The Political Dimension in Adaptation: Is It a Question of Sustainable Local Governance?

During the past few years, we have witnessed a number of catastrophic storms and floods sweep by cities home to our friends and families. What is striking however, is to find that some cities like Houston, Texas has failed to take necessary measures prior to each and every storm or flood that took place in the past to minimize any future damages. Prescriptive actions should be anticipated as much as the risks, with available expertise, can be projected from multiple storms and floods happening in the exact same area during the past decade or so.

Louise Hansen, a Houston resident for more than a decade, explains that 2009 was the first time her home in west Houston was flooded after she moved into it. Then it flooded again in 2015 and again in 2016, and yet again in 2017. She had to witness water creep into her house four times over a decade, while no policies or programs nothing changed, and no action was taken by the local government. This lack of change was partly because her home was not part of any floodplain identified by FEMA. Many of her neighbors had similar experiences, going through floods in 2009, 2015, and 2016. Together, they ended up forming a group called “Residents Against Flooding” and recently sued the city, demanding concrete action.

A recent news article explains that cities like Houston, Texas refused to adapt to the anticipated risks, despite repetitive records of heavy rainfall and floods in the exact same area. Instead the article claims that the city has done the opposite, building impermeable concrete and pavements within the floodplains formerly identified by FEMA. Not only did the city fail to attempt to redefine existing floodplains, but adaptive measures such as planting more trees and building more green areas were non-existent even within the formerly identified floodplains by FEMA. As a result, many parts of the city held floodwater for longer than otherwise should have.

Likewise, the need for deliberate post-catastrophe action is clear. The remaining question is then under what circumstances, and who should be responsible to take those measures within the current governance structure. Borrowing the words of Stephen Costello, a former city councilman and mayoral candidate in Houston, the message is clear: there is no budget, staff, or firm timeline, and most importantly there is no designated team under the larger umbrella of the city government that deals with the “planned” changes that are necessary to prevent the damages that take place multiple times in the same area. He explains that his role is certainly more political than action-oriented, claiming that people seem to be looking for a point person they can talk to, rather than a group of people who can take concrete actions where needed.

In response, I wish to draw attention to two key implications in current adaptation processes against major climatic events: (1) the notion of planned adaptation, and (2) a need for an independent, designated body within the city government responsible for planned adaptation.

Although uncommon, there are instances of deliberate adaptive post-disaster adaptive efforts across the U.S. For example, after storm Sandy swept by in 2012, local government officials decided to reconstruct State Road A1A in Fort Lauderdale. Torriente, the Assistant City Manager of Fort Lauderdale at the time made it clear that they had to do something different based on what they knew after Sandy. It certainly paid off when faced with Irma, preventing the roads go underwater. This is a simple illustration of what planned adaptation is. Instead of just relying on modelled results or projections, lessons are learned from real cases and a complete reconsideration of existing policies takes place.

Often, though not exclusively, adaptive measures are triggered by a conspicuous failure or a high-risk disruptive event, and the stage is set for a thorough analysis on the causes to identify areas for change. Based on the analysis of the cause as well as the impending costs, reconsideration of the existing state of knowledge is implemented. Finally, depending on the decision-making body (or individuals in many cases), final implementation decisions are made based on the reconsidered knowledge generated from the evaluative analysis. While this seems logical, such process is not easy to find in the real world, often constrained by limited resources, deep rooted common practices, and other political reasons.

FIGURE 1. An illustration of the planned adaptation process

As was in the case of Fort Lauderdale or Houston, the actions related to planned adaptation are administered by one or two individuals in the city government under the supervision of the mayor. This makes the planned adaptation process ad hoc, limiting both expedience and efficacy, and failing to provide legitimacy to raise sufficient budget to address the need for vulnerable regions to adapt to anticipated risks. While there is a growing number of cities that employs a chief resilience officer, this is not the same as establishing a unit or a team within the local government that devotes its financial and human capital in post-event investigation and translating those lessons learned into concrete actions.

It is imperative to rethink about the political dimension of adaptation processes in more detail to enhance the adaptive capacity. Most, if not all of the attention in adapting to risks in vulnerable regions has been on the ways to adapt to minimize the risks. However, the attention ought to be shifted to how to reorganize or reformulate the current governance structure in city governments to be better equipped to implement those adaptive measures. Supported by sustainable budget, human capital, and public participation, an independent body to carry out planned adaptation activities in cities is one possible trajectory. This alteration in approach should not depend on the voices of a few individuals but soon become a norm in local governance.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on November 9, 2017.


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