All hope is not lost: the countryside is still exposed

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I am focusing on the possible benefits of transforming urban structures of at least some European cities into sponge-like structures, such as described, for example, by Jiang et al. (2018) as well as in my recent updates on this blog (see Sponge Cities). In parallel to reporting my research on this blog, I am developing a corresponding project with the « Project Navigator », made available by the courtesy of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Figuring out my way through the « Project Navigator » made me aware of the importance that social cohesion has in the implementation of such infrastructural projects. Social cohesion means a set of common goals, and an institutional context that allows the appropriation of outcomes. In « Sponge Cities », when studying the case of my hometown, Krakow, Poland, I came to the conclusion that sales of electricity from water turbines incorporated into the infrastructure of a sponge city could hardly pay off for the investment needed. On the other hand, significant reduction of the financially quantifiable risk connected to floods and droughts can be an argument. Especially the flood-related risks, in Europe, already amount to billions of euros, and we seem to be just at the beginning of the road (Alfieri et al. 2015[1]). Shielding against such risks can possibly make a sound base for social coherence, as a common goal. Hence, as I am structuring the complex concept of « Energy Ponds », I start with assessing risks connected to climate change in European cities, and the possible reduction of those risks through sponge-city-type investments.

I start with comparative a review of Alfieri et al. 2015[2] as regards flood-related risks, on the one hand, and Naumann et al. (2015[3]) as well as Vogt et al. (2018[4]) regarding the drought-related risks. As a society, in Europe, we seem to be more at home with floods than with droughts. The former is something we kind of know historically, and with the advent of climate change we just acknowledge more trouble in that department, whilst the latter had been, until recently, something that happens essentially to other people on other continents. The very acknowledgement of droughts as a recurrent risk is a challenge.

Risk is a quantity: this is what I teach my students. It is the probability of occurrence multiplied by the magnitude of damage, should the s**t really hit the fan. Why adopting such an approach? Why not to assume that risk is just the likelihood of something bad happening? Well, because risk management is practical. There is any point in bothering about risk if we can do something about it: insure and cover, hedge, prevent etc. The interesting thing about it is that all human societies show a recurrent pattern: as soon as we organise somehow, we create something like a reserve of resources, supposed to provide for risk. We are exposed to a possible famine? Good, we make a reserve of food. We risk to be invaded by a foreign nation/tribe/village/alien civilisation? Good, we make an army, i.e. a group of people, trained and equipped for actions with no immediate utility, just in case. The nearby river can possibly overflow? Good, we dig and move dirt, stone, wood and whatnot so as to build stopbanks. In each case, we move along the same path: we create a pooled reserve of something, in order to minimize the long-term damage from adverse events.

Now, if we wonder how much food we need to have in stock in case of famine, sooner or later we come to the conclusion that it is individual need for food multiplied by the number of people likely to be starving. That likelihood is not evenly distributed across the population: some people are more exposed than others. A farmer, with a few pigs and some potatoes in cultivation is less likely to be starving than a stonemason, busy to build something and not having time or energy to care for producing food. Providing for the risk of flood works according to the same scheme: some structures and some people are more likely to suffer than others.

We apprehend flood and drought-related risks in a similar way: those risks amount to a quantity of resources we put aside, in order to provide for the corresponding losses, in various ways. That quantity is the arithmetical product of probability times magnitude of loss.    

Total risk is a complex quantity, resulting from events happening in causal, heterogeneous chains. A river overflows and destroys some property: this is direct damage, the first occurrence in the causal chain. Among the property damaged, there are garbage yards. As water floods them, it washes away and further into the surrounding civilisation all kinds of crap, properly spoken crap included. The surrounding civilisation gets contaminated, and decontamination costs money: this is indirect damage, the second tier of the causal chain. Chemical and biological contamination by floodwater causes disruptions in the businesses involved, and those disruptions are costly, too: here goes the third tier in the causal chain etc.

I found some interesting insights, regarding the exposure to flood and drought-related risks in Europe, with Paprotny et al. (2018[5]). Firstly, this piece of research made me realized that floods and droughts do damage in very different ways. Floods are disasters in the most intuitive sense of the term: they are violent, and they physically destroy man-made structures. The magnitude of damage from floods results from two basic variables: the violence and recurrence of floods themselves, on the one hand, and the value of human structures affected. In a city, a flood does much more damage because there is much more property to destroy. Out there, in the countryside, damages inflicted by floods change from the disaster-type destruction into more lingering, long-term impediments to farming (e.g. contamination of farmed soil), as the density of man-made structures subsides. Droughts work insidiously. There is no spectacular disaster to be afraid of. Adverse outcomes build up progressively, sometimes even year after year. Droughts affect directly the countryside much more than the cities, too. It is rivers drying out first, and only in a second step, cities experiencing disruptions in the supply of water, or of the rivers-dependent electricity. It is farm soil drying out progressively, and farmers suffering some damage due to lower crops or increased costs of irrigation, and only then the city dwellers experiencing higher prices for their average carrot or an organic cereal bar. Mind you, there is one type of drought-related disaster, which sometimes can directly affect our towns and cities: forest fires.

Paprotny et al. (2018) give some detailed insights into the magnitude, type, and geographical distribution of flood-related risks in Europe. Firstly, the ‘where exactly?’. France, Spain, Italy, and Germany are the most affected, with Portugal, England, Scotland, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Portugal following closely behind. As to the type of floods, France, Spain, and Italy are exposed mostly to flash floods, i.e. too much rain falling and not knowing where to go. Germany and virtually all of Central Europe, my native Poland included, are mostly exposed to river floods. As for the incidence of human fatalities, flash-floods are definitely the most dangerous, and their impact seems to be the most serious in the second half of the calendar year, from July on.

Besides, the research by Paprotny et al. (2018) indicates that in Europe, we seem to be already on the path of adaptation to floods. Both the currently observed losses –human and financial – and their 10-year, moving average had their peaks between 1960 and 2000. After 2000, Europe seems to have been progressively acquiring the capacity to minimize the adverse impact of floods, and this capacity seems to have developed in cities more than in the countryside. It truly gives a man a blow, to their ego, when they learn the problem they want to invent a revolutionary solution to does not really exist. I need to return on that claim I made in the « Project Navigator », namely that European cities are perfectly adapted to a climate that does no longer exist. Apparently, I was wrong: European cities seem to be adapting quite well to the adverse effects of climate change. Yet, all hope is not lost. The countryside is still exposed. Now, seriously. Whilst Europe seem to be adapting to greater an occurrence of floods, said occurrence is most likely to increase, as suggested, for example, in the research by Alfieri et al. (2017[6]). That sends us to the issue of limits to adaptation and the cost thereof.

Let’s rummage through more literature. As I study the article by Lu et al. (2019[7]), which compares the relative exposure to future droughts in various regions of the world, I find, first of all, the same uncertainty which I know from Naumann et al. (2015), and Vogt et al. (2018): the economically and socially important drought is a phenomenon we just start to understand, and we are still far from understanding it sufficiently to assess the related risks with precision. I know that special look that empirical research has when we don’t really have a clue what we are observing. You can see it in the multitude of analytical takes on the same empirical data. There are different metrics for detecting drought, and by Lu et al. (2019) demonstrate that assessment of drought-related losses heavily depends on the metric used. Once we account for those methodological disparities, some trends emerge. Europe in general seems to be more and more exposed to long-term drought, and this growing exposure seems to be pretty consistent across various scenarios of climate change. Exposure to short-term episodes of drought seems to be growing mostly under the RCP 4.5 and RCP 6.0 climate change scenarios, a little bit less under the RCP 8.5 scenario. In practical terms it means that even if we, as a civilisation, manage to cut down our total carbon emissions, as in the RCP 4.5. climate change scenario, the incidence of drought in Europe will be still increasing. Stagge et al. (2017[8]) point out that exposure to drought in Europe diverges significantly between the Mediterranean South, on the one hand, and the relatively colder North. The former is definitely exposed to an increasing occurrence of droughts, whilst the latter is likely to experience less frequent episodes. What makes the difference is evapotranspiration (loos of water) rather than precipitation. If we accounted just for the latter, we would actually have more water

I move towards more practical an approach to drought, this time as an agricultural phenomenon, and I scroll across the article on the environmental stress on winter wheat and maize, in Europe, by Webber et al. (2018[9]). Once again, I can see a lot of uncertainty. The authors put it plainly: models that serve to assess the impact of climate change on agriculture violate, by necessity, one of the main principles of statistical hypotheses-testing, namely that error terms are random and independent. In these precise models, error terms are not random, and not mutually independent. This is interesting for me, as I have that (recent) little obsession with applying artificial intelligence – a modest perceptron of my own make – to simulate social change. Non-random and dependent error terms are precisely what a perceptron likes to have for lunch. With that methodological bulwark, Webber et al. (2018) claim that regardless the degree of the so-called CO2 fertilization (i.e. plants being more active due to the presence of more carbon dioxide in the air), maize in Europe seems to be doomed to something like a 20% decline in yield, by 2050. Winter wheat seems to be rowing on a different boat. Without the effect of CO2 fertilization, a 9% decline in yield is to expect, whilst with the plants being sort of restless, and high on carbon, a 4% increase is in view. With Toreti et al. (2019[10]), more global a take is to find on the concurrence between climate extremes, and wheat production. It appears that Europe has been experiencing increasing an incidence of extreme heat events since 1989, and until 2015 it didn’t seem to affect adversely the yield of wheat. Still, since 2015 on, there is a visible drop in the output of wheat. Even stiller, if I may say, less wheat is apparently compensated by more of other cereals (Eurostat[11], Schills et al. 2018[12]), and accompanied by less potatoes and beets.

When I first started to develop on that concept, which I baptised “Energy Ponds”, I mostly thought about it as a way to store water in rural areas, in swamp-and-meadow-like structures, to prevent droughts. It was only after I read a few articles about the Sponge Cities programme in China that I sort of drifted towards that more urban take on the thing. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe the initial concept of rural, hydrological structures was correct? Mind you, whatever we do in Europe, it always costs less if done in the countryside, especially regarding the acquisition of land.

Even in economics, sometimes we need to face reality, and reality presents itself as a choice between developing “Energy Ponds” in urban environment, or in rural one. On the other hand, I am rethinking the idea of electricity generated in water turbines paying off for the investment. In « Sponge Cities », I presented a provisional conclusion that it is a bad idea. Still, I was considering the size of investment that Jiang et al. (2018) talk about in the context of the Chinese Sponge-Cities programme. Maybe it is reasonable to downsize a bit the investment, and to make it sort of lean and adaptable to the cash flow possible to generate out of selling hydropower.    

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. You can communicate with me directly, via the mailbox of this blog: As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

[1] Alfieri, L., Feyen, L., Dottori, F., & Bianchi, A. (2015). Ensemble flood risk assessment in Europe under high end climate scenarios. Global Environmental Change, 35, 199-212.

[2] Alfieri, L., Feyen, L., Dottori, F., & Bianchi, A. (2015). Ensemble flood risk assessment in Europe under high end climate scenarios. Global Environmental Change, 35, 199-212.

[3] Gustavo Naumann et al. , 2015, Assessment of drought damages and their uncertainties in Europe, Environmental Research Letters, vol. 10, 124013, DOI

[4] Vogt, J.V., Naumann, G., Masante, D., Spinoni, J., Cammalleri, C., Erian, W., Pischke, F., Pulwarty, R., Barbosa, P., Drought Risk Assessment. A conceptual Framework. EUR 29464 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2018. ISBN 978-92-79-97469-4, doi:10.2760/057223, JRC113937

[5] Paprotny, D., Sebastian, A., Morales-Nápoles, O., & Jonkman, S. N. (2018). Trends in flood losses in Europe over the past 150 years. Nature communications, 9(1), 1985.

[6] Alfieri, L., Bisselink, B., Dottori, F., Naumann, G., de Roo, A., Salamon, P., … & Feyen, L. (2017). Global projections of river flood risk in a warmer world. Earth’s Future, 5(2), 171-182.

[7] Lu, J., Carbone, G. J., & Grego, J. M. (2019). Uncertainty and hotspots in 21st century projections of agricultural drought from CMIP5 models. Scientific reports, 9(1), 4922.

[8] Stagge, J. H., Kingston, D. G., Tallaksen, L. M., & Hannah, D. M. (2017). Observed drought indices show increasing divergence across Europe. Scientific reports, 7(1), 14045.

[9] Webber, H., Ewert, F., Olesen, J. E., Müller, C., Fronzek, S., Ruane, A. C., … & Ferrise, R. (2018). Diverging importance of drought stress for maize and winter wheat in Europe. Nature communications, 9(1), 4249.

[10] Toreti, A., Cronie, O., & Zampieri, M. (2019). Concurrent climate extremes in the key wheat producing regions of the world. Scientific reports, 9(1), 5493.

[11] last access July 14th, 2019

[12] Schils, R., Olesen, J. E., Kersebaum, K. C., Rijk, B., Oberforster, M., Kalyada, V., … & Manolov, I. (2018). Cereal yield gaps across Europe. European journal of agronomy, 101, 109-120.

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