A happy place once more
26 Sep 2017 by Natalia Olofinskaya, Regional Technical Specialist, UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub
Since childhood, my imaginary happy place was always a small house in the mountains besides a river.
But being a consummate worrier, I know that rivers aren’t safe places. Flash floods wipe away homes. Water levels rise and wash away hard-earned harvests. And sometimes, lives and are lost. Those happy places can transform instantly to places of sorrow.
During an assessment mission to Georgia, I found what just might be my dream-come-true place on the banks of the Tskhenistskali River in the Rioni Basin. Looking up through the valley, you could see fruit gardens, bucolic villages and the type of pastoral beauty that belongs only in impressionist paintings and travel brochures.
The cost of climate change
But beauty comes at a cost. In 2005, these very villages were hit by a strong flood that destroyed the fruit gardens and roads and came dangerously close to the school. The kids were not hurt only because the disaster happened at night.
For the more than 200,000 people living and working in Georgia’s Rioni River Basin, the risk of floods and flash floods has been on the rise. These and other extreme weather events such as landslides, wind and hailstorms, snow avalanches and droughts, makes it an increasingly dangerous place to raise a family.
Climate change has been driving the rise in frequency and velocity of these hard-to-manage weather-related disasters. In the Riona Basin, Intense rainfall concentrated in short periods of time and accelerated glacier melting increases flash floods, mudflows and landslides. Rising air temperatures and reduced annual precipitation cause prolonged droughts.
Over the past 21 years, total damages from hydro-meteorological hazards in Georgia came to US$1.2 billion. But beyond financial costs is the human cost: 152 people lost their lives.
And it’s not just a problem for the people living on the rivers. More than 1.7 million people across Georgia in both rural and urban areas, 40% of the population, are at risk from climatic hazards.
These hazards will only increase in frequency, intensity and geographical spread over time, having significant negative impacts on agriculture, health, infrastructure, tourism and the environment.
Keeping happy places safe
What kind of information would you want to have if you were living on the banks of the Tskhenistskali river? When will the next flood come? How can you protect your family, your farm? Does it make sense to build a house for your kids in this valley?
This information didn’t exist in the past – and still doesn’t for many countries struggling to build resilience to climate change.
But in 2012, the Government of Georgia and UNDP received support from the Adaptation Fund to set up an effective flood forecasting and early warning system and implement a series of flood protection measures in the Rioni River Basin.
And we’ve seen outstanding results as an integrated approach to flood risk management:
- Georgia’s forecasters finally have the data they need to successfully predict floods
The hydro-meteorological monitoring system in the Rioni River basin was upgraded with climate and floods monitoring devices
- Timely and accurate warnings about extreme weather events are now available to local and national authorities
A fully-integrated flood forecasting and early warning system was created at the National Environmental Agency, with staff trained to use it.
- Infrastructure development can be more strategically planned
A floodplain zoning policy was developed to better manage flood risks, allowing municipalities to guide infrastructure developments based on accurate flood and landslide risk maps.
- Communities are now more secure both economically and environmentally
In high-risk areas, riverbaks were reinforced with gabions and boulders. 29,000 trees were planted to prevent riverbank erosion – also contributing to greenhouse gas mitigation and capture. Special employment programs engaged the local communities in planting and maintenance.
- Local farmers can grow crops with less fear of future loss
A new gabion now shields the Tsageri village from floods and farmers can use the fertile land of the floodplain.
With this project, over 200,000 people in the Rioni River Basin are now more resilient to the direct effects of floods and the long-term effects of climate change. It has inspired the Government of Georgia to initiate the development of a nation-wide multi-hazard early warning system to increase resilience of Georgia’s people to the climate change impacts.