Human Dimensions of Water Security



While climate change presents formidable challenges to global water systems, water problems are primarily the result of the failure of societal institutions to manage the resource and meet the needs of current residents, the economy and environment, and future generations. Single-minded focus on climate change and hydrological response dominates water science at the expense of research that investigates how to safeguard water systems in the face of inevitable environmental and societal change. The latter emphasizes the role of markets, urban planning, insurance, policy, technology, governance, cultural attitudes and values, institutions, legal frameworks, and decision-making strategies in mitigating water stress. This chapter focuses on the issue of vulnerability in the water sector: what it means, why it exists, and how to remedy it.

2.1 Introduction

While climate change presents formidable challenges to global water systems, water problems are primarily the result of the failure of societal institutions to manage the resource and meet the needs of current residents, the economy and environment, and future generations. Single-minded focus on climate change and hydrological response dominates water science at the expense of research that investigates how to safeguard water systems in the face of inevitable environmental and societal change. The latter emphasizes the role of markets, urban planning, supply chains, insurance schemes, policy, technology, governance, cultural attitudes, values, behaviors, institutions, legal frameworks, and decision-making strategies in mitigating water stress. It highlights the need for action to alleviate water problems, irrespective of climate change impacts. This chapter focuses on the issue of vulnerability in the water sector: what it means, why it exists, and how to remedy it.

The field of natural hazard research investigates connections between the administration of society and extreme natural events. In 1945, geographer Gilbert F. White famously declared: “Floods are ‘acts of God,’ but flood losses are largely acts of man,” acknowledging that humans interact with the environment to mitigate or enhance the impacts of extreme hydrological events (White 1945 p. 2). Today’s vulnerabilities in water systems result from interactions among changing climate and hydrological processes, evolving human needs, and the human capacity to adapt to them. Human actions can increase flood hazard (frequency of flood events) as well as flood risk (damage from flood events). Urbanization increases runoff and this needs to be managed, as does agricultural drainage. River flood defenses in the Rhine Basin have disconnected floodplain storage from the river, leading to downstream flood hazard and programs to reconnect the river with its floodplain when possible. The impact of flood events in the river Rhine increases as climate change boosts the magnitude and frequency of flood events and as a growing number of people live in areas with high exposure to flooding (te Linde et al. 2011). Hurricane Harvey in Houston (2017) raises the question about how far we can push nature without having nature push back. Previous efforts to control storm water in Houston led to the channelization of the bayous, wetlands that protected the residential and business areas from mid-level storms. These efforts crippled the city’s ability to manage a big storm like Hurricane Harvey when waters exceeded their banks and flooded residential areas, roads, and businesses. The drainage of wetlands for urban development removed the natural sponges that protected land from large flood events such as Harvey (Hernandez and Fausset 2017). Many modern developments lack sufficient open land and retention basins to absorb water from big storm events. India’s financial capital, Mumbai, also experienced catastrophic storm damage in 2017 (Dhillon 2017). This cluster of these events around the world begs the question of whether flood losses are inevitable acts of god, as often depicted in the media, or the result of poor planning, lack of regulation, overbuilding in low-lying areas, and failure to anticipate the effects of a changing climate.

2.2 Vulnerability Assessments

Terms like “ water stress,” “water security,” “water risks,” and “water scarcity” are fraught with definitional ambiguity and contextual debates. The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals emphasize basic human needs, including access to an improved water source and access to improved sanitation (United Nations 2015). Cook and Bakker (2012) reviewed the emerging academic and policy literature and identified four overlapping water security themes: (1) water quality and quantity, (2) hazards and vulnerability, (3) affordability and access, and (4) sustainable development. Emphasis on water quality and quantity highlights scientific assessments of global shortage and biodiversity loss (Falkenmark et al. 2007; Vörösmarty et al. 2010). The hazards and vulnerability perspective appears in UNESCO-IHE ’s (Institute for Water Education) definition; it emphasizes protecting water systems from floods and droughts and safeguarding water functions and services for humans and the environment (Schultz and Uhlenbrook 2007). Affordability and access underscore the role of inequality and rising global food demands (Rockström et al. 2004; Forouzani and Karami 2011). The sustainable development definition of water security is the most holistic and includes “the availability of and acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risk to people, environments, and economies” (Grey and Sadoff 2007, p. 548).

Policy debates about water security tolerate definitional haziness in part to allow discussion to unfold. In a pair of influential books, political scientists Deborah Stone (2002) and Frank Fisher (2003) argued that the policy process is in fact a political contest about core human values and the meaning of basic goals, including equity, efficiency, liberty, and security. Stone claimed that these goals are continuously reconstructed and contested; their varied interpretation is the object of political struggle. Ambiguous definitions provide a space that allows conflicting actors to find ways to live with their differences. It is possible for people to benefit from the same policy for altogether different reasons. Fuzzy terms such as “water security,” “water stress,” and “ sustainable development” provide opportunities for people with diverse values, motivations, and expectations to reach consensus and move forward on collective action. Some cringe at the lack of definitional clarity, but it is sometimes part of the process of bringing people together and finding a path to reduce water system vulnerabilities.

Geoscientist Charles Vörösmarty and colleagues produced two highly influential vulnerability assessments of the state and future of global water resources (Vörösmarty et al. 2000, 2010). In the first, the team estimated that one-third of the world’s population now lives in a state of high water stress (here defined as a situation in which water use or demand constitutes more than 40% of river discharge or supply). Using various scenarios of climate change and assumptions about population and economic growth and the intensification of water use into the future, they concluded that changes in population and economic development over the next 25 years (1995–2025) are far more important than potential changes in the mean climate in affecting the future balance of water demand and supply.

In subsequent research involving both water security and river biodiversity, they found that in 2000 nearly 80% of the world’s population lived in areas with high risk of either human water security threat or biodiversity threat (Vörösmarty et al. 2010). Regions of intensive agriculture and dense settlement show high incident threat, as experienced in the US, Europe, large portions of Central Asia, the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, and eastern China. Very few of the world’s river basins are unaffected by humans and their activities and thus impervious to threats from pollution, catchment disruption, water resource problems, or biotic factors. They note that highly developed countries like the US and western European nations have reduced risk through massive investments in water infrastructure. The story is different, however, in developing countries where the risk of water threats remains high, especially in Africa, Central Asia, China, India, Peru, and Bolivia. Lack of water security is manifest in problems of unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation but also in problems of food shortage, slow economic growth, and energy insecurity. Failure to invest in infrastructure and inability to protect environmental flows threatens both human water security and biodiversity.

Water resource shortages affect people directly via access to drinking water and sanitation services but also indirectly through the industries in which they work. Eight water and natural resource-dependent industries, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, resource-intensive manufacturing, recycling, building, and transport, account for half of the global workforce. More than a billion people work in inland fisheries and aquaculture, agriculture, and forestry. The latter two are most threatened by freshwater disruptions (World Water Development Report 2016, p. 10).

The potential for water crisis emerged as one of the World Economic Forum’s most likely and impactful global risks, along with issues such as interstate conflict, cyber warfare, the spread of infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction, and failure of climate change adaptation. What emerges from its most recent reports is the interconnectedness of local water problems to other looming risks that create far-flung impacts for the economy and society. In July 2011, Thailand experienced a major flood event resulting in $46.5 billion of economic damage (World Bank 2012). Heavy rains in early summer filled reservoirs rendering them unable to cope with the onset of monsoon storms in late July. Above-normal rainfall exacerbated drainage problems throughout the fall, and channels of the Chao Phraya River were unable to cope with high flows. Significant downstream flooding occurred, particularly in the Bangkok area. Bangkok itself developed on floodplains where new industrial parks replaced natural waterways (Haraguchi and Lall 2015). The flood event had significant impacts for Thailand, resulting in an estimated 815 deaths, 2.5 million displaced people, 19,000 destroyed homes, and 17.578 square kilometers of impacted farmland (World Bank 2012; Government of Thailand 2011).

Consequences also occurred outside of Thailand as the water crisis rippled through international supply chains for automobile parts and electronic equipment. Thailand has become a major manufacturing center due to government incentives, tax breaks, and land acquisition deals specifically designed to lure automotive companies and high-tech manufacturers. It produces the parts that go into making cars and electronic equipment, and thus the economic effects of the flooding spread globally. Japanese automobile manufacturers faced shortages in key parts produced in Thailand; Toyota and Honda curtailed production at automobile plants in North America because of the inability to secure Thai parts; and computer companies such as Lenovo and Samsung were unable to obtain the hard disk drives that go into the making of their computers. Global supply chain problems in these sectors persisted into early 2012. The widespread impacts of the Thai flooding for global supply chains raised awareness in the private sector of the potential for localized water problems to cause global economic disruptions. The World Bank estimated that Thai flooding lowered the global gross national product (GNP) growth rate in 2011 from 4.1% to 2.9% (World Bank 2012).

Globalization and the drive for improved efficiencies led businesses to reduce inventory, shorten transportation lines, and rely on a small number of suppliers. In the drive to be more efficient, the supply chains became more brittle, and thus vulnerable to a localized water crisis such as Thai flooding. Haraguchi and Lall (2015) found differences across economic sectors (automotive parts versus hard drive disk production) and individual producers (Toyota versus Honda and Nissan) that point to management strategies, such as alternative procurement mechanisms, multiple suppliers, diverse transportation connections, and collaboration between producers and suppliers, that limited production time lost to flood disruptions. Thai floods were a wake-up call for the private sector that local water vulnerabilities can translate into global disruptions with significant economic impacts.

In October 2016, seven international food companies announced plans to reduce water use and pollution impacts in their supply chains (AgriPulse 2016). They are part of a collaboration organized by the World Wildlife Fund and Ceres, a non-profit corporation in Boston, Massachusetts, aiming to build capacity and leadership in corporations to address sustainability challenges. One-third of the world’s food grows in areas of high water stress or competition, and agriculture is a major cause of pollution worldwide. As part of this new initiative:
  1. 1.

    PepsiCo will work with its agricultural suppliers to improve the water-use efficiency of its direct agricultural supply chain by 15% by 2025 (compared to 2015) in high-water-risk sourcing areas, including India and Mexico.

  2. 2.

    Hain Celestial, an American company specializing in food production and personal care products, will strengthen water and fertilizer management practices of farmers in its supply chains.

  3. 3.

    Hormel Foods will develop a comprehensive water stewardship policy, setting water management expectations that go beyond regulatory compliance for its major suppliers, contract animal growers, and feed suppliers.

  4. 4.

    WhiteWave Foods will develop a road map for agricultural water stewardship over key commodities (dairy, soy, almond, and produce) in areas of high water risk, including California.

  5. 5.

    Diageo, General Mills, and Kellogg will conduct water risk assessments for reducing water risk in agricultural supply chains, set reduction goals, and support producers in addressing these issues.


2.3 Natural Hazards and Vulnerability

Water problems often come to public attention during extreme natural events, such as the Thai floods. Natural hazards, by definition, exceed the human capacity to cope and disrupt the normal functioning of society and economy. Sudden onset hazards appear rapidly and last for a period ranging from hours to weeks. They include floods, earthquakes, tornados, and wildfires. Chronic hazards are slow in onset and are barely noticeable to society; they include drought, sea level rise, and weather events that may or may not be associated with climate change. Chronic hazards are often harder to interpret because they are difficult to separate from long-term, structural changes in society, economy, and environment, such as urbanization, deforestation, and globalization. They affect populations slowly, and become disasters only after they reach a tipping point (Cutter et al. 2009). Water-related hazards include floods, droughts, water quality episodes, and sea level rise.

The early study of hazards focused on their biophysical aspects, return periods, and emergency management. Even today, the focus of press attention is often on the anatomy of a particular storm before and during the flood event when coverage is most intense. In the 1970s and 1980s, political ecologists attempted to de-emphasize the extreme natural event itself and focus on the societal conditions that put people in unsafe places, limit support for them, and undermine their ability to cope. The concept of vulnerability frames this new discussion. Vulnerability is, by definition, the diminished capacity to cope with extreme natural events. Vulnerability assessments include three dimensions: (1) Physical exposure is the degree to which a natural event can harm people and property. This is what natural scientists focus on. (2) Sensitivity involves social characteristics such as poverty status, low income, age, and health status that limit the ability to cope with an extreme event. Recent Hurricane Irma in Florida has drawn attention to reasons that people do not evacuate dangerous areas in the face of an oncoming hurricane. They lack financial assets, are in poor health, care for someone who is in poor health, or lack the social network needed to coordinate a last-minute 400-mile ride. (3) Adaptive capacity includes emergency management, community engagement, strong public institutions, and ability to translate past experiences into social action (Adger et al. 2005; Polsky et al. 2007). Social scientists emphasize sensitivity and adaptive capacity with physical exposure as a backdrop to the larger human drama of engaging extreme natural events.

Context is important in how hazards are experienced and vulnerabilities are reduced (Wisner et al. 2004). People in developing countries, for example, are at significant risk of loss of life and livelihood from tropical cyclones. In more developed countries, there is significant risk of property and infrastructure damage, although 1,833 people died in New Orleans in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina event (Zimmerman 2015). The hazard field relies heavily on case studies and narratives of particular events to form conclusions and develop frameworks for vulnerability assessments.

The Pressure and Release Model represents hazard vulnerability as an evolving set of interrelated environmental and social processes (Wisner et al. 2004). Vulnerability begins with root causes (e.g., power relations, economic systems, political systems). Dynamic pressures such as rapid population growth, increasing urbanization, and neo-liberal reforms (e.g., laissez-faire markets, unrestricted trade, cuts in government spending, privatization) translate these pressures into unsafe conditions. Unsafe conditions include people living in places without safe drinking water or sanitation; people living on hillslopes, in floodplains, and in coastal zones unable to afford insurance or easily evacuate their homes in an emergency; and people living under governments that are unwilling or unable to play viable roles in hazard mitigation and emergency management. Disaster occurs when this chain of root causes, dynamic pressures, and unsafe conditions intersects with extreme natural events. Thus, vulnerability evolves slowly over time through human action and inaction only to transform into disaster by some climatic or geologic event.

Vulnerability often has a social justice dimension. Mexico City, for example, strains to provide reliable water services to its population. Aztecs built the city on a network of lakes. They expanded it over time with landfill and planted crops on floating gardens called chinampas. The Spaniards drained the lakes, and replaced the dykes and canals with streets and squares. Today, the city is a jumble of neighborhoods, and there is no centralized system of water provision and waste disposal. Some 20% of residents lack access to a reliable supply of drinking water and must hire trucks to deliver water at costs much higher than what wealthier residents in better-served neighborhoods pay for their water (Kimmelman 2017). Hurricane Harvey also showed the logistical challenges facing people without cars, family, and the financial means to evacuate in the face of extreme weather events.

Social and environmental scientists have begun to anticipate damage from hazardous events based on analysis of vulnerabilities. Di Baldassarre et al. (2015) used scenarios (stories of possible futures) to compare flood risk in technological societies that emphasize building dams and levees to protect people and property with green societies that resettle people and economic activity out of flood-prone areas. They used the concept of social memory—the ability of humans to process and recall the deleterious effects of flooding—to explain the differing paths of green versus technological societies and simulate how flood damage occurs over time. They found that technological societies can protect themselves from low-impact events, but green societies are less vulnerable to high-impact events. Over the long term, investment in flood infrastructure reduces the perception of risk and lowers social memory, thereby increasing vulnerability to high-impact events. Hazard researchers call this the “levee effect” whereby short-term investment in flood mitigation infrastructure encourages more people to resettle close to the river to gain economic advantage, but in the long term increases the amount of damage associated with large events (Kates et al. 2006; Burton and Cutter 2008; Montz and Tobin 2008).

The following case studies of hazard events in California (drought), Calgary in western Canada (flooding), and the Aral Sea in Central Asia (overuse and environmental collapse) illustrate the powerful hand of human agency in exposing people and property to water hazards. In each case, societal institutions failed to anticipate the limits to growth with significant and unequal impacts on local and regional populations.

2.4 California Drought 2011–2015

Droughts are a common feature of California’s climate. The drought episode between the fall of 2011 and early 2016 was the driest since record keeping began in 1895; 2014 and 2015 were the two hottest years in the state’s history (Hanak et al. 2016). California governor Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. declared statewide drought emergencies in January 2014 and in April 2015 and ordered a 25% reduction (relative to 2013 use) in water use for cities and towns. Urban communities were relatively well prepared, with sharing agreements in place and having made investments in infrastructure. Per capita water use declined sharply in urban areas during the drought, and most cities were able to cope. Growers in rural areas received 50% less irrigation water than usual in 2015 and pumped groundwater to compensate for reduced surface supplies with significant negative consequences for wells in rural communities and the environment. Extinction threatens 18 species; wildlife refuges experienced shortfalls, and wildfires endangered dry, dense forests. Seen from one angle, damage from the recent drought was the result of an unusual set of climatic circumstances. From another angle, it was a disaster waiting to happen as the state grew rapidly, putting ever more pressure on its water resources without adequately adjusting allocation schemes and policies to accommodate growth, rapid urbanization, and increasing vulnerability to drought.

Drought is a recurrent feature of California’s climate (Fig. 2.1). The amount of geographic area that was “abnormally dry” (a condition characteristic of coming into or out of drought) varied after 2000, with a large portion of the state experiencing drought after 2007. The amount of land exposed to extreme or exceptional drought was more limited during the first two episodes but quite substantial between 2014 and 2016. Extreme drought translates into major losses for crops and pastures and widespread water shortages and restrictions. Exceptional drought adds water shortages in reservoirs, streams, and wells, causing water emergencies, and has a Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) below –5. PDSI measures dryness based on temperature and precipitation. Zero is normal; 2 is moderate drought; 3 is severe drought; 4 is extreme drought; and 5 is exceptional drought (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration 2017). The recent drought was particularly harsh and widespread in a state of almost 40 million residents (Fig. 2.2a, b). During most of 2015, more than two-thirds of California’s land area was in extreme to exceptional drought.
Fig. 2.1

Percentage of California’s land area affected by abnormally dry and extreme drought conditions, 2000–2016. United States Drought Monitor/

Fig. 2.2

California drought conditions in (a) August 2015 and (b) August 2017. United States Drought Monitor/

While it is easy and timely to focus on the climatic and geographic aspects of drought and their immediate impacts on society, the economy, and the environment, it is also important to see the recent water crisis in California in a historical context. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century water infrastructure development (dams, reservoirs, and canals) enabled irrigated agriculture in California and western North America. Early nineteenth-century explorer and head of the Geologic Survey John Wesley Powell saw the key role of water in shaping the destiny of the American West and recommended that development of this arid region be limited to the relatively small land areas irrigated by river flows. In a report to Congress published in 1876, Powell urged that development occur in only small areas supported by river irrigation. National leaders in Washington ignored Powell ’s vision of western water and land development, and, in the rush to settle the country, constructed large-scale, federally funded dams, reservoirs, and canals. It was US federal policy to construct water projects on virtually every flowing river in the western states (Reisner 1986). These projects initially supported irrigated agriculture in downstream valleys and later large-scale urbanization of the West. It would be unthinkable to find cities like Los Angeles (13.3 million), Las Vegas (2.1 million), and Phoenix (4.5 million) today in this arid and semi-arid region without the large-scale water infrastructure that was built to support early agricultural development (US Census 2017).

A first-in-time-first-in-right (FITFIR) allocation system has governed water use in California and the rest of western North America since European settlement. It assigns the highest priority to users who first put water to “beneficial” use, beneficial defined in terms of value to humans. This system assured early settlers of water supplies to entice their investment in the risky venture of settling a new country. Today, farmers with more recent or junior rights have lower priority in times of shortage. In 2014, California’s State Water Resources Control Board, which administers water rights and quality standards, curtailed water diversions by many junior water-rights holders for the first time since 1977. These orders extended to senior rights holders in 2015.

Also significant from a policy and regulatory perspective was that cities and farmers are allowed to augment supplies during drought years by pumping groundwater. In a typical year, groundwater supplies account for about one-third of total farm and urban water. After 2014, this share exceeded 50%. Extra pumping exacerbated chronic groundwater overdraft in the highly productive agricultural region of the Central Valley, leading to falling water tables, increasing pumping costs, and drying up of domestic wells (Hanak et al. 2016). The state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 to empower local authorities to develop sustainable groundwater management plans by 2020 and implement them by 2042 (Water Education Foundation 2015), but the impacts of these policies were too late to affect 2011–2016 water resource issues.

Viewed at this longer time scale, California’s recent drought damage is less an unusual climatic phenomenon and more an inevitable outcome of perpetual growth, excessive use, business-as-usual management, and inadequate drought preparation. In his iconic 1986 story of western water development in Cadillac Desert, journalist Marc Reisner noted that early water infrastructure expansion in American West set in motion a pattern of development that reduced the short-term unreliability of western water systems but increased vulnerabilities to water shortage in the long term. This form of development “though amazingly fruitful in the short run, leaves everyone and everything more vulnerable in the end” (Reisner 1986, p. 499).

Past adaptation to California droughts (1976–1977, 1988–1992, and 2007–2009) led to active conservation programs, greater use of water markets, increased groundwater extraction, more intensive irrigation, more infrastructure for conveyance and storage, and more reuse and desalination (AghaKouchak et al. 2015). These efforts wrung redundancies out of the water system in an effort to improve efficiencies, rendering it highly vulnerable to climate shocks and future growth pressure (California’s population grew from 27.1 million in 1986 to 39.1 million in 2015). In the absence of groundwater regulation, excessive extraction during the recent drought lowered the base flows of rivers and streams, disconnected flow networks, and compromised the habitats of some native fish species.

Policy discussion in light of the recent drought in California includes awareness of the need to prepare more effectively for future droughts and manage groundwater sustainably. In a 2016 Executive Order, Governor Brown declared that water conservation efforts put into place during the recent drought would remain permanent and the state will adjust to the “new normal.” “Ongoing drought conditions and our changing climate require California to move beyond temporary emergency drought measures and adopt permanent changes to use water more wisely and to prepare for more frequent and persistent periods of limited water supply” (Executive Department State of California 2016). The policy discussion also includes the very difficult decisions ahead involving human water uses versus water to support fish and wildlife and the value of irrigated agriculture that consumes 80% of California’s water but accounts for only 2% of its economic production (Mount and Hanak 2016). Other significant issues include value added by investing in more diversified supplies, capacity of water markets to facilitate high-value water use, and managing groundwater as a sustainable resource. Protecting wells in poor rural communities from excessive groundwater use and balancing the needs of farmers to trade water from the San Joaquin delta with responsibility to protect endangered species of native fish are also on the policy agenda (Public Policy Institute of California 2017). Tackling these issues moves the water policy agenda from the need for better climate predictions to preparing water management for more severe, persistent, and uncertain water futures.

2.5 Calgary Flood 2013

Flooding is the counterpoint to drought in many semi-arid regions of the world, including in the Canadian city of Calgary at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers in the province of Alberta (Fig. 2.3). Calgary has a long history of major flooding (1883, 1884, 1897, 1902, 1915, 1923, 1929, 1932, 1950, 2005, 2013), especially between late May and early July when snow melt and rainfall runoff are discharged from the nearby foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and feed the rivers that flow through the city’s center. A large storm hit Calgary in June 2013 causing catastrophic flooding (Liu et al. 2016), claiming the lives of four people and the evacuation of 100,000. It was the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history (until the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 and floods in eastern Canada in 2017), resulting in an estimated cost of $6 billion CAD (CBC News 2014). The downtown business center was particularly hard hit, with the storm disrupting the regional transportation system, closing businesses, and interrupting everyday life in this regional capital of 1.4 million people in 2015 (Statistics Canada 2016).
Fig. 2.3

Calgary is located at the confluence of the Elbow and Bow Rivers downstream from the Canadian Rocky Mountains

Climatologists and hydrologists dissected the characteristics of this storm, including atmospheric conditions and flood meteorology, land surface processes associated with the flood, water management, and operational decision-making (Fang and Pomeroy 2016; (Liu et al. 2016; Pomeroy et al. 2016; Whitfield and Pomeroy 2016). While it is clear that the flood resulted from an unusual set of atmospheric circumstances, it was not the largest such event in recorded history. A flood of comparable magnitude occurs about twice a century, and a similar flood occurred previously on the Bow River in the late nineteenth century (City of Calgary 2014).

Downtown Calgary was inundated to depths never before seen in modern history, power supplies to the downtown and some residential neighborhoods stopped, and the normal activities of city life came to a halt. Post-event analysis showed that the city’s flood-hazard maps were woefully inaccurate in providing residents an accurate assessment of their flood risk. It also revealed a 2012 consultant report that had warned the city that it would experience higher water levels and worse damage than was predicted in the 1980s. The report warned of the inundation of several in-town neighborhoods. In other words, damage from this event was not so much an unprecedented physical event but a failure to prepare adequately for a predicable natural event (CBC News 2013).

Calgary grew rapidly after 1980, owing to a natural resource boom in western Canada (Fig. 2.4). As a result, many of its 2013 residents had relatively little social memory of or experience with severe flood conditions, even including a 2005 event that caused damage to around 40,000 homes, resulted in evacuations of 1500 households, and washed away bridges and attached infrastructure. Many residents were newcomers with no real sense of the city’s flood history.
Fig. 2.4

Rapid post-war population growth in Calgary. Statistics Canada (2016)

City leaders reflected on how to organize flood response moving forward and appointed an independent expert panel to undertake a flood mitigation investigation and recommend future action. The report concluded that, although there will always be risk of damage associated with a city that occupies a floodplain, the current level of risk was “unacceptably high,” and it was time to invest in better risk management and reduce flood vulnerabilities (City of Calgary, Calgary’s Flood Resilient Future 2014). The report acknowledged that risk mitigation involves hard choices that might affect some people negatively. “Achieving higher flood protection… could require greater investment in flood barriers, stricter land-use planning, additional requirements and limitations for development in flood risk areas and large capital works, among other actions. Many of these measures are expensive and disruptive and some would also have aesthetic and environmental impacts” (City of Calgary 2014, p. 19). This discussion exemplifies the role of public engagement when deciding what level of risk is acceptable and how to distribute risks and costs across society. These are not engineering problems alone; they are social justice, aesthetic, and public policy questions that can only be resolved through public discussion and collective action.

The city adopted efforts to reduce potential flood damage by updating flood hazard risk maps and ensuring that updated maps are publically accessible, revising land-use planning policies that limit floodplain development, removing buildings from the floodplain, and developing computer models of groundwater movement. The effort also improved forecasting and warning systems, expanded observation networks and flood alerts, improved communications with the public, increased the capacity of an upstream reservoir, and increased investments in a large-scale capital works project that would divert water from the downtown areas.

This case also speaks to deep societal divides that underlie who bears the risks and costs associated with natural hazards. Overland flood insurance has not been available to Canadian homeowners until recently (Toronto Sun 2017). Governments have created financial assistance programs to help Canadian homeowners after flood events, but coverage is helter-skelter, and homeowners lack clarity on coverage. Most developed countries have privately funded flood insurance because risk-based premiums and deductibles encourage homeowners to take action to reduce floods risk. Lacking national markets and schemes for flood insurance, individual Canadians had been expected to assume more responsibility for flooding than is the case in countries with more organized, national-level flood insurance programs (Sandink et al. 2010). Calgary expects individual homeowners to assess floodplain maps and understand their risk of damage from flood events. These maps are available via the city’s Website.

2.6 Aral Sea

Environmental collapse of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is arguably the world’s most preventable natural disaster (Fig. 2.5). The Aral Sea was in 1969 the world’s fourth largest lake in area, comprising 68,000 km2 with an average depth of 16 m (Micklin 1988). It supported bustling fishing villages, and in its heyday produced one-sixth of the former Soviet Union’s fresh fish and employed some 40,000 workers. In a five-year plan to support irrigated agriculture in this desert region, the former Soviet Union diverted water from the Aral Sea’s two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, to grow cotton. In 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton. By 1960, farmers used between 20 and 60 km3 of water each year to irrigate crops, and much of the water evaporated instead of returning to the sea. The Aral Sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral’s level fell at an average of 20 cm (7.9 in) a year. In the 1970s, the average rate of decline nearly tripled to 50–60 cm (20–24 in) per year, and by the 1980s, it continued to drop with a mean of 80–90 cm (31–35 in) each year. By 2000, the lake itself was a sliver of its former size, and even that area is gradually disappearing (Fig. 2.5).

With overuse and diversion, levels of salinity rose dramatically. The dry lake’s bed covered in salt gave rise to problems of blowing salt and dust storms, loss of biological productivity, and a halt in commercial fishing due to toxicity from chemicals and fertilizers. Former fishing villages are now miles from the shore, and most are abandoned. The iconic symbol of Aral Sea desiccation is boats beached on salt flats and harbors now many miles from water. Health consequences are dire, with upticks in tuberculosis resulting from blowing dust and liver, kidney, and eye problems attributed to the dust storms.

Efforts to revive the sea are under way, but the damage has been severe and irreversible. Independent countries, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan signed a deal in 1979 to pledge 1% of their budgets to help the sea recover. In March 2000, UNESCO presented their “Water-related vision for the Aral Sea basin for the year 2025” at the second World Water Forum in The Hague.

2.7 Conclusions

Extreme natural events and increasing human interventions pressured water systems in California, Canada, and Central Asia. The three case studies just described were preventable and predictable. They resulted more from the human failure to anticipate the impacts of ongoing development than from any particular biophysical event. They share patterns of overuse and rapid growth creating vulnerability to natural forces. They illustrate the value of taking precautionary action to reduce vulnerabilities in the face of climatic and other forms of uncertainty. Chapter  3 lays out the special problem of climatic uncertainty for water science and policy.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geographical Sciences and Urban PlanningArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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