Learning From the Superstorm
Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, writes in the International Herald Tribune on resilience lessons we all can learn from Superstorm Sandy.
As my home city of New York recovers from Superstorm Sandy, city leaders across the world are asking how their city would respond to a similar event and examining their resilience to extreme weather patterns.
While many lack the resources of New York City and the United States, the good news is that a number of low-cost solutions are available, but governments and the private sector need to start taking action now.
Asia in particular will see events like Sandy grow more frequent — and with even greater extremes and losses — as the confluence of climate change and rapid urbanization generate heightened vulnerabilities, especially for the hundreds of millions of urban poor residents.
In coming years, 60 percent of the world's population increase will be in Asian cities. Of the cities that contain the largest numbers of people exposed to the risks of flooding caused by climate change, 5 of the top 10 are Asian. By 2070, it will be 9 of the top 10 [pdf].
Asian cities — particularly smaller but rapidly growing ones — have significantly fewer resources available to them than those in North America and Europe to prepare for and manage the challenge of major storms. If transplanted to a typical low- or middle-income Asian city, Sandy would almost certainly have resulted in far greater damage to property, loss of lives and overall disruption of basic infrastructure and services.
Encouragingly, however, what stands out from New York City's preparedness are not the expensive investments in hard infrastructure like sea walls, but rather a collection of softer measures focused on effective institutional coordination, rapid and accurate information sharing and timely decision making.
The closing down of bridges and tunnels before they were flooded was done efficiently and unambiguously, thanks to considerable front-end coordination, contingency exercises and preparedness measures developed across multiple layers of government and over years of careful planning.
New York City also embraced the concept of "failing safely." Before the storm hit, it was accepted that power outages would occur and that public transportation would face massive disruptions. The subway system was closed early and parts of the electric grid were shut off before the storm hit, to allow them to be reopened more quickly.
Many of the actions that made a critical difference were not prohibitively expensive. This is essential when considering transferability to low and middle income Asian contexts, where plenty can be done now with constrained resources. The good news is that positive examples are emerging from Asia.
In Surat, India, a rapidly growing city of over four million situated along a river and not far from the sea, annual flooding is a reality during the monsoon season, when the triple functions of flood management, power generation and irrigation come into conflict.
In 2006, one such conflict led to catastrophic floods that cost the city billions in losses. This year, however, as a result of strong coordination across municipal, state and federal agencies, good hydro-meteorological forecasting and effective communication, Surat averted another bout of flooding, which would have ground industry to a halt and devastated people living in the low-lying flood plains.
Another small but growing city, Quy Nhon in Vietnam, has endured floods and typhoons. Quy Nhon recently initiated an effort to protect and expand a mangrove forest in an urban lagoon adjacent to land that is in the flood plains, but is also targeted for urban growth. Not only do the mangroves serve as a physical barrier to absorb storm surges, but the replanting helps build the case for more resilient overall land-use and urban development that protects urban flood plains.
Both Surat and Quy Nhon are part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, an alliance of 10 cities in Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Thailand. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this alliance was built to help cities understand, plan for, recover from and even thrive in the changing environmental conditions brought on by global warming. The learning is now being shared with 40 other cities.
As debris is cleared from New York's subway tunnels, millions regain power and the billions of dollars in damages are quantified, let us ensure that the lessons of Sandy's pounding are recalled across the developing world, where rapidly growing cities are even more vulnerable and where the need for action is urgent.
This op-ed first appeared in the International Herald Tribune on November 3, 2012.