Water is life. But water is also a threat to life. During the past decade, the risks from water-related disasters are increasing and hamper sustainable development by causing political, social, and economic upheaval in many countries. Water-related disasters, such as floods, droughts, storm surges and tsunamis, account for 90% of all disasters in terms of number of people affected.

The issue of “water and disasters” must be addressed if we hope to make sustainable development a reality. We must share our experiences and lessons learned, strengthen regional coordination and collaboration, and set common goals and targets in order to lay a foundation for weathering the water-related disasters to come, and make progress towards creating a better-prepared and more resilient society. All these elements should be translated into clear-cut messages and practical advice for decision makers to create effective policies and mechanisms that address water and disaster issues appropriately at all levels.

The High Level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP) was established to assist the international community, governments and stakeholders in mobilizing political will and resources. It will promote actions to raise awareness, ensure coordination and collaboration, establish common goals and targets, monitor progress, and take effective measures aimed at addressing the issues of water and disasters.

During 2014, members of HELP solicited case studies on water and disasters. After review, these contributions comprise this special issue of Water Policy. The cases and the special issue were also done to provide input to discussion on this topic at the World Water Forum 7 in the Republic of South Korea.

The special issue consists of 10 cases studies and concludes with a summary position paper of members of the HELP: ‘Water-Related Disaster Risk Reduction: Time for Preventive Action: Position paper of the High Level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters’.

The special Issue begins with ‘A Global Perspective on Flood Disasters’ written by Dr Wolfgang Kron of the Munich Reinsurance Company (Kron, 2015). The article notes that various disasters in recent decades have confirmed that the risk from water-related events has been increasing significantly worldwide. The driving factors of this risk are the unabated increase in global population, the concentration of people in high-risk areas such as coasts, flood plains and hillsides, the rise in vulnerability of assets, infrastructure and social systems, and the consequences of environmental and climatic changes. The article concludes that risk reduction requires general awareness at all levels of society and a partnership between the public sector, the people concerned and the insurance industry. It also notes that structural and non-structural precautionary measures are always cheaper in the long run than paying losses and that overall economic consequences are significantly less severe in societies with a high insurance penetration.

Specific cases follow this global overview and begin with a Japanese analysis of ‘Lessons Learned from Mega-Disasters and Future Policy Development on Water-related Disaster Management in Japan’ (Tachi, 2015). The article presents lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, a disaster caused by a low-probability but extremely large hazard, and introduces the distinct features of Japanese water-related disaster management, including those enhanced and strengthened based on the recent lessons. Finally, drawing from Japan's experiences, it offers messages to be sent to the world from the water-related disaster community.

An article on the world renowned Dutch Delta works, ‘The Deltaplan revisited: Changing perspectives in the Netherlands' flood risk reduction philosophy’, follows (Schultz van Haegen & Wieriks, 2015). It was prepared by Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen, and Koos Wieriks. The article notes that worldwide, the risk of weather-related disasters, such as floods and landslides, has increased strongly over the last decades. This has caused the Netherlands to adjust their policies to water disaster reduction. The example of the changing perspectives in the Netherlands' flood risk reduction philosophy illustrates the concepts of integrated disaster risk reduction to water-related disasters in general. It notes that measures can be designed based on future scenarios and a flexible, adaptive approach that allows for switching between strategies along adaptation pathways when needed in view of socioeconomic developments or climate change is necessary. It concludes that disaster risk reduction; Water Resources Management and Climate Adaptation should no longer be treated as separate topics but should be merged into an integrated approach. It calls for a further elaboration of the Hyogo framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (including SDGs on water and urbanization), the UNFCCC, and Habitat III. It finally cautions to make sure that the boundary conditions for the implementation of the necessary measures to reduce risk and increase resilience are in place, such as long-term funding, the elements of fair governance, and stakeholder participation.

Drs Jerome Delli Priscoli and Eugene Stakhiv of the US Army Corps of Engineers follow with ‘Water-Related Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Management in the United States: Floods and Storm Surges’ (Delli Priscoli & Stakhiv, 2015). The article combines a review of history, concepts and comparison of lesson from three recent cases of Hurricane Katrina, 2011 Mississippi floods and Hurricane Sandy. Reviewing history, this article describes a US federal system that presents major challenges to coordinating water resources development and DRR, at both the watershed level and metropolitan area scales.

This article reviews the performance of existing flood protection systems of three recent disasters; Hurricane Katrina (2005), Superstorm Sandy (2012) and the Mississippi River flood (2011), and the effectiveness of post-flood reconstruction plans. These three events provide insights into the evolution of the federal system and how the ‘federal interest’ was and is being implemented, and what it portends for future management. The cases revealed new vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the US DRR responses and planning, while contrasting the relative successes of long term, strategic DRR planning and investments in the case of the Mississippi River and Tributaries system. The article analyses this history and recent cases primarily from the perspective of the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has been a major federal actor and proponent of these policies throughout US history, with varying degrees of implementation authority in each of the three cases.

Floods and typhoons are two of the greatest water disasters affecting South East Asia. Keizrul Abdullah et al., in a ‘Tale of Three Cities’, notes that the rapid pace of development in the South East Asia region has resulted in a disproportionate increase of the runoff and a many fold increase in river discharges leading to more frequent and more intense flooding (Abdullah et al., 2015). This situation is expected to be further aggravated due to the impact of global warming and climate change. To cope with such challenges, countries in South East Asia are developing their policy responses tailored to suit their local conditions and environment.

This article looks at the water disaster situation and the policy responses in three cities in South East Asia. The cities are Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Metro Manila, the capital cities of the Kingdom of Thailand, the Federation of Malaysia and the Republic of the Philippines, respectively. Although all three countries are in the same climatic zone, i.e. the monsoonal humid tropics, due to their geographical locations, water disasters impact differently on them and so too the remedial measures differ.

Wolfgang Grabs and Hans Moser of the Federal Institute of Hydrology, Koblenz, Germany and the International Commission for the Hydrology of the Rhine Basin, Lelystad, The Netherlands, contributed an article entitled ‘Elbe Floods Translating Policies into Actions – The Case of the Elbe River’ (Grabs & Moser, 2015). The article describes methods and processes to link policy development to the implementation of these policies in actionable implementation plans. It is shown that policies can only be implemented effectively if they are embedded in a legal framework that is designed to facilitate achievement of the policy objectives.

Similar to the situation described in the US article, the article shows different levels of policy-making and decision-support for the development of policies at different levels, ranging from the level of Federal States in Germany to the trans-boundary level and policy development and implementation at the level of the European level in the framework of the European Framework Directive. Using the Elbe River as a case study, the paper shows the need for anchoring regional, trans-boundary and state level policies to mandated national institutions.

A key lesson learnt from the Elbe river basin is that policy integration is of utmost importance: policies need to be developed and existing policies be adapted at different levels across sectors in such a way that these policies are mutually complementary, non-contradictory and implementable to achieve improved integrated flood risk management. Action Plans that foster the implementation of policies need to be flexible to respond to changing conditions and the availability of resources for their implementation. The paper also demonstrates that a balance needs to be reached with regard to structural and non-structural measures in flood risk management to arrive at a truly integrated flood risk management strategy and its implementation. The development of research policies on the basis of sound science is indispensable in support of policy development and its implementation.

Martine Grambow et al., in ‘Lessons Learned from the Big Floods, 1993–2013 – the Bavarian Flood action program 2020 plus’, note that flood protection has historically been critical to society's advancement (Grambow et al., 2015). Today they state that against the background of meeting the partially geopolitical and global changes from growing vulnerability, the system of natural hazard management must be audited on a regular basis. This is illustrated using the example of Bavaria. The lessons from the big floods in the period of 1999–2013 led to a fundamental modification in the existing integral flood protection strategy of Bavaria. Concepts of flood risk management and resilience, dealing with extreme flood events, which exceed the design discharge of protection systems, came to the fore. That includes management of flash floods or floods, handling of potential retention areas, inclusion of insurance or resettlement or the burden of maintenance are further challenges, which are briefly addressed in the following article.

The Bavarian case is followed by ‘Losing memory – the risk of a major flood in Paris region – Improving prevention policies’ (Baubion, 2015). This article provides a snapshot of the key findings of the OECD Review on flood risk prevention policies in the Paris metropolitan area. With an innovative flood risk analysis model, the study shows that a major flooding of the Seine River similar to the flood disaster of 1910 could affect up to 5 million residents in the greater Paris area and cause up to 30 billion Euros worth of damage. Economic growth, jobs and public finances could also be significantly affected at the national level. The OECD Review on Flood Risk Management of the Seine River – commissioned by the Basin Organization Seine Grand Lacs with the French Ministry of Ecology and Île-de-France regional council – recommends raising risk awareness among citizens and businesses and improving the resilience of the metropolitan area to flood risks. Recent floods in Europe and New York City's Hurricane Sandy disaster in 2012 illustrated the vulnerability of today's ever-denser cities to flooding and the need to adapt critical infrastructure systems to be able to cope with extreme weather events. The 1910 Paris flood took several weeks to subside. The absence of a major flood in the Paris region for the past half century means the spectre has largely faded from collective memory. Yet population growth and the density of transport and energy infrastructure that has grown up around the French capital mean the area is greatly exposed to flood risks, despite the upstream dam-reservoirs and other defences now in place. The OECD review suggests ways to minimise the risks and better prepare the Île-de-France region. It notes that proposed projects to develop and expand the city's transport and logistics networks offer an opportunity to put some of its suggestions into practice.

In the article ‘Integrated policies and practices for flood and drought risk management’, Grobicki et al. (2015) offer a perspective form the Global Water Partnership (GWP). The article argues for an integrated approach to the management of water-related disasters that becomes a full part of the political decision-making process at the earliest possible moment and focuses on preparedness, mitigating the negative impacts and also considering the positive impacts, particularly of floods. By doing this there is an opportunity to consider the three pillars of sustainable development, and understand the options that exist and the trade-offs that may need to be made between economic efficiency, environmental sustainability and social equity. Within the post-2015 agenda, water-related disasters are addressed by targets under a number of different Sustainable Development Goals. It says that there is an urgent need to build disaster-resilient societies through more integrated policies and practices, including stakeholders' perspectives and a partnership approach. The article provides comparative stakeholder perspectives and approaches from around the world that are putting these ideas into practice.

In the final article Bruna Mendonca et al., in ‘Integrated Actions in the Management of Critical Hydrologic Events: Flood Vulnerability Atlas and Situation Rooms’, describe an operational approach now taken in Brazil (De Sá E Mendonça & De Abreu, 2015). The authors note that due to the increase in urban populations, there was also an increased incidence of critical events, especially those related to floods and landslides. Since the implementation of the National Civil Defense System in Brazil, the focus on disaster management is no longer just to those affected. It has become one of managing disaster risk, in addition to the response, including prevention and minimizing the effects of the critical event. The article describes the expansion of a Hydrological Monitoring Network, in particular the Alert Network, the completion of the Atlas of Vulnerability to Floods and deployment of Situation Rooms in the states. These are all meant to strengthen the role of disaster risk management and enable greater responsiveness to these events and use the information gathered as a water resources management tool.

The Special Issue concludes with a short statement of the members of the HELP entitled ‘Water-related Disaster Risk Reduction: time for preventive action’ (Wieriks & Vlaanderen, 2015). It is a position paper of the High Level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters.

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