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Building Resilient Cities in the Face of Water Related Crises

NOLA - Hurricane Katrina helicopter city
Photo credit: NyxoLyno Cangemi

It’s been a decade since Hurricane Katrina caused one of the greatest humanitarian disasters known to American soil. Hurricane Katrina brought heavy rains, monumental surges, and unprecedented floods that upended hundreds of communities and thousands of lives, particularly in New Orleans. All told, more than 225 billion gallons of water had to be pumped out of the city, a process that took more than two months.

In an era of climate instability, water is a growing source of concern.

For New Orleans, the problem was an inundation of water, yet in other parts of the world, such as Brazil, the once commonplace resource is now becoming increasingly scarce.

This year’s World Water Week, a programme consisting of over 160 events and organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in Sweden since 1991, occurs at time when the need for greater action is clear.

Around the world, leaders are understanding that water issues present critical concerns, not in the future, but today. Cities of all sizes are grappling with the need for solutions to solve crises that come from either too much water or too little water—both of which are increasingly severe and frequent as a consequence of global climate change. Water issues are among the greatest challenges facing cities, and we must look to the future—not rely on current assumptions—to build resilience solutions holistically, preparing cities to face what they are not expecting.

Indeed, New Orleans was not expecting Hurricane Katrina, and it is through the rebuilding process that its resilience was revealed—and manifests most clearly in the resilience strategy that the city recently unveiled in conjunction with 100 Resilient Cities and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Resilience refers to the capacity of individuals, communities, organizations, and systems to survive, adapt, and thrive—and in the case of water, this means the capacity to withstand both extreme flooding and intense dry spells. The process of pivoting to a resilience mindset represented significant work on the part of New Orleans citizens and leaders. The Rockefeller Foundation was an early supporter of the city in providing resources that would allow seeds of innovation to take root. The vision for where these investments would lead was certainly not clear at the outset—but the partnership and drive of the city, combined with community collaboration, and support for examining old problems in new ways—would sum to resilience.

This was not a risk-free approach, but over time New Orleans has proven that part of what helps cities get on a path to resilience is a cross-pollination of ideas and expertise. It was through the process, that New Orleans has begun to set an example for how other cities can build their own resilience, and to do so before they are faced with a shock like Katrina.

New Orleans served as the launching pad for other resilience initiatives that have taken root in dozens of cities globally. The Foundation has now supported work in almost 100 cities  (through both our Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network and 100 Resilient Cities—which currently has 67 cities in its own network) and just about everyone has identified water—too much, too little, or both—as a priority concern.

When asked about changing conditions in the region, Bangkok’s deputy mayor, Pruek Pattano, describes, “Severe floods used to occur every 12 years. Then it became every 10 years. Since 2010, there have been flood risks and floods in some areas every year.”

But every disruption does not have to become a disaster.

In the city of Indore in India’s increasingly drought-affected central zone, the ACCCRN initiative has helped to catalyze the revival of traditional urban lakes. By combining the use of low cost solar water treatment technology and engaging local communities in the restoration process, the city is gaining a new capacity to manage water scarcity as well as create a buffer capacity for sudden flood incidents.

India Water Tank
Photo credit: ACCCRN

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the levees have been restored—yet the city’s resilience is being built on so much more and there remains significant work to do in the years ahead. Given the issues the city faces—climate change, wetland loss, land subsidence, crime, and inequality—the only way the citizens and city will continue to thrive is if every strategic decision and all community involvement is seen through the frame of resilience planning and execution so that the city is able to move forward together.

Whether cities are grappling with too much water, or trying to get by with too little, there is a solution at hand. It may not be obvious, or easy, but through deep engagement across city life, and drawing inspiration from those who have trod the same path, all cities can be more resilient to water challenges.

And the time to build that resilience is now.

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