Innovative visions: A look through the WaterWindow

Floods hit upwards of 250 million people each year, causing more economic and human losses than any other kind of natural hazard.

The situation is not getting any better. Of the 15 most costly insured natural and man-made catastrophes since 1974, 12 have occurred since 2000 — and 10 of the 15 have involved flooding.

Given the growing uncertainty in weather patterns due to climate change, the problem will likely get worse if corrective action is not taken.The number of people affected by river flooding alone could triple by 2030, predicts the World Resources Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The term “resilience” — something of a development “buzzword” in the past few years — is used to describe the capacity of communities to withstand and even thrive through cataclysmic events.

“Communities have flood resilience if their development curve is not being derailed by the flood,” said Linda Freiner, manager of the flood resilience program at the Zurich Insurance Group. “Even if a flood happens they’re not falling back into the poverty trap. They can continue to develop.”

To encourage new ideas and actions in flood risk management, Zurich has teamed up with the Global Resilience Partnership, a public-private initiative spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, and Sida, the Swedish development agency. The GRP aims to flip the current aid and development “business as usual” approach on its head, by putting building resilience — rather than traditional response scenarios — front and center.

As part of its investment in a global flood resilience program, which aims to promote innovative solutions to problems facing flood-prone communities in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, the GRP’s Water Window challenge — backed by $10 million in funding from the Z Zurich Foundation — is currently assessing applications from teams of social entrepreneurs, community-based organizations, researchers, academic institutions, and international nonprofit and private sector organizations. A selection of projects will be launched and funded over the next 18 months to demonstrate how taking a resilience approach enables different outcomes to this persistent issue.

In a series of exclusive interviews, Devex asked some of the world’s leading experts on resilience and development what kind of innovation is needed to help build resilience to flooding and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Reshaping the development narrative

A focus on resilience means that many development and humanitarian professionals may need to reevaluate some of their basic assumptions, argued GRP’s Executive Director Luca Alinovi.

“It is important to reshape the development narrative,” he said, adding that actors need to be “more articulated, forward looking and better able to deal with unpredictability.”

Nearly 90 percent of flood-related aid spending goes to emergency response, reconstruction and rehabilitation. But there’s a growing consensus that merely helping stretched communities return to where they were before disaster struck is insufficient — and sometimes not even possible.

This “rubber band” approach is “not interesting” in the climate change era, according to John Matthews, secretariat coordinator at the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation.

If crops and livestock are destroyed, for instance, small farmers have no way to earn a living, noted Freiner.

“Disasters can wipe out all development gains,” said James Dalton, coordinator of global initiatives for the water program at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an environmental group based in Switzerland.

“After-event fire brigading” needs to be replaced with “the idea of transformation,” said Carl Folke, science director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “How can we use our innovative capital?”

GRP’s Alinovi wants to take it a step further, advocating risk management solutions that “transform vulnerability and risk into opportunities” — for example, by taking advantage of flooding to improve agricultural yields.

The Paris climate change agreement, the SDGs, and the U.N. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, all inked last year, are helping to create a new landscape.

“Resilience is one of the big topics,” said Alinovi. “There are multiple risks and we need multiple solutions.”

Innovation — the ‘missing link’ in resilience

The Water Window Challenge emerged in part from Zurich’s work with communities, research institutions and policymakers, explained Freiner.

“One of the things that we saw that was missing in the flood space was innovation,” she said, adding that it often seemed “very hard for humanitarian organizations to think in new terms about the solutions that these communities need.”

In addition to technological fixes, the experts consulted by Devex stressed the human side of the equation.

“Technology is a reflection of the mindset,” said Folke, adding that if people “collaborate with the planet,” the technology that is developed will reflect that thinking.

There was consensus too that flooding and water management can no longer be viewed in isolation, with long-term sustainability and resilience involving three main elements: ecosystems, infrastructure, and institutions.

“We have to bring in the living planet,” said Folke. “We should not view the environment as a sector, but as a condition.”

No longer can the natural environment be seen in competition to development progress; issues of justice, inequality and poverty need to be addressed in ways that are in harmony with the environment, Folke said.

Alinovi agreed: “We need to stop with the idea that nature and the environment are in opposition to infrastructure for people.”

More effective partnerships

Most experts also stressed the need for better partnerships to scale-up the best initiatives that are already out there. To do so, better communication and coordination is needed between and among different levels of government, humanitarian and development organizations, the private sector and communities themselves.

The biggest challenge is to bring projects to scale, argued Freiner.

“We have these great best practices and we wish for someone else to pick them up,” she said. “Scale means a long-term commitment, a lot of resources, and a lot of persistence.”

AGWA’s Matthews also criticized what he called “a boutique approach” among development organizations, adding that “if they want to get to scale, institutions need to change the way they make decisions.”

That include changes in how they go about working in partnership with other organizations.

“Each of us may have to sacrifice some territory,” said Alinovi. “Actors need to depend more on one another, and then be accountable.”

Resilience building, said Alinovi, requires a “multipartner approach,” but warned that “competing agendas” can often get in the way. “Working together may sound simple, but it is difficult,” he added.

Working together means involving private companies as full partners, said Alinovi, “not just as philanthropic contributors, but by having their people help design new systems and tools.” Zurich’s Freiner agreed: “We want to contribute money, but we also want to contribute the skills and expertise that we have in our organizations.”

For example, in its community programs in Mexico, Peru, Nepal, Indonesia and Bangladesh, Zurich applies the same risk analysis concepts and procedures it uses with private clients. The company developed a special flood resilience measurement tool to assess community assets and how they might be exposed to flood risks.

From a previous GRP program, Alinovi cited efforts to harvest water on tarmac roads in the Horn of Africa. Innovative designs and improved guidelines for road construction are being used to collect water, prevent soil erosion and improve the use of roadside land. Spearheaded by Dutch consultancy group MetaMeta Research, the scheme is being implemented in partnership with government authorities, water and climate experts, and roadside communities.

Freiner further provided an example of a Zurich-backed project in Indonesia that aims to combat flooding in Jakarta by reducing the amount of waste that is dumped into rivers upstream. It involves both education efforts upstream, and waste collection and recycling downstream.

“Flood resilience is not only about building dams and drains,” noted Freiner. “It can be smaller solutions at the community level,” she said, adding that communities must be empowered with support from local governments for this to happen.

“We may have to start to recognize that communities where there are lots of extreme events are better at addressing them than we may think,” said Alinovi. “Maybe we should start to listen to them.”