Water & Wastewater Asia Jan/Feb 2019

Water & Wastewater Asia • January / February 2019 OPINION | 47 technological regimes, socio-technological realms, and techno-politics, all with strong positive feedback, has created practices and value systems that are resistant to change. The so-called ‘hydraulic age’ is not over, as seen in Indonesia, India, China and elsewhere. In fact, it never went away. Writing in the journal Global Environmental Change, Vincent Merme and his colleagues noted a shift from traditional public international financing of such projects to a range of private sources of funds enticed by attractive terms of trade, and complete decision-making control over water resource management. Traditional public-sector players are now reduced to minimising social and environmental impacts of dams while facilitating and regulating the dam projects within a process that is opaque to the public. This is a new form of lock-in whereby governments effectively give way sovereign rights to water resources, but also appear to swallow the idea that all dams control floods. It is worthwhile to dwell on one example of the effectiveness or otherwise of embankments. In Assam, northeast India, the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries flood every year, sometimes with devastating consequences. The graph shows the cumulative length of embankments and the total flood-related economic damage adjusted for inflation. The first point is that damage did not decrease as embankments were constructed, and when embankment construction all but ceased in the 1980s, damage increased in a highly variable way because of increased flood sizes from the mid-1980s. Embankment breaches are also a cause of damage, and it appears that any benefits conferred by embankments are overwhelmed by breaches and larger floods. While embankments could be raised and extended, and maintenance improved, the dominant technology was not doing its job. WHY? The United Nations estimates that by 2050, about 2 billion people worldwide will be exposed to damaging floods, as a result of settlements being built on flood-prone floodplains, failure of levees, and larger floods consequent on climate change. This would be a 100 per cent increase in flood exposure. There is ample evidence from around the world that damage from floods is increasing despite massive flood control infrastructure investments: US$38 billion, mainly on levees and dams, between 1960 and 1985 in the U.S. alone. Erika Bolstad wrote an article on this in Scientific American. Uncertainty about the timing, magnitude and even in some cases the direction of change of extreme precipitation and therefore flooding as the climate changes suggests that flexible adaptive policies will be needed. This is where technological lock-in can be dangerous. So how can the locked be unlocked? This is where things get tricky. The obvious way is to initiate negative feedback. But as we have already seen the 2017 floods in Assam appear to have pushed the techno- political systemof Assam further into positive feedback where more embankments are being considered. Embankments represent a huge sunk cost, the development and application of expertise developed over decades in a professionally closed system, investment of considerable political capital, and reputational risk if a decades-long policy is reversed. The most likely way ahead is to develop hybrid solutions that can emerge beside the dominant solution, but first in niches not occupied by the dominant solution. Examples in the case of floods are obvious, involving land use zoning and regulation, and better warnings. While obvious they are not readily implementable in a place such as Assam where people have settled over much of the flood-prone floodplain and some communities are so isolated that warnings don’t reach them. For the water and wastewater industry, it would be best to assess each case on its merits. Is a technological solution really necessary? Is the dominant technology really the best? Of course, the second question is asked, but is the first one considered by either a solution-seeker or a technological provider? And can technological companies diversify to provide not-technological solutions? Without serious reflection on these questions the adaptive solutions that will be needed as the climate changes will be difficult to find, to the cost of all concerned. WWA Image credited to Priya Bansal

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