Some of first organized human agrarian communities evolved in the wet areas around the Fertile Crescent. Even in this early epoch, many of these communities were subject to flooding from rainfall and storm surge, and efforts were made to protect them with levees, dikes, and seasonal relocation. Today, much of our planet’s human population lives in proximity to water--sea coasts, lakes, rivers, estuaries and floodplains--and is experiencing severe impact on living conditions during this time of rapid climate change. Some threatened regions have attempted to protect themselves with ambitious projects such as floodwalls, water storage, polders, pumping and diversion systems, dredging and landfill. Despite these measures, there is still significant risk due to local topography, complexity and cost of operations, and the increasing urgency posed by rising sea levels and intensifying weather events.
Large scale relocation and migration from these areas may be the only solution, but this strategy will meet enormous resistance from local populations, and take a great deal of time and money to plan. In the small coastal community of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, there is Isle de Jean Charles. The island has lost 98% of its land mass and only 80 people remain. $48 million has been committed for new community infrastructure and relocation to 500 acres of higher ground within the same parish. There will be many places within the Gulf of Mexico states and counties that will face similar dilemmas within this century.
I asked Jordan Fischbach, the Co-Director of the Water and Climate Resilience Center and Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation to briefly summarize the related work he and his associates are conducting for this region and elsewhere: “Trying to predict the future 30 years from now is an exercise doomed to failure. Our assumptions about the future are invariably wrong. However, we might end up closer to the mark, and make better near-term choices, if we allow ourselves to imagine a wide range of ‘what ifs’ as the starting point for a 30-year planning exercise. So rather than starting with--and having to agree on--a single assumption about the future to develop a plan, a better approach is to start by defining planning goals and then using computer simulation models to systematically test how proposed alternatives do or do not meet these goals across a range of plausible, but uncertain, futures. This iterative approach provides insight on which uncertain drivers are most relevant to today’s planning decisions, helps identify adaptations to make the plans more robust to future uncertainty, and highlights key tradeoffs that planners must work with decision makers and stakeholders to resolve.”
Louisiana’s 20-parish coastal zone, as well as the coastal zones of other Gulf states, is a priority region for utilizing new technologies in urban planning. The number of people and communities who are at great risk in these places is so staggering that it is difficult and inappropriate to apply a number to them. I hope, however, that the scale and impact of Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, Irma and Maria have greatly heightened our realization of the need for improving long-range coastal planning. We must also apply more rigorous and standardized criteria for forecasting, evaluating and responding to immediate risks of disaster, along with considering longer term options including rebuilding and resettlement.
Robert C. Tannenis an Urban Planner and Artist, with a career spanning six decades of interdisciplinary work. One of the founders of the Contemporary Arts Center, he has taught at Tulane School of Architecture, Franconia College, and Pratt Institute, and consults for RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, CDM Smith, and e4 sciences.