10 May 2011

Floods, climate change and bad policies

John Whitehead blogs that the costs of saving Cairo, Illinois [town between river arms below], probably exceeded the benefits (Corps of Engineers blew out a levee to flood fields instead), but that's just the beginning, I hear (via JWT), of what will be the worst flooding in 500 years.

My thoughts are that it's always made sense to live near rivers, but that sense was bounded by the obvious problem of getting flooded occasionally. People around the world know how to live with floods (houses on stilts, moving around -- see this National Geographic article on Bangladesh), but that knowledge and action can get distorted by "help" from outsiders, whether it be subsidized flood insurance or infrastructure defenses.

I am just going to point out that these interventions were never a good idea; they are an even worst idea when combined with climate change, since water "events" (floods, tornadoes) are going to get more dramatic. (The Dutch are pursuing a program called Ruimte voor de Rivier, or room for the river, to allow for higher flows.)

Bottom Line: Don't subsidize people to protect them from the weather. Help them understand the risks, rescue them from folly, and then do not let them return to dangerous areas. Nature needs more room to maneuver as climate change increases water flows.


  1. You mention the dutch as an example of proactive planing. However, doesn't much of the country exist because of "infrastructure defenses" that I assume are subsidized through its government?

  2. @Eric -- good point, but most of the infrastructure in Holland (as well as land reclamation projects) are funded by the same people who benefit from them. Technically, those are not subsidies (to others) as much as investments in their OWN futures...

  3. You say most of Holland's infrastructure is an investment in their own futures. What do you think about that portion which is subsidized. Is it imprudently funded? Is is significant?

  4. Please differentiate between living "near rivers" (OK) vs living in river flood plains (stupid).

  5. @DW -- what matters is that you have a good aLtitide towards your neighboring river :)

  6. 'to allow for higher flows' is ambiguous. 'Room for the River' is meant to allow for higher discharges, by lowering the water level for a given discharge by expanding the lateral space (i.e., the cross-section) for the discharge: allowing for a bigger area for the river water in times of high discharges.
    Lower water levels for the same discharge.

    More on the Dutch rethink:



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