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Before the Deluge

Press Release
June 11, 2007


  • Patrick McCully, Executive Director, IRN, Berkeley, California: +1 510 213 1441 (mobile), +1 510 848 1155 (office), patrick@irn.org
  • Tim Kingston, Communications Manager, IRN, Berkeley, California: +1 510 290 7170 (mobile), +1 510 848 1155 (office), tim@irn.org

Before the Deluge: Dams and Levees Heighten Flood Danger in a Warming World, says New Report

When New Orleans was devastated by flooding in 2005, the primary culprit was not Hurricane Katrina, but the failure of the Crescent City’s poorly conceived and maintained levee system. The threat faced by New Orleans is not unique—global warming, land-use changes and population growth mean that by 2050 the number of people at risk of damaging floods will double to 2 billion. Yet many policy setters worldwide still think that levees (embankments) and dams offer reliable protection from floods.

A new report by International Rivers Network, "Before the Deluge: Coping with Floods in a Changing Climate"—released as the Atlantic hurricane season gets underway—argues that in a world of rapid climate change and weather uncertainty, betting on outmoded, failure-prone structural flood control is a recipe for disaster.

"The conventional ‘hard path’ of flood control based upon dams and embankments has failed to stop a rapid rise in the number and severity of floods.  Its limitations will become ever more obvious as global warming-induced super-storms test dams and levees beyond their intended limits," asserts Patrick McCully, Executive Director of International Rivers Network. "Dams and levees can never be fail-proof. and when they fail, they do so spectacularly and sometimes catastrophically. They also provide a false sense of security that encourages unwise development of vulnerable floodplains. We need to learn to live with floods while reducing the damage they cause."

Author Jacques Leslie describes dams as "loaded weapons aimed down rivers" in the report. It is a surprisingly accurate description. When engineers at India’s Ukai Dam released monsoon waters last year to stop the dam breaching, 120 people were killed, and many millions of dollars in damage caused. The report details more than a dozen dam-created floods that have killed at least 234,000 people in recent decades.

There is another way to approach the problem without courting disaster. Instead of trying to stop floods entirely—in a manner reminiscent of U.S. efforts to eradicate forest fires—the IRN report advocates a realistic set of practices that will help reduce flood damages. The aim is to find ways to reduce the size, speed and duration of floods, improve warning and evacuation preparedness, reduce the amount of development in the floodplain, and encourage better protection of valuable assets already in floodplains that cannot be moved.

Such practices are already in use in many parts of the world. In Northern California, a 10-year, $220-million project to reduce floods on the Napa River will restore tidal marshlands, remove some buildings in the flood zone and set back levees to give the river room to spread. A broad coalition developed the initiative and it was even embraced by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Communities along France’s longest river, the Loire, persuaded the government to scrap plans to build a "flood control" dam in favor of river restoration and a new flood warning system. In China. efforts are underway to restore portions of the Yangtze wetlands to act as flood absorption areas.

The task at hand is to make sure that developers, politicians and proponents of dams and levees understand that such short-term solutions have catastrophic consequences and prohibitive long terms costs. As Patrick McCully says, "Officials must accept the ‘soft path’ of flood management as a core part of efforts to adapt to a changing climate. Such a path will not only reduce flood damages but also bring numerous other ecological, economic and social benefits."

Additional Information

For further information, please contact:

    Patrick McCully, International Rivers Network
    E–mail: patrick@irn.org
    Phone: +1 510–848–1155