Flooding – do we learn by experience?

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While it has been a long time since we experienced the tragedy that the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy has faced in recent weeks, local flash floods are a common occurrence in our country. These usually low-media events cause significant losses. Do we have enough knowledge about it? Are we learning from these incidents? What measures are we implementing to avoid flood losses? I tried to find the answer in a conversation with Roman Necessary – a long-time expert on the subject. Flood mitigation[1].

Agnieszka Hobot: Today I would like to talk about the social aspect of the flood phenomenon. Perceptions of it vary widely from country to country. What do you think the floods have taught Poles? Are we one step ahead, or is this still an ad hoc activity? When something happens, all the services are put on alert, and then comes a time of calm, in which we have other, more important topics? Or are we trying to predict the future after all?

Roman Konieczny: With this experiential learning is very different. It looks different at the level of state institutions, different at the level of local governments, what we observe differently in ordinary people exposed to floods.

Let’s start with institutions. I dream that something like what was done in the UK after the 2007 tragedy will be carried out after some major flooding in Poland. It was a major flood, inundating more than 50,000 residential buildings. Immediately after the water subsided, a parliamentary committee was set up, not to find fault, but to try to diagnose what of the flood mitigation system worked well and what went wrong. A fascinating document was produced, still available on the Internet under the name Pitt Report, after the head of the team, Sir Michael Pitt. Members of the committee conducted hundreds of interviews, met not only with representatives of institutions, but also with the affected, studied thousands of documents and reports, and after a year, presented their thoughts and proposed recommendations. They were presented in parliament and individual public institutions were required to implement them. And then, for years to come, this parliament monitored the effects of implementing the proposal.

AH: What did this report identify as needing improvement – what did these recommendations address? That’s it in a nutshell.

The main points of the recommendations were not, as we might expect in Poland, about reservoirs, the lack of river regulation or the need to upgrade dikes. The first point was to improve the flood warning system. Most people were not informed of the impending threat – so they did not take appropriate action. The proposed changes were not just about techniques for notifying people, but also about improving the flow of information between institutions. For example, between the so-called. Met Office, which is the office that forecasts events (sort of like the UK’s IMGW) and the Environmental Agency, which sends out warnings.

The second group of findings and recommendations concerned the failure to use land-use planning for flood mitigation. The idea is not to ban construction in vulnerable areas. The point is to limit the location of facilities considered critical infrastructure for local communities (e.g., water treatment plants, power hubs, etc.) in hazardous areas. The idea was also to prevent continuous sealing of the absorptive surface, which causes rapid water runoff and promotes greater climaxes in rivers. You can’t, in English reality, forbid a landowner from building on the land, but you can hint at how to build to reduce losses in the event of flooding. How to situate the house, what building materials to use, etc. That is, it’s a matter of either standards or building recommendations for areas with different degrees of risk. The experience of many countries, including the US, shows how significantly such guidance has an impact on reducing losses.

The third recommendation was to create awareness among people, who need to know what will effectively protect their building, what methods they can implement preventively, and what methods to use just before a flood. They also need to know who will warn them, what they should do then, etc. In our country, but it turned out that in the UK as well, it was assumed that people knew this. And this is not the case. Hence the Pitt report’s such a strong emphasis on education, information and various forms of communication.

We’ll now transfer this to our soil. You ask whether we learn by observing and analyzing experiences. Let me say quite brutally, public institutions hardly ever learn from the examples and experiences of the floods. None of the reflections from the Pitt report are found in the action strategies of our institutions. Although the diagnosis of all three groups of recommendations fits like a glove to our conditions. Poland still has a 19th century system of thinking that is based on what I call flood paternalism. That is, the state is saying to citizens: we will protect you, just stay out of it, and everything will be fine. The problem is that it is not.

AH: In your opinion, are there any problems specific to Poland that hinder or impede the smooth operation of the system?

The things to pay attention to are really quite a lot. So I’ll just talk about a few. First of all, our documents show that flooding is water that occurs from the river because there is too much of it. This is too general a definition. About eight or nine years ago, I did a study with colleagues from the Jagiellonian University on municipal perceptions of flooding. We asked which floods most often occur in their area and which are the most devastating.

Well, the cases described as flooding from the river were in fourth place in southern Poland, and in third place nationwide. Fast floods, also from the river, but with an extremely dynamic course, came in the lead. They are the ones that kill the most people. After that, floods caused by rains were mentioned: runoff of water and mud on the surface of the land or the accumulation of water in areas without drainage. Such phenomena are not considered at all in flood risk management plans. And floods are different. A case in point is an incident that occurred near Bogatynia in 2010: a Zgorzelec governor sat with his driver all night in a tree because their car was swept away by water. But the flooding was not the result of a standard river spillway, but of a dam failure on the Witka River. This is a disaster of a facility – a separate kind of flood, for which you also need to know how to prepare. Another example: in 2002, in the Low Beskid, a small creek in the Vilshnia River killed five people in two cars. It was a flash flood – the water level, we estimate, rose several meters in an hour. It was very characteristic that the affected people were not residents of the area – one could say that they did not know how to behave in such a situation. In this case, as in the previous one, people’s awareness, various forms of information (if only on the roads) and a warning system are key.

Another category is urban flooding, which affects us greatly. Analysis of data from the State Fire Service shows that in Warsaw, for example, there were more than 2,000 incidents caused by flooding or waterlogging of a facility by rain over several years. Every city dweller knows this, because there are problems with it in practically every city. And the solution is to catch the rain wherever it falls. In order to use it in the future, if only for watering, or to delay the runoff, which will relieve the burden on sewers, which often can’t cope with draining water.

Another important mistake we make – this again is related to experience – is that we do not collect information about floods and the losses they cause. This “lack of memory,” the lack of information resources, means that the administration, but also local governments, do not learn from experience. By 2015. The Central Bureau of Statistics used to collect data on flood damage to public property, then that stopped and today we know nothing about the damage. We don’t know how much the public sphere, the manufacturing sector or ordinary people are losing. One gets the impression that no one cares, although the consequences are grotesque. On the very important flood risk maps – the so-called. legal documents – the loss data comes from the German system – converted only to Polish conditions by the differences in GDP in the two countries.

And there are countless examples of important things being forgotten. An example is the 2017 flood in Elblag, when several hundred firefighters defended a hospital with an energy hub and dialysis station in the basement from water. The water threatened patients’ lives. And on the Internet you can find a photo of the same place from a flood almost 100 years ago. And it didn’t occur to anyone that a dialysis station in such a place was not a good idea. So you can see that we don’t gather this information and, as a result, we don’t use the handicap that experience gives us.

AH: So shouldn’t flood knowledge, which can be useful in particular areas of our lives, be widespread? Given the example of the hospital you recounted, shouldn’t the designer, the official issuing the decision, perhaps the preservationist, have more knowledge on the subject? As a society, aren’t we just learning through experience?

RK: Psychologists warn not to expect people to prepare for something that happens on average once every few decades. A person does not invest in situations that are very rare. In a reasonably functioning system, reminding people of the flood risk, stimulating action by various actors is the role of state institutions. But if the events occur frequently, such as every few or several years, the situation is quite different.

I remember when I started working with people living in flood-prone areas. My colleagues and I told them how to prepare: how to secure the house, how to block the basement windows so that water would not pour in, how to arrange the first floor to minimize losses. All this is based on American, Australian or Canadian experience and materials. It seemed to us that there are no such examples in Poland. Until we started going off-road.

The first sign was the cooperation with residents from the Biała Tarnowska River, who protested the planned construction of flood barriers. They were on a trip to Germany, where they saw other solutions based on natural retention. We talked to people a lot back then. I remember visiting two brothers who ran an auto repair shop located near a small river – a tributary of the Biala River. It flooded them completely in 2010. The water took away a piece of their land, destroyed their fences, and flooded their workshop and house. The losses were enormous. We asked if they are preparing somehow for the next flood. And here is the surprise, because it turned out that they came up with a whole security system. First, they strengthened the bank of the creek, because the drainage board refused to do such work for them. Then they built a drainage system for the area, made closures for the entrances to the workshop and house (put in place just before the flood), and developed a plan for evacuating cars. And they completely redid the fence, which in 2010. They were destroyed by water, breaking even the metal posts. Now they can disassemble them in 10 to 15 minutes. Their neighbors, other residents of the valley, are similarly preparing for the flood. Some of them have put tremendous effort into building dikes. Since no one is interested in them and no one advises them, they learn from their mistakes – they improve their defenses after each successive flood.

There are plenty of such examples of actions taken by people at risk. We conducted a study with staff from the Kozminski University in Warsaw, which showed that people respond mainly to what often affects them. Then they learn effectively. But this mechanism does not work against state institutions.

AH: What do we need most right now in terms of flood protection, where do you think there are gaps? Given that we have developed flood risk and hazard maps, and updates to flood risk management plans have gone into effect.

RK: You are asking me about a very complicated thing that requires a complex discussion, because flooding is not a hydrological problem, but a problem that interferes with many elements of our lives. Dealing with the effects of flooding requires interdisciplinarity – the cooperation of specialists in many fields, the ability to coordinate their work, and, above all, the willingness to listen to different positions, which we clearly fail to do. This should lead to the development of a flood risk reduction policy in Poland, which would serve as a benchmark for all other flood risk reduction activities.

A key element of this policy should be to seek a paradigm shift based on which activities are planned. What does it mean? I mentioned the philosophy of flood protection in Poland, which is based on the assumption that flood protection is the role of the state. This is not the case – there are many entities that have competence in this area. After all, local governments are in charge of land use planning, so they can do a lot in terms of not closing down biologically active areas or restricting the location of certain structures in floodplains. Also, no one better than the owner of a business or residential house can secure a building or organize work in it so that during a flood the losses are as small as possible.

But in order for anything to be created – even the aforementioned policy – we need data, facts from the past to learn from experience, which is what we are talking about. This is information about the floods, where they occurred, the damage they caused and the entities affected. Without them, it is impossible to take a step forward.

Analytical capacity is also needed – whether by equipping public institutions with the right teams or, perhaps more sensibly, strengthening cooperation with the scientific sector. Because the goals of the said policy can be derived from this. Example? The unwritten assumption of all flood plans in Poland is to protect against a 1% flood, the kind that happens on average once every hundred years. But the risk maps show that the expected value of losses for floods that on average occur once every ten years is higher. To put it in human terms, the damage caused by ten-year floods over a hundred years is three to four times greater than the damage caused by rare, 100-year floods. There’s nothing surprising about this – it’s confirmed by data from global reinsurance agencies, such as the MunichRe. So it might be worth discussing whether to focus attention on smaller and more frequent floods than in current strategies. This is, of course, a topic for discussion, but it shows that analytical potential must be considered crucial.

Well, and the experience of entities other than government institutions cannot be overlooked. That is, residents, businesses and local governments. While these examples are not numerous, they are the crucible in which experience for the future is being smelted, from which we should benefit. To avoid taking up time, one example: a dozen years ago, the Mazovian governor decided to prepare a flood safety plan for his province. To my surprise, he didn’t get down to it the God’s way, i.e. traditionally, but in a very innovative, by Polish standards, way. Guidelines have emerged on how to build in floodplains and how to protect finished buildings.

The urban planning guidelines suggested how to shape the area at risk, what the roads or parking lots should look like. There was talk of warning and awareness among people, which turned into two major educational campaigns in two provinces. However, our water service, citing the European Union, said that it was not the governor who was to create the plans, but the National Water Management Authority, and the initiative was suspended. It’s as if one gets in the way of the other, and national plans can’t take into account what’s happening at the provincial level. But nothing of this unique experience of the Mazowieckie province has made its way into the risk management plans in place in Poland today. Wasted experience and the work of hundreds of people.

AH: Have you encountered other solutions, quite different from the national ones, for flood protection? What works successfully?

RK: At one time I was very impressed by the warning system in England, which was then handled by the newly established Environmental Agency. Because he combined what an institution with forecasts, models and modern technologies can do with the values that living people can give. The Environmental Agency warns citizens by phone – a far better solution than text messages. Second, it does it automatically – alerting several thousand people per hour. Third – it guarantees something that is quite rare – it gives credibility to the system through contact with living people. Because the activities are based not only on telephone messages, but also on the so-called “telephone messages. flood guards – volunteers from the local community. They get the information first, it is more detailed data, and their job is to notify neighbors of the threat. Psychologists point out that anyone who gets such unusual information as a warning that could result in an evacuation, for example, tries to confirm it with another source. Flood watchdogs – in addition to their other tasks – lend credibility to the automated system. A cool solution based on a lot of knowledge and building local support.

AH: And is there anything that has surprised you positively in Poland? In addition to the actions of the residents, as you talked about earlier.

RK: Of course! A positive surprise concerns the local government and the warning system. In Poland, local warning systems, built by municipalities or counties, have been developing since the 1997 floods. The scale of this endeavor is not insignificant, as the number of automatic sensors for measuring river water levels and precipitation is now comparable to what the IMGW has at its disposal. One of the most interesting systems is being developed by the Tarnow district administration.

The system works for residents of the Biala Tarnowska catchment area and surrounding areas. It is based on readings from more than a dozen sensors measuring water levels and precipitation in this catchment. The district administration has invested in models that can forecast water levels in the Biala River and several tributaries based on rainfall. But in addition, a small weather radar has been purchased, as much of the local danger is precipitation flooding. Data from these devices drive models that run around the clock to forecast river water levels or local precipitation anywhere in the catchment area. The system is designed so that each village can be warned forty-eight hours before a river flood and one hour before a rainfall flood. The warning has three degrees, depending on how much water is forecast to cover a local road or how many flooded homes are expected. Let’s be clear – the system by design is better thought out than a national warning system administered by state institutions. The procedures are in the early stages of development, but I hope that the originators and the local community will benefit themselves.

[1]Roman Necessary – a specialist in the field of the company. Reducing the effects of flooding with the use of so-called “floods”. non-technical methods, design of local warning systems, construction of local flood mitigation plans, and public communication. He has authored, co-authored and initiated many works in these areas, including a handbook for emergency services and teaching materials for teachers awarded by the Minister of the Environment. He worked at IMGW-PIB, where for many years he led the IMGW-PIB team. Cooperation with local governments. For 10 years he was editor-in-chief of the quarterly magazine “Ecological Guide for Local Governments.” He is a graduate of the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the Cracow University of Technology. He has completed several courses organized by NATO on flood mitigation. He is a member of the Save the Rivers Coalition.

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