From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years

From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years

From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years

From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years

Synopsis

The loss of life and devastation in the Gulf coast region of the United States after the hurricane season of 2005 has led to considerable debate about how to recover from the damage and mitigate damage from future incidents. This document reports the experiences of four major floods since 1948 (two in the United States, one in the Netherlands, and one in China), to draw lessons for the Gulf coast restoration effort.

Excerpt

A substantial portion of human history has been spent drying out after a wet natural disaster. Water is a necessary ingredient for life, much less human civilization. Harnessing water for drinking, agriculture, transportation, power, and recreation is the story of human history, but—as has been observed—every advantage has its disadvantage, and humankind is subject to the whims of nature in the form of severe storms, river flooding, tsunamis after earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, or erosion after extended extensive rainfall. Some water-related menaces are as regular as clockwork (such as the annual flooding of the Nile), and some are more rare (such as a statistically once-in-3,000-years river flood or storm), but virtually none are one-off events.

To Control or Not to Control

How to deal with waterborne problems is a key part of history. Many religions’ stories of the beginning of the world tell of the world having a global inundation as one component, after which the world was rebuilt as a better place. Sometimes, humans just live with what nature provides, working around the disadvantages to exploit the advantages. Thus, the annual flooding of the Nile was an essential ingredient of Egyptian civilization; on a more banal level, surfers seek out extreme tidal effects for sport. Sometimes, people attempt to conquer nature. Dikes, dams, and ditches are all artifacts designed to change the natural course of water.

Over time, as technology became more sophisticated, human effort moved in the direction of attempting to control water. However, as our understanding of the physical and social consequences of control has improved, we have come to realize that sometimes well-intentioned efforts at control can make matters worse. In the past 60 years, there has been a clear evolution from thinking in terms of water control to thinking in terms of water management (e.g., Working Group, 2006). That is, because the forces of nature are so strong and because the side effects of human intervention are so complex, we cannot control water with complete certainty of outcomes. All too often, recovery after a disaster consists of attempting to restore the status quo ante, complete with its (all too often literally) fatal flaws. However, we know enough that we need not passively accept what water imposes on society. Instead, we can choose to prevent or mitigate the threats posed by nature—or even transform them into benefits—by judicious management of water resources and threats.

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