorities and perceptions, and to advance improved, target-oriented methods of flood risk communication.
The success of urban flood models as a facilitating agent for knowledge coproduction will depend on whether they are trusted by both the scientific and local expert, and to this end, whether the model constitutes an accurate approximation of flood dynamics is a key issue. This is not a sufficient condition for knowledge coproduction, but it is a necessary one. For example, trust can easily be eroded at the local level by disagreements among scientists about what constitutes an accurate approximation.
Motivated by the need for confidence in urban flood models, and the wide variety of models available to users, this article reviews progress in urban flood model development over three eras: (1) the era of theory, when the foundation of urban flood models was established using fluid mechanics principles and considerable attention focused on development of computational methods for solving the one- and two-dimensional equations governing flood flows; (2) the era of data, which took form in the 2000s, and has motivated a reexamination of urban flood model design in response to the transformation from a data-poor to a data-rich modeling environment; and (3) the era of disaster risk reduction, whereby modeling tools are put in the hands of communities facing flood risk and are used to codevelop flood risk knowledge and transform knowledge to action. The article aims to inform decision makers and policy makers regarding the match between model selection and decision points, to orient the engineering community to the varied decision-making and policy needs that arise in the context of DRR activities, to highlight the opportunities and pitfalls associated with alternative urban flood modeling techniques, and to frame areas for future research.
Atta-ur Rahman, Shakeel Mahmood, Mohammad Dawood, and Fang Chen
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Hindu Kush is a high mountain system located in the immediate west of Karakorum and Himalayas. It is the greatest watershed of River Kabul, River Chitral, River Swat, and River Panjkora in Pakistan and the Amu River in Central Asia. The Hindu Kush system hosts numerous glaciers, snow-clad mountains, and fertile river valleys; it also supports a large population and provides year-round water to replenish streams and rivers. The study region is vulnerable to a wide range of hazards including floods, earthquakes, landslides, drought, and desertification. However, in the Hindu Kush region, riverine and flash floods frequently occur as well as extreme hydro-meteorological events. The upper reaches experience characteristics of flash floods, whereas the lower reaches experience river floods. In the upstream areas, flash floods are sudden and more destructive in nature. Every year in summer, monsoonal rainfall, together with the heavy melting of snow, ice, and glaciers accelerates discharge in rivers. Climate change has a strong relationship with trends in temperature and resultant changes in rainfall pattern and river discharge. In the wake of observed climate change, there is a rising trend in temperature, which indicates the early and rapid melting of snow and glaciers in the catchment areas. The analysis reveals that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries a radical change in behavior of numerous valley glaciers has been noted. Similarly, a fluctuation in the amount of snowfall occurrences together with its timing and seasonality has been recorded. In addition, the spatial and temporal scales of violent weather events have grown during the past thirty years. Such changes in water regimes including the frequent but substantial increase in heavy precipitation events and rapid melting of snow in the headwater region, siltation in active channels, excessive deforestation in the past three decades, human encroachments onto the active flood channel and the bursting of temporary dams have further escalated the flooding events. Analysis reveals that the Hindu Kush region is beyond the reach of existing weather RADAR network and hence flood forecasting and early warning is ineffective. In the study region, almost every year, the floodwater overflows the levees and causes damages to standing crops, infrastructure, sources of livelihood. And worst of all, there are human casualties.
Parvin Sultana and Paul Thompson
Floodplains are ecologically diverse and important sources of livelihood for rural people. Bangladesh is one of the most floodplain-dominated countries and supports the highest density of rural population in the world. The experience of Bangladesh in floodplain management efforts provides evidence, lessons, and insights on a range of debates and advances in the management of floodplain natural resources, the challenges of climate change, and the role of local communities in sustaining these resources and thereby their livelihoods. Although floodplain areas are primarily used for agriculture, the significance and value of wild common natural resources—mainly fish and aquatic plants—as sources of income and nutrition for floodplain inhabitants has been underrecognized in the past, particularly with respect to poorer households. For example, capture fisheries—a common resource—have been adversely impacted by the building of embankments and sluice gates and by the conversion of floodplains into aquaculture farms, which also exclude poor subsistence users from wetland resources. More generally, an overreliance on engineering “solutions” to flooding that focused on enabling more secure rice cultivation was criticized, particularly in the early 1990s during the Flood Action Plan, for being top down and for ignoring some of the most vulnerable people who live on islands in the braided main rivers. Coastal embankments have also been found to have longer term environmental impacts that undermine their performance because they constrain rivers, which silt up outside these polders, contributing, along with land shrinkage, to drainage congestion. Locals responded in an innovative way by breaking embankments to allow flood water and silt deposition in to regain relative land levels.
Since the early 1990s Bangladesh has adopted a more participatory approach to floodplain management, piloting and then expanding new approaches; these have provided lessons that can be more general applied within Asia and beyond. Participatory planning for water and natural resource management has also been adopted at the local level. Good practices have been developed to ensure that disadvantaged, poor stakeholders can articulate their views and find consensus with other local stakeholders. The management of smaller water-control projects (up to 1,000 ha) has been taken on by community organizations, and in larger water-control projects, there is collaborative management (also called “co-management”) among a hierarchy of groups and associations and the appropriate government agency. In fishery and wetland management, many areas have been managed by community organizations to sustainably restore common resources, although their rights to do this were lost in some cases. Associated with community management are successful experiments in adopting a more system-based approach, called “integrated floodplain management,” which balances the needs of agriculture and common natural resources, for example, by adopting crops with lower water demands that are resilient to less predictable rainfall and drier winters, and enable communities to preserve surface water for wild aquatic resources. Bangladesh also has had success in demonstrating the benefits of systematic learning among networks of community organizations, which enhances innovation and adaptation to the ever-changing environmental challenges in floodplains.
Marian Muste and Ton Hoitink
With a continuous global increase in flood frequency and intensity, there is an immediate need for new science-based solutions for flood mitigation, resilience, and adaptation that can be quickly deployed in any flood-prone area. An integral part of these solutions is the availability of river discharge measurements delivered in real time with high spatiotemporal density and over large-scale areas. Stream stages and the associated discharges are the most perceivable variables of the water cycle and the ones that eventually determine the levels of hazard during floods. Consequently, the availability of discharge records (a.k.a. streamflows) is paramount for flood-risk management because they provide actionable information for organizing the activities before, during, and after floods, and they supply the data for planning and designing floodplain infrastructure. Moreover, the discharge records represent the ground-truth data for developing and continuously improving the accuracy of the hydrologic models used for forecasting streamflows. Acquiring discharge data for streams is critically important not only for flood forecasting and monitoring but also for many other practical uses, such as monitoring water abstractions for supporting decisions in various socioeconomic activities (from agriculture to industry, transportation, and recreation) and for ensuring healthy ecological flows. All these activities require knowledge of past, current, and future flows in rivers and streams.
Given its importance, an ability to measure the flow in channels has preoccupied water users for millennia. Starting with the simplest volumetric methods to estimate flows, the measurement of discharge has evolved through continued innovation to sophisticated methods so that today we can continuously acquire and communicate the data in real time. There is no essential difference between the instruments and methods used to acquire streamflow data during normal conditions versus during floods. The measurements during floods are, however, complex, hazardous, and of limited accuracy compared with those acquired during normal flows. The essential differences in the configuration and operation of the instruments and methods for discharge estimation stem from the type of measurements they acquire—that is, discrete and autonomous measurements (i.e., measurements that can be taken any time any place) and those acquired continuously (i.e., estimates based on indirect methods developed for fixed locations). Regardless of the measurement situation and approach, the main concern of the data providers for flooding (as well as for other areas of water resource management) is the timely delivery of accurate discharge data at flood-prone locations across river basins.