Rivers, especially big ones, can cause a lot of mayhem. When they flood, they destroy livelihoods, cause economic damage and kill people. It’s no surprise then that humans, being the clever creatures that we are, try and stop rivers from flooding using whatever resources we have. Unfortunately, rivers, like most things in nature, are powerful & unpredictable. Stopping rivers from flooding full stop isn’t possible but we can do a lot to mitigate and manage the risks that arise from flooding.
Flood management strategies generally involve multiple engineering projects that can fall under one of two categories. Hard engineering projects are ones that involve the construction of artificial structures that, through a combination of science, technology and a bit of brute force, prevent a river from flooding. Soft engineering projects are the opposite. These projects use natural resources and local people’s knowledge of the river to reduce the risk posed by a flood.
Each type of project has its advantages and disadvantages. Hard engineering projects are generally very successful and have a large impact on the river. This is one of their downfalls though as the effects of a hard engineering project can disrupt ecological systems in the drainage basin. Hard engineering techniques generally involve the containment of large volumes of water so if they were to fail for some reason, the impacts could be many times worse than if the river had been allowed to flood naturally. There’s also the high cost, technological requirements & maintenance of hard engineering projects that makes them unfeasible in countries without significant economic resources.
Soft engineering projects focus more on reducing the impacts of a flood rather than preventing one. The biggest advantage of soft engineering is cost. Soft engineering projects are significantly cheaper than hard engineering projects making them more suitable for less developed countries. They also have lower education & technology requirements so they can be implemented by local people in remote parts of poor countries.
Soft engineering projects are more sustainable than their hard engineering counterparts. Soft engineering projects are low maintenance and low cost unlike hard engineering projects. In addition, they don’t disturb the natural processes and ecological systems in a river basin instead choosing to integrate with them and in some cases improve them.
Hard Engineering Techniques
Dams are the classic hard engineering solution to flooding problems. A dam is a giant wall built across a river’s channel to impede its flow. Water builds up behind the dam and forms a reservoir which can then be steadily drained at a controlled rate over time. This helps keep discharge downstream of the dam low even during prolonged heavy rainfall.
Besides being highly effective at reducing the risk of flooding, dams can also be used to generate hydroelectric power that can bring economic benefits to an area by attracting manufacturing factories or being exported to other countries. The reservoir that develops behind a dam can be used as a drinking source or for leisure activities.
Despite these benefits, dams have some damn big (so sorry) problems. Dams are among the most expensive of all hard engineering techniques and require access to lots of raw materials like concrete and steel. They also have a huge impact on the local environment. The area behind a dam has to be flooded which destroys habitats and forces people out of their homes. Dams disrupt the processes that take place within a river too by, for example, preventing sediment from being transported downstream. This can result in landforms like deltas being destroyed which can in turn result in the destruction of more habitats. When sediment gets trapped behind a dam, it can change the chemical composition of the water behind the dam which can kill aquatic animals living upstream.
Dams pose a huge risk too. They store thousands of litres of water behind them so if they were to fail, they’d cause widespread death and damage downstream as all the water is released at once.
Artificial levées are, well, artificial versions of their natural counterparts. They act as embankments, essentially extending the channel’s height and increasing its bankfull discharge. Unlike natural levées, artificial levées are significantly larger and are generally constructed out of a material like concrete that is resistant to erosion. The main advantage of an artificial levée is that it allows the floodplain to be built on. This is their downfall though as they encourage the development of the floodplain which can increase the risk of flooding. Furthermore, if they did fail, like the embankments along the Mississippi did in 19271, the damage from the flood would be far worse than if the embankments didn’t exist.
Wing dykes are slats that are placed in a river’s channel at ~90˚ to the banks. Generally they’ll be placed in pairs on either side of the channel with a gap between them that allows boats to pass through them. Behind dykes, sediment builds up and the channel is narrowed, forcing water to flow faster. This helps reduce the risk of flooding by getting water away from an area at risk of flooding as quickly as possible, preventing a build up of water. They also aid navigation greatly. While wing dykes reduce the risk of flooding in one area, downstream of a river they can increase the risk of flooding making them only useful in sparsely populated areas.
This technique kind of speaks for itself. By blocking off meanders and constructing alternate, straighter routes across meanders, the river starts to flow faster. Like with wing dykes, this moves water through the river faster preventing it from pooling and so reducing the risk of a flood. A straightened channel is faster to navigate too, a nice benefit of channel straightening.
Like with wing dykes, this technique has several problems. Downstream of a straightened section of a channel, flooding becomes more likely. In addition, erosion is stronger downstream because the river has a lot more kinetic energy.
Diversion spillways are artificial channels that a river can flow into when its discharge rises. These channels move water around an area at risk of flooding and send it either back into the river (but further downstream) or into another river. Spillways generally have floodgates on them that can be used to control the volume of water in the spillway.
Spillways pose a threat to areas near the confluence between the spillway and whichever river it flows into as the discharge here will be increased and so too will the risk of flooding. In addition, the path that spillways take can take water around areas not usually used to flooding. If the spillway was to fail for some reason, this could cause widespread damage.
Soft Engineering Techniques
Floodplain zoning involves placing restrictions on land usage in the areas surrounding a river. Essentially, construction is unlimited outside of the floodplain but the floodplain itself is limited to the construction of public outdoor facilities like playing fields and parks. This has several effects in reducing the risk and impact of flooding. Obviously if no one is allowed to build on a floodplain then the damage caused by the river flooding will be greatly reduced because there isn’t much to damage. In addition, floodplain zoning ensures that land on the floodplain isn’t urbanised so infiltration can occur and surface run off is reduced. This reduces the likelihood of a river flooding.
The problem with floodplain zoning is that it limits development to certain areas. In addition, if a floodplain has already been developed on, there isn’t anything that can be done to un-develop it without forcing people off of the floodplain.
Afforestation involves the planting of trees in a drainage basin to increase interception and storage while reducing surface run off. This reduces a river’s discharge and so makes it less likely to flood. Afforestation also prevents mass wasting which reduces the amount of soil entering the river and keeps the river’s capacity high. When combined with floodplain zoning, afforestation can be very effective at reducing the risk of flooding.
Afforestation has the benefit of creating new habitats for animals and improving water quality by filtering pollutants out of rainwater. The issue with afforestation is that it requires quite a lot of space to be effective and could prove unpopular among famers on the floodplain as they won’t be too happy with trees sapping nutrients from the soil. This issue can be combated somewhat by creating riparian buffers, thin vegetated strips of land that run adjacent to a river’s channel.
Wetland restoration involves creating conditions that are favourable for the development of wetlands (marshes or swamps). Wetlands are able to store large volumes of water which helps to reduce the discharge in a river. Wetlands don’t reduce flooding where they are located but rather downstream of the river. They have the added benefit of creating new habitats for animals and greatly increasing biodiversity. They reduce the area of land available for farming though which makes them unpopular among farmers.
River restoration involves restoring a river that has undergone hard engineering back to its original course. This can involve un-straightening a channel, removing artificial levees, diversion spillways & wing dykes. This may seem silly as it is going to reintroduce flooding back in the area where these structures were located but, if this land is no longer valuable, river restoration can help reduce the risk of flooding downstream.
River restoration is a good thing if it’s done properly as allowing the river to take its natural course prevents and reverts any environmental and ecological damage introduced by hard engineering projects. River restoration also has as good as 0 maintenance costs making it very cheap.
The issues arise when river restoration takes place in areas that are still being used by people. I said previously that river restoration can be used where land is no longer valuable. Well, what defines valuable? Farmland? A small village? A town? This decision comes down to the local environmental agency. If they make the wrong call, the restoration project can cause a lot of damage.
Hard Engineering - The Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam is a mega-dam located on the Yangtze River in central China. It’s 2.3km wide, 185m high and took over 15 years to build. The dam was built in response to the seasonal flooding that takes place along the Yangtze that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. A flood in 1998 killed over 3,500 people, left 13M homeless and caused billions of dollars of damage. With several of China’s major economic cities (e.g. Nanjing) located along the Yangtze, it has become increasingly important for the Chinese government to do something to reduce the risk of flooding.
The overall cost of the dam is estimated at roughly ¥180 billion. It will take nearly a decade for the dam to pay for itself by generating electricity. The project was funded by the China Development Bank and profits from another dam located on the Yangtze.
Overall the dam will have a positive effect on China’s economy as the dam aids the navigability of the Yangtze by making it slower and deepening the channel. This will help increase the trade capacity of the river which acts as one of the largest transportation networks for trade within China. The dam will also reduce China’s dependency on coal meaning that it doesn’t have to spend as much on mining or importing coal.
The reduction in the risk of flooding will save money in the long run because there will be less economic damage in the future. The inundation of land behind the dam however is costly because many factories were located behind the dam and had to be relocated, often at a high cost. In addition, the lack of annual flooding means that much of the farmland that is located on the Yangtze’s floodplain will gradually become less fertile, reducing agricultural yield.
The dam has succeeded in reducing the risk of flooding, taking the recurrence interval for large floods from 1 in 10 years to 1 in 100 years. Nonetheless, the Three Gorges Dam has had some huge negative social impacts. Over 1.2 million people were required to leave their homes as they were going to be inundated by the dam’s reservoir. The people who refused to leave were forcibly removed from their homes. The reservoir ended up flooding 13 cities and hundreds of villages. Those that were displaced were relocated to cities that had been specially constructed for the dam.
Many of those that were relocated lived on less than $1/day and were simple farmers who lacked any sort of skills. When they were moved to the new cities, they struggled to find work as there were relatively few agricultural jobs and they had no training for other sorts of jobs. This has exacerbated the poverty situation.
The land that was flooded was home to hundreds of cultural relics, archaeological sites and family burial grounds that date back to the Palaeolithic era. Some cultural sites, such as the Zhang Fei temple, were moved but many were not and there is thought to be hundreds of undiscovered archeological sites that have been destroyed.
The dam brought about few positive social impacts. Primarily, for many of the people living in poverty who were displaced, the new homes they were given represented a substantial step up in terms of quality and living standards.
The Three Gorges Dam has already caused some environmental problems and is expected to continue to do so for the rest of its existence. The Yangtze transports a lot of sediment that is now being blocked behind the dam. Engineers have attempted to come up with a solution to this problem but it is unlikely to be as efficient as letting the sediment flow through. This is going to result in the gradual destruction of the Yangtze’s delta and increased erosion downstream of the dam.
The blocked sediment will alter the chemical composition of water upstream from the dam. This, in turn, will result in a reduction in biodiversity and the potential extinction of several species of animals. Given that the river is one of the main dumping grounds of industrial & household waste, this wildlife threat will only grow larger. The waste will, like sediment, collect behind the dam, poisoning the water behind it.
The area of land that is becoming the dam’s reservoir was home to many species of endangered animals including the giant panda and the Chinese tiger. The destruction of their habitats only worsens their endangered status.
While the lack of annual flooding of the Yangtze is good, from an environmental perspective it is very bad as the farmers who relied on the fertile soil produced by floods will now have to use artificial fertiliser that will drain into the river and pollute the downstream section of the river.
There are some positive environmental impacts. The Three Gorges Dam serves as a hydroelectric power plant that has a capacity of ~22.5GW2. This is enough to supply less than 5% of China’s power but that is still a considerable amount and will result in millions of tonnes of coal not being burnt.
The forced relocation of 1.2 million people has raised numerous human rights concerns. Furthermore, the environmental impacts of the dam have created opposition from environmental groups and other governments. The World Bank refused to fund the project because of the environmental and social problems that were associated with the project.
The dam represents a major military target as downstream of the dam are some of China’s largest cities including Shanghai. If the dam were to be breached, it would cause a lot of damage and kill a lot of people. The dam is thought to be a potential target for terrorist organisations in Taiwan.
Soft Engineering - The River Cole
The River Cole is a tributary to the River Thames located in southern England. The River Cole has been heavily modified over 100s of years in order to improve its efficiency for milling. The channel had been straightened for milling and also widened & dredged to reduce the risk of flooding. As a result of the alterations that took place, the quality of the water & biodiversity in the area has fallen significantly.
In 1995, a project was set up to restore the River Cole to its original course. The project aimed to reintroduce wildlife to the area, improve the water quality and reduce the risk of flooding by reintroducing wetland. The project was funded by the EU, the River Restoration Centre (RRC), the Environmental Agency & The National Trust.
In order to restore the original course of the River Cole, old maps of the channel were used to work out its natural course. To recreate the course, a new channel was created that flowed 1.2m above the current channel as the current channel had been dredged and was lower than the original. In addition, the new channel was given meanders that were present in the past and was given space to allow the river to meander naturally. Finally, the old channel was blocked off so that the river would flow through the newer channel.
The project appears to have been successful. It has recreated wetlands which will help reduce the risk of flooding and has also allowed the river to flood naturally, which will improve the fertility of the surrounding land and prevent floods further downstream. New wildlife and plants have started to inhabit the area surrounding the river and the surrounding environment is much more pleasant.
The project did receive some backlash. The floodplain surrounding the river is used as agricultural land and many farmers were unhappy to have marshland developing nearby. They also weren’t happy with the land that they would lose because of the new course the river would take and the fact that the river would meander and start to take up more land. Finally, they were unhappy with allowing the river to flood naturally as while it would deposit fertile alluvium, it would also inundate and damage anything they were growing at the time.
That’s ~20× the amount of power generated by a nuclear power plant. Annually, the dam generates 80TWh of power. That’s 288PJ (petajoules) of energy or 68.8 megatons of TNT. The most powerful bomb ever detonated on Earth had a yield of ~57 megatons. That’s a lot of energy. That energy meets less than 5% of China’s energy demands. Wow. ↩