Over the past month, devastating floods have ravaged Pakistan unleashing a trail of tragedy and despair in the towns and communities affected. Causing more than 33 million people to be displaced and wiping out over 4 million acres of crops, it is amongst the most catastrophic flooding in recent times. Economic costs are yet to be determined, however, initial estimates are pointing to figures north of 18 billion USD. The environmental costs paint an equally dire picture as natural habitats of hundreds of species are swept away and destroyed.

Findings indicate that flood risk to individuals is expected to rise more than four-fold by 2090.

Research by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) suggests that the frequency of severe flooding will only increase, with findings indicating that flood risk to individuals is expected to rise more than four-fold by 2090. As such, floods are predicted to be one of the major ways climate change will impact the global economy. So how can we prepare? What role can engineers play to alleviate, mitigate and reduce the impacts of flooding? 

Sector introspection 

As it stands, the engineering sector is both the problem solver and the aggravator. Firstly, engineers are often responsible for making decisions that impact the resilience of infrastructure to natural disasters. Improving resilience requires dealing with complexity due to a number of factors, including uncertainty around hazards, the consideration of perspectives from a wide range of stakeholders, and competing priorities. In the context of low-income areas, these issues are exacerbated as maximum safety is usually accompanied by higher costs, which is undesirable or entirely unfeasible for many vulnerable communities. With many engineers unprepared to navigate these complexities, these areas are frequently left with infrastructure that cannot adequately protect them from natural hazards.

The building and construction sector alone contributes a staggering 38% of global carbon emissions.

Alongside this, the engineering sector is also one of the leading carbon emitters, with building and construction alone contributing a staggering 38% of global carbon emissions. This comes as a result of the operational emissions associated with running buildings and the embodied carbon associated with materials and construction processes throughout a building’s lifecycle. The effects of this are felt disproportionately by low-income countries situated in the hottest parts of the world, which in many cases have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. For these areas, where rising temperatures are already driving vulnerability by reducing economic activity, unanticipated shocks have devastating impacts including the loss of life and livelihoods.

A call for responsible engineering

With known and unknown hazards becoming increasingly frequent as temperatures rise, the urgency to build resilience through measures including critical infrastructure is clear. To do this, we must reimagine engineering to ensure that decision-making in projects is no longer driven by the bottom line, and that social and environmental justice underpin day-to-day practice.

The move towards this approach begins with recognising that resilience is an integral measure of a sustainable system, in as much as a system that is not resilient cannot be sustained in the long term. Exploring the linkages between sustainability and resilience further, evidence shows that sustainable urban design and planning, which takes into consideration the environmental context of a location, can effectively increase resilience by encouraging adaptive solutions to natural hazards. This is clear in the context of flooding where water sensitive design, such as flood drains and artificial levees, have been shown to buffer and reduce the severity of flood events whilst also helping to conserve the ecosystems and biodiversity of flood-prone regions.

Alongside critical infrastructure, it is also incumbent upon engineers and hydrologists to develop accurate and reliable flood forecasting models in flood-prone areas. Flood forecasting forms an integral part of planning control and mitigation measures and can give communities a head start to prepare for and reduce flood damage. Forecasting models can also enable the development of early warning systems and evacuation plans, which are crucial in reducing casualties and improving preparedness to natural hazards.

Ours is a time of great challenges and also great opportunities.

To achieve this, engaging with flood-risk communities will be essential. By working with communities to build capacity at a local level, engineers may not only draw from the expertise of those who have experienced flood events, but also empower people to advocate for change amongst local decision-makers and act in the face of disaster. In recognising the role communities can play in managing flood risk, engineers must foster an inclusive approach as a key enabler of resilience.

Ours is a time of great challenges and also great opportunities. As engineers, we have a responsibility to safeguard and protect the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable communities in the face of both predictable and shock events. To do this, we must take active steps to reimagine engineering to ensure a safe and just future for all. 

This article was written by a volunteer contributor. If you have a story to share or want to find out more head to our volunteer page

Denis Siduna, a civil engineering graduate who is now a Frontend Developer. Denis’ academic work focused on floodwater engineering and hydraulic structures, with their thesis centring on modelling flood rise in the Muzarabani District, a flood-prone district within Zimbabwe.