Photo: Beso Gulashvili / UNDP Georgia

Beglar the hippopotamus is a symbol of the devastating flash flood that hit Georgia’s capital city in June 2015. The flooding killed 22 people, destroyed the Tbilisi Zoo – leaving 300 animals dead – and caused US$24.3 million in direct physical damage.

But somehow Beglar survived. Found wandering the streets, he was rescued and brought back to safety.

A symbol of survival, Georgians lavished Beglar with love, building a new home for him in the reconstructed zoo, which was relocated to higher ground. He will soon have a sculpture erected in his honour in downtown Tbilisi.       

But Beglar’s story was a lonely ray of hope in an otherwise catastrophic situation.

The devastation caused by the 2015 floods was a wake-up call for Georgia. The country recognized that the unprecedented rains that caused the flooding were merely a first taste of the havoc that climate change is set to wreak in coming years.

The challenge

Georgia’s geography is defined by high mountains and roaring rivers. Mountain adventures – skiing, hiking, camping and paragliding – are what drives much of Georgia’s robust and growing tourism revenues. Rivers and mountain torrents, meanwhile, provide a seemingly unlimited source of energy in the form of hydropower.

But these same spectacular mountains and powerful rivers are the source of high and rising risk to the population. River flooding, flash floods, rockslides, landslides and mudslides are the chief source of natural disaster in Georgia, and costs over the past two decades have been staggering: more than 152 lives lost and economic losses totalling more than US$1.2 billion.

Scientists now estimate that climate-driven disasters could cost Georgia as much as US$12 billion over the next ten years. That’s 80 percent of its current annual GDP.

Photo: Beso Gulashvili / UNDP Georgia

The solution

Spurred to action by the 2015 Tbilisi disaster, the government began a quest for solutions to protect people and property from the impact of climate-driven disasters.

Four years later, with support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), UNDP and the Government of Switzerland, Georgia has kicked off a US$70 million programme that has the scope and ambition to serve as a model of adaptation and resilience for other countries that face similar climate-driven challenges.

The pioneering programme aims to replace the reactive approach that is traditional in Georgia, in which the state pays for compensation and reconstruction after each successive disaster, to one fully grounded in prevention. Rejecting the fatalistic conviction that disasters are inevitable because “you can’t change the weather,” it assumes that, with proper preparation and investment, Georgia can prevent even the most extreme weather events from turning into disasters.

This takes money, of course, but as a rule each dollar invested in prevention saves seven dollars in recovery costs.

The programme is comprehensive, with nationwide scope. It covers all 11 of the country’s major river basins and will provide direct protection to 1.7 million people, almost half of Georgia’s population. Its aim is to reduce climate-driven losses by 90 percent.

Its key elements include:

  • Conducting satellite-based hazard and risk mapping of all the country’s major river basins to locate and characterize the main threats to people and property;
  • Upgrading hydrometeorological observation networks to monitor weather conditions and understand, in real time, when and where water levels are changing;
  • Creating early warning systems to ensure that affected populations are alerted in time to take action, and that people at risk know what actions to take;
  • Working with national institutions and local communities to improve zoning and building permit systems, to prevent construction in high-risk areas; and
  • Wherever threats are imminent, building protective barriers or adopting other nature-based measures to prevent flooding, such as reforestation to reinforce river banks.

In a major departure, the programme makes risk reduction everybody’s business, and not just the responsibility of policy makers and emergency forces. In this way, Georgia aims to build a culture of resilience that is a core value of democracy and self-government.

The programme builds on pioneering work already conducted along the Rioni River, the country’s biggest and most flood-prone river basin. That programme, financed by the Adaptation Fund and implemented by UNDP, created safer conditions for more than 200,000 residents and provided “proof of concept” for this new, much larger programme.

A model for others

Many other countries face similar climate-driven hazards yet remain chained to the reactive approach that Georgia is now working to put behind it. The new programme will provide a tested and ready model that they can replicate in preventing climate-driven disasters.

Like many of its neighbours, Georgia has only a small role to play in climate mitigation, since the collapse of Soviet-legacy industries in the 1990s already put an abrupt end to emissions at most of the country’s pollution-generating factories. Radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are just not possible. However, where the country is making its mark is in climate adaptation – an equally pressing need for the world as global temperatures continue their ominous rise.

In convening the Climate Action Summit for 23 September 2019, the UN Secretary-General has admonished world leaders that “beautiful speeches are not enough” and demanded that they come with bold plans in hand to fight climate change. Georgia stands ready to make its mark here by providing a timely example of how to build climate resilience on a national scale.

So even a story as tragic as the Tbilisi floods can have a happy end, and not just for Beglar the hippo.

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