Brenden Jongman, Hessel C. Winsemius, Stuart A. Fraser, Sanne Muis, and Philip J. Ward
The flooding of rivers and coastlines is the most frequent and damaging of all natural hazards. Between 1980 and 2016, total direct damages exceeded $1.6 trillion, and at least 225,000 people lost their lives. Recent events causing major economic losses include the 2011 river flooding in Thailand ($40 billion) and the 2013 coastal floods in the United States caused by Hurricane Sandy (over $50 billion). Flooding also triggers great humanitarian challenges. The 2015 Malawi floods were the worst in the country’s history and were followed by food shortage across large parts of the country.
Flood losses are increasing rapidly in some world regions, driven by economic development in floodplains and increases in the frequency of extreme precipitation events and global sea level due to climate change. The largest 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 a large proportion of losses can be contained successfully 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 various scenarios of climate change based on specific changes in rainfall, temperature, and sea level.
To assess the impact of the modeled hazard (e.g., cost of damage or lives lost), the potential exposure (including buildings, population, and infrastructure) must be mapped using land-use and population density data and 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 floods on people and different 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 (e.g., inundation depth and flow velocity).
Potential adaptation measures such as land-use change or new flood defenses can be included in the model in order to understand how effective they may be in reducing flood risk. This way, risk assessments can demonstrate the possible approaches available to policymakers 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.
The rapid increase in losses from flooding underlines the importance of risk reduction efforts to prevent or at least mitigate the damaging impacts that floods can bring to communities, businesses, and countries. This article provides an overview of how the science of disaster risk management has improved understanding of pre-event risk reduction [or disaster risk reduction (DRR)]. Implementation, however, is still lagging, particularly when compared to expenditure for recovery and repair after a flood event. In response, flood insurance is increasingly being suggested as a potential lever for risk reduction, despite concerns about moral hazard. The article considers the literature that has emerged on this topic and discusses if the conceptual efforts of linking flood insurance and risk reduction have led to practical action. Overall, there is limited evidence of flood insurance effectively promoting risk reduction. To the extent there is, it suggests that more complex behavioral aspects are also at play. Further evidence is required to support this potential role, particularly around data and risk assessment, and the viability of different risk reduction measures.
David Proverbs and Jessica Lamond
Flood resilient construction has become an essential component of the integrated approach to flood risk management, now widely accepted through the concepts of making space for water and living with floods. Resilient construction has been in place for centuries, but only fairly recently has it been recognized as part of this wider strategy to manage flood risk. Buildings and the wider built environment are known to play a key role in flood risk management, and when buildings are constructed on or near to flood plains there is an obvious need to protect these. Engineered flood defense systems date back centuries, with early examples seen in China and Egypt. Levees were first built in the United States some 150 years ago, and were followed by the development of flood control acts and regulations. In 1945, Gilbert Fowler White, the so-called “father of floodplain management,” published his influential thesis which criticized the reliance on engineered flood defenses and began to change these approaches. In Europe, a shortage of farmable land led to the use of land reclamation schemes and the ensuing Land Drainage acts before massive flood events in the mid-20th century led to a shift in thinking towards the engineered defense schemes such as the Thames Barrier and Dutch dyke systems. The early 21st century witnessed the emergence of the “living with water” philosophy, which has resulted in the renewed understanding of flood resilience at a property level.
The scientific study of construction methods and building technologies that are robust to flooding is a fairly recent phenomenon. There are a number of underlying reasons for this, but the change in flood risk philosophy coupled with the experience of flood events and the long process of recovery is helping to drive research and investment in this area. This has led to a more sophisticated understanding of the approaches to avoiding damage at an individual property level, categorized under three strategies, namely avoidance technology, water exclusion technology, and water entry technology. As interest and policy has shifted to water entry approaches, alongside this has been the development of research into flood resilient materials and repair and reinstatement processes, the latter gaining much attention in the recognition that experience will prompt resilient responses and that the point of reinstatement provides a good opportunity to install resilient measures.
State-of-the-art practices now center on avoidance strategies incorporating planning legislation in many regions to prohibit or restrict new development in flood plains. Where development pressures mean that new buildings are permitted, there is now a body of knowledge around the impact of flooding on buildings and flood resilient construction and techniques. However, due to the variety and complexity of architecture and construction styles and varying flood risk exposure, there remain many gaps in our understanding, leading to the use of trial and error and other pragmatic approaches. Some examples of avoidance strategies include the use of earthworks, floating houses, and raised construction.
The concept of property level flood resilience is an emerging concept in the United Kingdom and recognizes that in some cases a hybrid approach might be favored in which the amount of water entering a property is limited, together with the likely damage that is caused. The technology and understanding is moving forward with a greater appreciation of the benefits from combining strategies and property level measures, incorporating water resistant and resilient materials. The process of resilient repair and considerate reinstatement is another emerging feature, recognizing that there will be a need to dry, clean, and repair flood-affected buildings. The importance of effective and timely drying of properties, including the need to use materials that dry rapidly and are easy to decontaminate, has become more apparent and is gaining attention.
Future developments are likely to concentrate on promoting the uptake of flood resilient materials and technologies both in the construction of new and in the retrofit and adaptation of existing properties. Further development of flood resilience technology that enhances the aesthetic appeal of adapted property would support the uptake of measures. Developments that reduce cost or that offer other aesthetic or functional advantages may also reduce the barriers to uptake. A greater understanding of performance standards for resilient materials will help provide confidence in such measures and support uptake, while further research around the breathability of materials and concerns around mold and the need to avoid creating moisture issues inside properties represent some of the key areas.
Floods affect more people worldwide than any other natural hazard. Flood risk results from the interplay of a range of processes. For river floods, these are the flood-triggering processes in the atmosphere, runoff generation in the catchment, flood waves traveling through the river network, possibly flood defense failure, and finally, inundation and damage processes in the flooded areas. In addition, ripple effects, such as regional or even global supply chain disruptions, may occur.
Effective and efficient flood risk management requires understanding and quantifying the flood risk and its possible future developments. Hence, risk analysis is a key element of flood risk management. Risk assessments can be structured according to three questions: What can go wrong? How likely is it that it will happen? If it goes wrong, what are the consequences? Before answering these questions, the system boundaries, the processes to be included, and the detail of the analysis need to be carefully selected.
One of the greatest challenges in flood risk analyses is the identification of the set of failure or damage scenarios. Often, extreme events beyond the experience of the analyst are missing, which may bias the risk estimate. Another challenge is the estimation of probabilities. There are at most a few observed events where data on the flood situation, such as inundation extent, depth, and loss are available. That means that even in the most optimistic situation there are only a few data points to validate the risk estimates. The situation is even more delicate when the risk has to be quantified for important infrastructure objects, such as breaching of a large dam or flooding of a nuclear power plant. Such events are practically unrepeatable. Hence, estimating of probabilities needs to be based on all available evidence, using observations whenever possible, but also including theoretical knowledge, modeling, specific investigations, experience, or expert judgment. As a result, flood risk assessments are often associated with large uncertainties. Examples abound where authorities, people at risk, and disaster management have been taken by surprise due to unexpected failure scenarios. This is not only a consequence of the complexity of flood risk systems, but may also be attributed to cognitive biases, such as being overconfident in the risk assessment. Hence, it is essential to ask: How wrong can the risk analysis be and still guarantee that the outcome is acceptable?
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 (
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.