Monday, February 19, 2024

What's Unjust About Floods?


Torrential rains had turned the normally placid Connecticut River into a turbid brownish-yellow lake.  The sun was out and the water was calm now, but the edge of the water where we stood watching our friend Dori was about thirty yards uphill from her house, which was a former fishing cabin on the bank of the river.  It was all she could afford, and when she bought it she knew the place was in a flood plain.  The house itself was on pilings and undamaged, but she had left her cats behind in her haste, and now Dori was wading out to rescue them.  When she got back to shore with the felines, we asked her how the rescue went.  She said it was okay except when she got her hands in the water, she could feel that the electricity was still turned on. 


A new discipline called "flood justice" seeks to redress wrongs done to people like Dori who live in areas where flooding is more likely than in more wealthy regions.  Last April, the first Flood Justice Symposium was held at the University of Arizona.  Geophysicists, ethicists, urban and regional planning experts, and other interested parties discussed how floods often disrupt the lives of the poor much more than the higher socioeconomic classes, and what can be done to alleviate this injustice.


I must admit that my first reaction to the phrase "flood injustice" was "Huh?  How can floods be unjust or just?"  The juxtaposition of a rain-related word and "injustice" brought to mind the phrase from the Book of Matthew, where Jesus says, "he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."  (5:45)  But the context of this statement is that Jesus is calling on his listeners not simply to love their neighbors and hate their enemies, but to treat everyone fairly, just as God does in providing his natural blessings of sun and rain for everyone.


The problem addressed by the concept of flood justice is an ancient one.  Some areas of land are more likely to flood than others.  In a free-market economy, the more flood-prone areas will be cheaper than average, and people without much money can't afford anything better.  In some countries, flood plains are occupied by so-called "informal housing" which is a polite name for squatters who cobble together hovels with discarded lumber and cardboard.  Such places become instant scenes of misery and death in a flood, as you might expect.


In an online article on the website of the American Geophysical Union, organizers of the symposium described a long-established policy method that tends to perpetuate flood injustice:  the cost-benefit analysis, or CBA for short.  Engineers are familiar with the CBA, which is based on the simple idea that when you face an array of choices that can each provide some benefits, it is only good sense to figure out what each choice will cost and pick the cheapest way to get what you want.  In the context of planning flood-prevention civil-engineering improvements—dikes, spillways, drainage systems, etc.—this means that the most valuable properties will play an outsize role compared to flood-prone areas where land and improvements are cheaper.  A CBA-guided improvement plan will naturally spend a fixed amount of money to protect the most expensive property in the region, because otherwise you would lose more value if the rich folks got flooded out compared to what the poor folks would lose. 


Put that way, it does sound injust, but CBA thinking is deeply ingrained in engineer-dominated organizations.  One way to widen the scope of planning is to include more community input from the poorer sections of a region, and to consider factors that are not as easily quantified as property values.  The symposium organizers say that "recognizing the wider socioeconomic, cultural, ecological, psychological, and health effects of flooding is not enough.  We must also integrate these considerations intentionally and responsibly into tools, metrics, and measures that inform flood risk management policy."


Another need that flood justice requires is better data.  Many maps of the so-called 100-year flood boundaries have coarse resolution, are based on outdated data, and are deficient in other ways.  Even if accurate data is available, real-estate developers have been known to conceal the fact from customers that a given property is in a flood-prone area, and not all U. S. states require that such information be provided to the buyer. 


Governments can be the problem more than the solution in alleviating injustice with regard to floods.  Floods don't respect boundaries, but local jurisdictions, especially in highly populated areas, tend to be a hodge-podge of finely divided authorities who are reluctant to share information with each other, let alone cooperate on a regional planning effort that would require working with rival jurisdictions.  This is a government-policy matter, not engineering, strictly speaking.  But engineering has to take place in the real world.  Working out political differences and encouraging cooperation among different jurisdictions is part of the job, or at least it should be.   


I will admit that I was skeptical when I saw the headline "Five Key Needs for Addressing Flood Injustice."  But in fact, engineers as well as geophysical scientists have a lot to contribute to making flood damage and casualties rarer in the future, for the less fortunate as well as for the middle and upper classes.  As more people crowd into urban areas, the way those areas are engineered will have a lot to do with the fate of the poorer classes, and whether they will lose everything in the next flood, possibly including their lives.  Our friend Dori was philosophical about her losses, because she knew flooding was a possibility.  But as soon as she reasonably could, she moved out of that fishing cabin into a house that was well away from the nearest flood plain. 


Not everybody can afford to do that, though, and everyone who is involved in flood prediction, abatement, and management should consider more factors than simply the market value of land and improvements when making their next set of plans. 


Sources:  The article excerpted above appeared on the website EOS, operated by the American Geophysical Union, at 

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