Integrated Flood Risk Management in India and the South Asia region: Lessons from the Rhine



South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change flood events. According to the Asia Development Bank India, in addition to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives would lose around 1.8% of their gross domestic product by 2050 and almost 9% by 2100 from climate change disasters if the world follows a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to climate change mitigation: a refusal to reduce the use of fossil fuels in the global economy. India and the rest of the region are already susceptible to flooding events—in June 2013 alone, the North India floods and their subsequent landslides claimed over 5,000 lives while 100,000 people required rescuing. Man-made flood defenses can also increase the vulnerability of communities to other man-made or natural disasters such as earthquakes. This trans-boundary nature of flood risks leaves the potential for climate change floods to incite political and economic instability within the region.

Integrated Flood Management

Traditionally, flood management focused on draining floodwater as quickly as possible or storing it temporarily, and separating the river from populations through structural measures such as dams and levees. These methods, however, were all done without considering the consequences of upstream and downstream flood risks. Specifically, actions to manage flooding consisted of local flood prevention schemes involving concrete and other engineered defenses such as dams, dykes and weirs that had little regard for health of the surrounding catchment. Engineered solutions can have negative effects on water quality and quantity as natural water flow is disrupted. In many regions of the world, including South Asia, the biodiversity of freshwater has suffered due to major physical changes in the rivers, lakes and wetlands from flood management practices such as the straightening and dredging of rivers and the construction of levees. Flood plains provide key ecosystem services including water retention and prevention of soil erosion. Intact floodplains also play an important role in alleviating floods by storing water and releasing it slowly into streams and rivers.

In Integrated Flood Management, land and water resources in river basins are developed in order to maximize the efficient use of floodplains and to minimize loss of life and damage to property. Integrated Flood Management integrates nature into its work in order to improve the ecosystem and its services such as restoring rivers' natural ability to store and slow down floodwaters. Wetlands, for example, provide a buffer from flooding by storing water in their soil or retaining it as surface water.

Integrated Flood Risk Management

Flood risk management requires the coordination of numerous activities including the planning of future developments, land management, flood warning, community involvement and putting in place physical structures to increase the resilience of communities, and to reduce flood risk. Because actions in one part of a river can have consequences elsewhere, flood management is most effective when an integrated and coordinated approach is taken throughout the river basin. In Integrated Flood Risk Management, resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and societies to survive, adapt and grow in the face of emergencies. In the context of climate change, resilience is not only about reducing the risk of disaster but also about ensuring that ‘failure’ does not result in catastrophic consequences to life and infrastructure.

Traditional flood management relies on environmentally-damaging infrastructure
Traditional flood management relies on environmentally-damaging infrastructure Photo by:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines risks as the potential for consequences where something of value is at stake and where the outcome is uncertain. Risk is often represented as a probability of a hazardous event occurring. A common way of estimating risk is to measure the exposure and vulnerability of people, combined with the severity and likelihood of a hazard. As such, reducing risk (the combination of hazard, exposure and vulnerability) is a core component of enhancing resilience. For flooding, risk is determined by the occurrence of flooding which may impact exposed populations and assets (e.g. houses located near flood-plains) while vulnerability is the characteristic of the population or assets making it particularly susceptible to damaging effects (e.g. fragility of housing constructing, poorly planned development, poverty, environmental degradation and climate change).

In 1998, the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) implemented the Action Plan on Floods, which aims to protect humans and their assets against floods while improving the ecology of the Rhine and its flood plains. Specifically, the Action Plan aims to reduce flood damage risks to humans and infrastructure by 25% by 2020. In 2001, the ICPR adopted Rhine 2020, the Program on the Sustainable Development of the Rhine that seeks to improve the Rhine ecosystem. The Action Plan on Floods was incorporated into Rhine 2020 and declared the improvement of flood prevention and protection as a main goal. Specifically, Rhine 2020 aims to reduce risks of flood damage by 25% by 2020 (as compared to 1995) in the lowlands for Rhine and reduce extreme flood peaks by up to 70cm (as compared to 1995 levels) downstream of the German town, Baden-Baden. Regarding structural goals along the Rhine River and within the Rhine basin, the Rhine 2020 strategy aims to increase water retention facilities and maintain and strengthen dikes. Non-structural goals along the Rhine include increasing water retention by reactivating inundation areas, improving the flood warning systems. Non-structural goal within the Rhine basin itself include increasing water retention in the basin by re-nurturing streams, reactivating inundation areas, initiating afforestation projects, and reducing the amount of sealed surfaces.


India and the South Asia region comprise the most vulnerable regions globally to flood events. With floods likely to increase in magnitude and frequency from climate change, flood managers in the region will need to implement integrated flood management plans to ensure that human life and economic assets are protected and natural ecosystems remain healthy. Because actions in one part of a river can have consequences elsewhere, flood managers must initiate integrated flood risk management plans throughout the entire basin in order to guarantee the population’s post-flood resilience. 


integrated flood risk management, Robert Brears

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