As an urbanized river-dominated delta, New Orleans, Louisiana, ranks among the most experimental of cities, a test of whether the needs of a stable human settlement can coexist with the fluidity of a deltaic environment—and what happens when they do not.
That natural environment bestowed upon New Orleans numerous advantages, among them abundant fresh water, fertile soils, productive wetlands and, above all, expedient passage between maritime and continental realms. But with those advantages came exposure to potential hazards—an overflowing Mississippi River, a tempestuous Gulf of Mexico, sinking soils, eroding coasts, rising seas, biotic invasion, pestilence, political and racial discord, conflagration—made all the worse by the high levels of social vulnerability borne by all too many members of New Orleans’ population. More so than any other major metropolis on the North American continent, this history of disaster and response is about the future of New Orleans as much as it is about the past.
This article examines two dozen disasters of various types and scales, with origins oftentimes traceable to anthropogenic manipulation of the natural environment, and assesses the nature of New Orleans’ responses. It frames these assessments in the “risk triangle” framework offered by David Crichton and other researchers, which views urban risk as a function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. “Hazard” implies the disastrous event or trauma itself; “exposure” means human proximity to the hazard, usually in the form of settlement patterns, and “vulnerability” indicates individuals’ and communities’ ability to respond resiliently and adaptively—which itself is a function of education, income, age, race, language, social capital, and other factors—after having been exposed to a hazard.
Parvin Sultana and Paul Thompson
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.
Floodplains are ecologically diverse and important livelihood supports for rural people. Bangladesh is one of the most floodplain-dominated countries and supports the highest density of rural population in the world. It provides evidence, lessons, and insights on a range of debates and advances in 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 these 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 livelihoods has been under-recognized in the past particularly for poorer households. For example, capture fisheries—a common resource—have been adversely impacted by embankments and sluice gates, and by conversion of floodplains into aquaculture, which also excludes poor subsistence users from wetland resources. More generally, an over reliance on engineering “solutions” to flooding that focused on enabling more secure rice cultivation was criticized, particularly during 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 by constraining rivers, which silt up outside of these polders, contributing along with land shrinkage to drainage congestion. Local people here innovated a response of breaking embankments to allow in flood water and silt deposition to regain relative land levels.
Since the early 1990s, Bangladesh has extensively adopted more participatory approaches to floodplain management, piloting and then expanding new approaches that provide lessons for more general application within Asia and beyond. Participatory planning has been adopted at the local level, for water management and for natural resources. Good practices have been developed that ensure disadvantaged poor stakeholders can articulate their views and find consensus with other local stakeholders. Management of smaller water control projects (up to 1,000 ha) has been developed with community organizations, while in larger water control projects, there is collaborative management between a hierarchy of groups and associations and the government agency. In fishery and wetland management, too, many areas have been managed by community organizations to sustainably restore common resources, although rights were lost in some cases. Associated with community management, there have been successful experiments in adopting more system-based approaches, called integrated floodplain management, that balance the needs of agriculture and common natural resources, for example by adopting crops with lower water demand that are resilient to less predictable rainfall and drier winters, and by enabling surface water to be preserved by communities for wild aquatic resources. Bangladesh also has recent achievements 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.