Adoping to life along rivers in a changing climate

5 Januari 2022

Photo: Pixbay/LucyKaef

By Filip Stefanovic

And just like that, last month’s COP26 came and went. The outcomes and events of the much-anticipated summit were largely as expected, with new commitments to sustainability and emissions reductions being made, and greater pressures being placed on businesses 

The results of the conference are a range of more ambitious targets and a greater sense of urgencyClimate change has begun to affect us in more tangible and directly consequential ways than we are used towhich has forced governments, business, media and electorates to acknowledge the growing problems at hand.

However, even if sufficient action is taken that prevents us from an environmental tipping point, reversing the changes that have already occurred will take considerable time. The effects of climate change that we are currently witnessing then wilcontinue to worsen, even as we slow down its rate of change, until we eventually (hopefully) begin to reverse it. 

That is why we must continue to prepare for the worst effects of climate change and not become complacent, as it is something that we will likely still have to live with for decades to come. This means continuing to invest in fit-for-purpose infrastructure and take appropriate and calculated precautions to ensure that both people and the environment are protected. 

Though extreme weather events represent a mere fraction of weather activity, they account for a vastly disproportionate percentage of lives lost, damage and the resultant costs that are incurred. Of course, some weather events are so extreme that no protective infrastructure or equipment will be able to withstand their effects; however, these are the extremes within the extremes, which amounts to 1% of the 1%.  

In the majority of cases, damage and casualties from extreme weather events occur simply as a result of a failure to prepare and a reluctance to invest in quality equipment due to their relatively infrequent occurrence. 

Despite this relative infrequency, the potential damage and costs borne – when extreme weather events do occur – are enormous. Because of this, events that are statistically less likely to occur, but that are almost certain to cause extensive damage and casualties when they do, should be treated as higher risk to account for the costs of failing to take steps to prepare for them.  

If the cost of investing in adequate protective and preventative infrastructure and equipment is less than the costs that are likely to be incurred as a result of an extreme weather event, it is an investment worth making. And this is a statement that is, unfortunately, only becoming more salient as time goes on. 

As the climate is changing, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, which is making our weather more unpredictable.

According to research published recently by the World Meteorological Association, the frequency of extreme weather-related disasters has increased five times over the course of the past 50 years. This frequency increase equates to a five times increase in damage and costs and so highlights the importance of having not just fair-weather infrastructure and equipment, but ones that can withstand the outlier weather events and the debris these bring with it. 

We have all witnessed incidents of extreme weather occurring in recent times. Take, for example, the flooding recently in Germany and parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. This was the worst natural disaster in Europe for nearly 60 years. In Belgium alone, the government of Wallonia estimated that the damage to property and infrastructure equated to €12bn, which is nearly 3% of the country’s entire GDP. 

Meanwhile, over the course of the winter of 2013-2014, the United Kingdom saw unprecedented levels of rainfall during severe storms, which caused widespread flooding and resulting power cuts and major disruptions to transport services across the country. 

During this time, the Met Office reported the wettest December 1 to January 31 period since 1876, while other local authorities said that the winter period from the beginning of December to the end of February was the wettest recorded in the UK since records began in 1766. 

Consequently, the floods caused by this severe weather were among the worst ever to impact the UK, with large-scale damage caused in counties such as Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Cornwall in the south-west, and the Thames Valley in the south-east. The Thames Valley was among the hardest hit, with as many as 14 severe flood warnings issued along the river’s course and water levels so high that parks along the banks of the Thames were completely submerged. 

Of course, there is no one silver bullet solution that could have prevented the extensive damage and costs that were incurred during these floods, or prevented the loss of lifeIn order to be adequately prepared for extreme weather events, all the right boxes must be ticked to prevent the chain of damage that occurs and life-threatening risk that is created, and ideally prevent problems at the source. 

For example, before the devastating flooding in the UK during 2013-14 our company had installed 300 Rope Safety Boom (RSBs) units in the Thames which, according to officials, helped to protect critical flood control infrastructure from damage by deflecting rapidly oncoming debris into a low-risk and easily clearable area. 

Crucially, the RSBs are designed so as to be able to save lives. Their structure allows two people per float to climb onto the boom without the use of a ladder, while the rope enables them to navigate safely to shore unaided. The RSB has therefore been designed to be multipurpose, and provide essential support along rivers during extreme weather. And of the several hundred units that were installed at the time, no maintenance or replacements were required, despite the near-unprecedented conditions, and these units are still in place along the river Thames today.  

Having equipment that works reliably when it most needs to do is invaluable in desperate times. Investing in high-quality equipment and infrastructure is an essential aspect of a successful long-term strategy, particularly at a time when the behaviour of our climate is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Filip Stefanovic is regional general manager at Bolina, an Ecocoast company that is an European leader in marine safety, security and environment booms for inland waterways, ports, dams and critical infrastructure. 

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