by Kanmani Venkateswaran
When I called my mother to complain about my flooded basement after the September 2013 floods in Boulder, Colorado, her response was, “Kanmani, this would have been a lot worse had it happened in India.” To a large degree, this is true. After all, Indian cities do have a larger population density and lower economic and resource capacity than Boulder. But are resource and economic capacity alone the primary determinants of resilience?
Gorakhpur, a city in eastern India, and Boulder are both prone to climate hazards, particularly floods. In both cities, major flooding events and projections that climate change will increase the likelihood of extreme rainfall events led various organizations and stakeholders to kickstart resilience-building research and activities. Upon comparing the resulting efforts in both cities, it became evident that Boulder and Gorakhpur share ‘non-resilient’ characteristics despite the apparent discrepancy in resource and economic capacity:
People do not take precautions if they do not perceive that there is a risk. In Boulder, people were simply not prepared to deal with the floods, largely because they had not experienced major floods—the last major floods occurred in the 1960s. In Gorakhpur, while floods are recurring, major flood events were far and few until the floods of 1998. It is after these floods that people started to build more flood-resilient homes.
Flood maps are outdated and inaccurate. In Boulder, the flood maps did not account for the possibility of all 13 drainages flooding during a 100-year flood, which is what happened during the 2013. The maps also did not account for changes in creek paths and sediment deposit. These issues hindered flood response and preparedness, and also allowed people to build in risky areas of the floodplain. In Gorakhpur, existing maps do not account for recent urban development and growth and are, therefore, insufficient for modeling floods and their potential impacts.
Increasing urbanization has led to greater development in floodplains. Development in floodplains puts people and infrastructure in harm’s way. In Boulder, creek-side developments were highly impacted during the floods. Boulder City and County officials are debating whether or not these impacted developments should be reconstructed. In Gorakhpur, a rapidly growing city, urbanization has led to the development and encroachment of floodplains and waterways. The Ramgarh Lake, for example, has reduced from 1980 acres to 700 acres in less than 100 years. This limits the drainage of floodwaters and puts urban dwellers at great risk.
People are more likely to act at an individual than community level. In Boulder, during the floods, people were pumping water out of their homes and into their neighbor’s property. Currently, many upstream property owners, i.e. in Gregory Creek, are building protective barriers around their homes that will push water downstream and impact residences and public property during future floods. Similarly, in Gorakhpur, the shift towards more flood resilient homes means that water will get diverted into public spaces. In both cities, existing infrastructure is unable to fully handle the water diverted into these spaces. Autonomous action is not inherently bad and cannot be prevented; public infrastructure should be designed with people’s propensity to take autonomous action in mind.
Buildings and infrastructure are not flood resilient. In Boulder, the 2013 floods destroyed 345 and damaged 557 houses, and damaged 150 miles of county roads. In addition, high water levels caused sewage to backflow into homes. In Gorakhpur, at least 21% of homes, particularly those in rural and peri-urban areas, and infrastructure are highly susceptible to floods due to poor construction. While there has been a shift to more modern construction techniques post the 1998 flood, disregard of regulations and design considerations mean that houses and infrastructure remain vulnerable.
What we can see is that resilience is not only about resource and economic capacity. Although Boulder has higher capacity than Gorakhpur, its flood maps were outdated and inaccurate and many of its houses were not resilient to floods. This suggests that there are social (i.e. perceptions of risk) and institutional barriers (i.e. regulatory processes) that restrict resilience.
For poorer cities and countries, this is a good thing—social and institutional changes can be made without great economic input. Such changes are already taking place with the formation of partnerships between stakeholders that allow for collaborative learning and innovation. In Gorakhpur, agencies such as the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) and ISET-International have worked together with communities to promote climate-resilient housing, protection of water bodies, and better municipal infrastructure. Their efforts have allowed Gorakhpur to join the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN).
For wealthier cities and countries, this serves as a reminder that resource and economic capacity are not everything—money alone cannot prevent a hazard from becoming a disaster. Rather, better planning and regulatory processes are needed. While it may be true that the September 2013 floods would have had more devastating effects in Gorakhpur than in Boulder, it does not change the fact that both cities are vulnerable and need to improve their resilience to floods and other potential hazards.