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Making rational policy decisions

A healthy mountain watershed in Kashmir, Indian Himalaya (photo by Thomas Hofer)

Flood processes in Asia are highly complex. Only integrated approaches take this complexity sufficiently into account and lead to adaptive and effective flood management. An improved approach to watershed and floodplain management integrates land management in the uplands with land-use planning, engineering solutions, flood preparedness and emergency management in the lowlands. This requires good understanding of all the physical processes involved, as well as the social behaviour and culture of local residents. Furthermore, this approach should draw upon the best available scientific knowledge about the environmental, social and economic impacts of floods and the environmental, social and economic effects of interventions.

The myths and misperceptions about the causes of flooding that have misguided decision-makers, planners and managers alike need to be replaced by rational understanding based on facts. Too many local, national and international agencies have used ‘conventional wisdom’ and unsupported claims to advance their own institutional interests and because it has been politically advantageous to channel aid funds to upland reforestation and conservation projects. The media has unfortunately perpetuated many of the myths regarding forests and floods out of a well-intentioned, but ill-informed, desire to protect the environment, especially the forests of upper watersheds.

It should be clear that large-scale reforestation programmes, the adoption of soil and water conservation technologies in agriculture, logging bans and the resettlement of upland people to lowland areas will not significantly reduce the incidence or severity of catastrophic floods. Positive environmental impacts from these interventions will be of a local nature, while the negative social and economic impacts are likely to be more widespread.

Importantly, the habit of blaming upland inhabitants for catastrophic floods of whole river basins must be abandoned. Instead, practical solutions are needed to redress watershed degradation caused by unsustainable land-management practices, including poor logging practices and inappropriate infrastructure development. While refraining from exaggerating the negative impacts that mountain people have on the environment, we should also not overstate the positive impacts of their participation in watershed management programmes, as is happening with some recent attempts to develop markets for the environmental services that forests may provide. Moreover, policy-makers and development agencies have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that regulatory and project approaches are based on the best available scientific knowledge and do not unnecessarily place upland communities at risk of further impoverishment.

The scope of forestry in mitigating floods

...the scope for forests to reduce the severity of major floods that are derived from an extended period of very heavy rainfall is rather limited.

From: UK Forestry Commission, 2002

While the ability of forests to prevent catastrophic floods is limited, watershed management should definitely not be abandoned. Forests provide a variety of environmental services, which need to be protected and nurtured for the benefit of today’s and tomorrow’s upland and lowland populations. Watershed management needs to consider the needs and interests of local populations, but should also account for the needs of the wider society.

The most effective approaches to reducing damage caused by catastrophic floods require a strong focus on downstream areas and floodplains. People in these areas need to ‘learn to live with rivers’, as the UK Institution of Civil Engineers entitled its 2001 report on flood mitigation measures. At the same time, politicians and policymakers need to abandon their belief in quick fixes for flood-related problems. While the high costs of floods in the lowlands of Asia are evident, it is important that the beneficial aspects of floods are also acknowledged. It is only by promoting and supporting comprehensive integrated watershed and floodplain management that the needs and aspirations of all residents - uplanders and lowlanders - can be adequately addressed.

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