UNDP Advisor Proposes Flood Preparedness Strategies Amid Climate Change

ASTANA – Amid warnings of the effects of climate change, flood maps and early warning systems could be introduced to make Kazakh people safer from future flood disasters, said Hubert Lohr, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) international advisor for water resources management in an interview with The Astana Times.

Hubert Lohr, UNDP international advisor for water resources management. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Vital steps such as reconstructing the flood, developing risk maps, boosting emergency responses and communication, and ensuring that infrastructure can cope are important to make sure Kazakhstan can better deal with natural disasters in years to come.

As floods wreaked havoc and damage across Kazakhstan’s six regions this spring, relocating hundreds of thousands of people, it served as a critical warning of the dire need for disaster planning. Now flood prevention strategies in Kazakhstan are at the top priority and will become more targeted. 

“My role here is to give technical advice,” said Lohr. “We analyze together with the Ministry [of Water Resources and Irrgation], with the UNDP, with experts in the country and discuss things: how they went in the past and what needs to be done in the next few years. The ministry has initiated a so-called Action Plan or a Water Concept that is quite comprehensive, I have to say. It’s not only addressing flood, it’s also addressing drought situation and water use efficiency.”

Why have floods occurred?

When it comes to reasons that triggered unprecedented mass floods in Kazakhstan, there is no one simple answer, according to Lohr.

What happened is unusual patterns in terms of snow melt, temperature rise in combination with frozen soil. These patterns caused somehow more runoff than usual,” said Lohr.

“Usually, you have some snow which can infiltrate, you have snow which will melt slowly, and then you have time for evaporation. This time, this was not the case, because it was just an unusual pattern of temperature. You had a snow layer, which was frozen with no chance to infiltrate into the soil. Then, at the same time, a little bit later, the temperature rise was heavily going upwards, and that caused snow to melt within a very short time. And if you have this, you have no chance that snow gets to other directions, like evaporation or infiltration. They all came into runoff. That was an overlap of unfavorable hydrological conditions,” he explained.

The role of climate change

With climate change being the heavy contributing factor, the UNDP expert reveals a hard truth: such conditions, considered rare in the past, might become the new norm.

When you look all around the world – for example, Brazil right now, Greece last year, Libya last year,  2021-Germany – we find a lot of examples of such unprecedented events that were just not what we had in the past. The number of extreme events rises, and this is definitely associated with climate change. Of course, in the past, we always had floods like this, but the frequency will increase,” said Lohr.

The impact of climate change also heightens the uncertainty in planning.  

When you look at hydrology, it is a common practice that we analyze the past, and then we extrapolate to the future. (…) Now we face the following situation: analyzing the past does not give us 100% clear extrapolation for the future anymore due to climate change. That will add a lot of uncertainty in the practice of designing infrastructure,” said Lohr.

This means that dam design standards should be revised taking into account the possibility of more severe and frequent floods. Infrastructure will have to accommodate those higher intensities.

“I cannot say that Kazakhstan is the only country struggling with an update of the infrastructure. I come from Germany. We had in 2021, a flood, which saw 150 fatalities. That was an exception and we never expected to have such kind of an incident in Germany. Now we had it. And now we are reviewing our design principles, the way we look at things in terms of dams, levees, and the same will happen here,” he said.

It is not only about building bigger or stronger dams. Kazakhstan should put together a well-orchestrated mechanism in place that includes advanced early warning systems to cope with natural disasters.

Lessons learnt

The response to such disasters has not always been perfect, but they have taught some valuable lessons.

Among the pre-emptive measures to protect against a possible future crisis, Lohr mentioned floodplain awareness. The reality of being located close to rivers means that people and settlements based in potential floodways have to accept a higher risk threshold. The community is also responsible for reviewing the places they live in and assessing the associated risks, according to Lohr.

The lesson learned, I think, is that it affects more or less everyone. You need to know that you are somehow at risk if you live in a certain place. If you are not aware of this, you will be surprised every time when a hazard strikes and hits an area, and you will not be prepared,” said Lohr.

Tactics such as reconstruction of the flood and introduction of flood maps are a common standard in many places to help identify the risky zones.

Another lesson learned for me is – create flood maps, which show possible inundation and at the same time, prepare risk maps, where you see the risky zone. That will help both in communication and in preparedness so that you can mobilize the people better and easier,” said Lohr.

“Recovery means also you reconstruct the flood. You go through the flood as if it were there again, and then you look: What can I do better? Where was the gap? How long did it take to inform people? How long did it take to mobilize task forces to go to a certain point? Why did they go to this point and not to another one? – These are the lessons you can also learn,” he added.

Flood reconstruction should be among the immediate steps the government should take along with damage assessment.

Taken together, those measures could improve flood control in the future, although nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to floods exacerbated by global warming.

Floods and droughts

One fact that many forget is that floods and droughts are two sides of the same coin.

“When we talk about floods, we should not forget about drought. Mostly when a flood event like this happens, we tend to focus only on this topic. At the same time, the next drought may be just around the corner,” said Lohr.

“This year, it was the case that the water could not really infiltrate due to these temperature patterns and all went into a runoff. Now, most likely, we will face a situation that exactly this amount of water that could not infiltrate is now missing in the soil, in the groundwater. Now the likelihood of running into a dry spell is there,” he added.

Regional cooperation

Success in disaster prevention will require solidarity among all neighboring nations. The UNDP advisor said Kazakhstan should involve all upstream countries in intensifying communication efforts.

The first thing is data exchange and information exchange. You need the communication channels that go across borders, you need to know who informs when and whom,” said Lohr.

The cooperation should be designed to create a win-win situation for everyone, with benefits that can be leveraged across all countries involved.

For example, a good exercise is to think about these flood maps and forecasting, to make exercises in terms of modeling these events together and to create a forecasting system, which is good for all. The collaboration between the countries is a must,” said Lohr.

“The most important thing is developing trust. Trust is an essential prerequisite to make things happen in transboundary water issues,” he added.

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