Disastrous Floods as Indicators of Systemic Risk Neglect
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 6 Jun 2016
(Previously published on 7 February 2011; amended in the light of media coverage of the disastrous flooding in Europe in 2016)
Implications for Authoritative Response to Future Surprises
This is an exploration of the level of neglected risk visibly and dramatically highlighted by a number of recent widely publicized floods which have been framed as unforeseeable surprises. At the time of writing the earlier version of this document in 2011, the prime examples were in Australia with the Queensland flood of 2010, which was followed by flooding in Victoria in 2011. Other examples noted included flooding on the French Atlantic coast in 2010, as a result of cyclone Xynthia, and in the UK and Ireland in 2009. Disasters involving flooding have included those related to the Asian tsunmi of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. (Wikipedia offers a checklist of floods by country).
The issues raised are highlighted to a far greater degree by the unusual flooding in Europe in 2016, and most dramatically in Paris where the Seine rose over 6 metres — the occasion for extensive media exposure (Paris underwater as Seine River flooding approaches worst in 60 years, Accuweather, 4 June 2016; Paris floods: River Seine reaches highest level in decades as Louvre museum closed ‘for precautionary reasons’, The Independent, 4 June 2016). The extent of negligent unpreparedness was indicated by the fact that significant proportions of the French cultural heritage (and that of the world) are stored underground in zones vulnerable to flooding (Flooding in Paris threatens the Louvre’s most iconic artwork, The Washington Post, 3 June 2016).
In the midst of the disaster in Paris, a summit was held to relaunch peace negotiations (Paris foreign minister summit aims to revive Middle East peace talks, Euronews, 3 June 2016; France felt ‘compelled to act’ on Middle East peace talks, The Guardian, 3 June 2016). The coincidence raises the question as to whether the quality of thinking brought to bear on disaster preparedness within France is equivalent to that applied to engendering disaster in the Middle East, especially given the complicity of France in exacerbating disaster through massive sale of arms to parties to the conflicts there (Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Boost French Economy, but at What Cost? World Politics Review, 9 October 2015; France fills the American arms void, Politico, 25 June 2015).
The nature of the disaster, and the content of the media coverage, justifies a slight revision of this document (previously published in 2011). A week of exposure to coverage on French media indicated no sense in which either government authorities or the public could in any way be considered negligent in anticipating such disaster. As previously, France framed itself as a victim of the forces of nature — understood as an Act of God by the insurance industry. This is despite having previously authorized a remarkable degree of construction in areas vulnerable to flooding, and having failed to discourage modifications to the watershed which exacerbated risks of flooding. No questions were raised regarding any failure to learn lessons from past exposure to disastrous flooding.
The question raised here is the level of risk to which “normal” activity prior to the flood is assumed to be exposed in relation to the level of risk which is made apparent by the disaster — even though it is assumed that “normal” activity can be resumed thereafter.
Since “flood” is frequently used as a metaphor to describe other phenomena which may be experienced as disastrous, a further question is whether these imply inappropriate assumptions about risk levels and avoidance of recognition of risk. The same may be asked of phenomena based on a “dearth” of resources rather than the excess associated with “flood”. The remedial focus on return to “normality” is then to be equated with the attitude of “business as usual”. This is now widely deprecated as inadequate to systemic challenges of governance — despite its uncritical celebration by the World Economic Forum (Davos, 2011), following the financial crisis of 2008-2009 in which the markets were “flooded” with “toxic assets”.
These questions highlight the manner in which risks are framed by authorities, with the complicity of specialists and vested interests, and promoted as acceptable to the population, possibly to be enshrined in policies, legislation or other regulatory measures. In the case of flooding, this is evident in the enthusiastic development and marketing of riverside and coastal properties, with little attention to their vulnerability.
In the discussion of flooding in Wikipedia, a valuable distinction is made between upslope factors and downslope factors, and the exacerbation of disaster as a result of their coincidence. With respect to disaster as a consequence of negligence, more generally understood in the light of flooding as a metaphor, these can be explored in terms of the dangerous inadequacy of “derivative thinking” (Vigorous Application of Derivative Thinking to Derivative Problems: transcending bewailing, hand-wringing and emotional blackmail, 2013). In the midst of any disaster, unfortunately the focus is on emergency relief with no opportunity taken to highlight the lessons to be learned for the future, in the light of complicity in the negligence of the past. The point can be argued with respect to the response of the tragedy of widespread starvation (Starvation Imagery as Humanitarian Trump Card? Counterproductive emotional blackmail engendering worldwide indifference, 2016).
Such issues relating to surprises of the present are highly relevant to assumptions made about risks of the decades to come. Associated arguments have been developed by Karen A. Cerulo (Never Saw It Coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst, 2006) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2007).
As a source of indications of relevance to navigating other flow systems characterized by a degree of risk, the set of signs by which road traffic “self-organizes” and “self-governs” is explored in an Annex (Being in the Flow on Strategic Highways and Byways: enabling sustainable self-governance through traffic signage, 2011). Such a perspective, from the theory of signage systems, raises the question as to how it might be applied more generally to elicit the signs and symbols of requisite scope for sustainable governance of the global environment.
The systemic arguments made are complemented by those with respect to the disaster in Japan (Anticipating Future Strategic Triple Whammies: in the light of earthquake-tsunami-nuclear misconceptions, 2011). Why has the “flood” of refugees into Europe proven to be such a surprise (Massive EU Weapons Sales to Saudi Arabia Contribute to Fuelling International Aggression and Terrorism in the Middle East, Global Research, 5 April 2015)? The absence of systemic thinking regarding cause-and-effect suggests the need for new kinds of indicator (Evaluating the Grossness of Gross Domestic Product: Refugees Per Kiloton (RPK) as a missing indicator? 2016).
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