The world’s population is mainly located in or around urban, built-up areas. A trend that has resulted in dense cities with a lot of impermeable surfaces and a loss of natural land and ecosystems. It is a trend that also places billions of people around the world at risk. Our current climate poses serious challenges to our urban way of living. Stormwater floods, cloudbursts, droughts, heat waves, and the like occur more frequently around the world.
Combine the current climate risk with rapid urban population growth, particularly in the Global South, and climate change trends and our urban way of life could be gravely challenged. Even if we stay on the 1.5-degree track, we are likely to see costs from flooding surpass the $10 trillion mark according to a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation. Moreover, millions of people are at risk in our urban communities. In the following piece, I will look more closely at cloudburst adaptation in cities, the structural obstacles to adaptation, and the benefits of nature-based solutions. The lessons learned can, however, easily be transferred to other adaptation and resilience aspects of urban development.
Obstacles – water doesn’t care about regulations
One of the great obstacles for cities when tackling cloudburst adaptation, is the fact that the costs are uncertain. They may be lower than we expect, but they may very well be a lot higher too.. Cloudburst adaptation often becomes an exercise of economic prioritisation, a very expensive insurance policy that might not pay out.
Another challenge is the fact that our cities and nations are governed in a silo approach. Often, the task of cloudburst adaptation falls on e.g. the utility company that handles stormwater runoff. However, the solutions for cloudburst adaptation are not limited to the functions of the utility company.
Water, as opposed to most people, does not respect regulatory and institutional boundaries. Rather, it flows and gathers based on the design of the urban landscape and topography.
Ideally, the responsibility of dealing with adaptation is not placed in one city agency, but becomes a policy and design guideline for all agencies to follow; e.g. the parks will adopt an approach to increase blue-green infrastructure, the schools will handle water in school yards (where feasible) and the roads will be designed as conveyors of water as cloudburst boulevards, etc.
If cloudburst adaptation is an insurance policy – how do we get it to pay out?
Looking closer at nature-based solutions and the impacts of urban nature, the benefits are clear and well documented including an increase in the number of visitors and time spent in these areas. This results in physical and mental health benefits, it impacts the local community with increased sales and revenue in the food and beverage sector (as well as local shops). Nature-based solutions impact the bio diversity and often increase it dramatically, reducing air and noise pollution and much more – talk about a pay-out!
Financing = obstacle
However, financing is still an obstacle. Although the ideal scenario is the adoption of citywide policy and guidelines for cloudburst adaptation, this is rarely the case. More often we come across situations where co-financing solutions across city budgets are near to impossible. People do tend to care about regulations.
If people care about regulations and water doesn’t, is all lost?
The examples that we have of co-financing nature-based solutions, show us that all is definitely not lost! In Singapore, a 50 ha. park and a 3.2 km long concrete canal were situated next to each other, but not connected. After a remodelling (cheaper than a refurbishment of the concrete canal) the new nature-based solution sported a 60 ha. park complete with a meandering waterway and a resulting 100 % increase in park users.