Zoran Vojinović: Managing Floods in Asia and the Pacific

Zoran Vojinović, urban water practitioner and academic, talks about a new outlook in managing urban flood risks and its applications in the Asia and Pacific region.

How did you get interested in studying floods?

What drives my interest in floods is the realization that floods and flood-related disasters, although commonly referred to as natural disasters, are not the results of natural processes alone. Floods are, to an ever-increasing extent, directly attributable to various social, economic, historical, political, and even cultural issues. This is why my work has been focused on developing more adaptive flood solutions that are not only economically and technologically efficient, but also ecologically sustainable and socially just.

"Dealing with flood risk is a problem which requires consideration of as many different perspectives as possible before selecting the most suitable solution." - Zoran Vojinović

What are the biggest challenges in flood management facing Asia today?

We need to overcome the predominance of techno-centric and piecemeal approaches to dealing with floods and avoid those that lead to deeper social inequities and ecological imbalance. We should search for cross-sector flood measures that also address other social, economic, cultural and environmental issues and concerns. ADB's Green Cities Initiative is a good example of such thinking.

Another challenge is the prevailing thinking that prioritizes economic prosperity and growth above social, cultural and ecological well-being. Such approaches have led to the development of less sustainable and less efficient means of responding to crises, including floods and flood-related disasters. Also, economic prosperity is often interpreted as wealth measured exclusively in terms of money (e.g., GDP and GNP). Such measures fail to recognize unsustainable facets of growth, particularly those related to global warming and overuse of natural resources.

How is Asia dealing with these challenges?

There has been a significant increase in the level of awareness of governments and major stakeholders, particularly in vulnerable countries, on the need to put in place the "right" flood management strategy and action plan. However, the bias remains toward traditional piecemeal approaches dominated by structural/engineering interventions. Dealing with flood risk is a problem which requires consideration of as many different perspectives as possible before selecting the most suitable solution. We need to see the problem from a more "holistic" perspective and to treat it "holistically".

You advocate for this "holistic" view in your book "Flood Risk and Social Justice." Can you elaborate on this perspective?

The sooner we recognize the natural, social and technological interactions that shape vulnerability to floods, the sooner we will realize the need for new thinking that combines different kinds of knowledge into a "holistic" view that provides for a more complete and comprehensive approach to flood problems. Therefore, holistic flood management should aim for resilience and adaptation actions that offer multiple benefits to urban ecosystems.

For example, coastal cities that embark on building desalination plants as a measure to mitigate drought may merely shift from a dependency on rainfall (needed to fill in reservoirs and dams) to dependency on energy (needed to operate such plants). A more holistic approach would consider the use of alternative water sources to preserve drinking water reserves, for instance, by using storm-water and/or treated wastewater flows for flushing toilets. In addition, connecting wastewater treatment plants to multipurpose productive landscapes can efficiently recover nutrients, provide for recreational areas, and help maintain ecological balance.

What makes this "holistic" view different from current approaches such as integrated urban flood management?

A holistic view considers floods as a set of interrelated wholes, whose interactions and interdependences can help gain better understanding of complexities involved in developing appropriate adaptive, economically and technologically efficient, ecologically sustainable, and socially just solutions. Traditional integrated urban flood risk management, on the other hand, generally refers to the coordination and integration of tools, approaches, methods and resources to maximize benefits (or minimize flood risk) and minimize costs.

Under the ADB-UNESCO-IHE partnership agreement, you are leading a team to undertake flood risk assessment and development of a disaster risk mitigation plan for the historic city of Ayutthaya in Thailand. Can you kindly tell us more about this project?

The Historic City of Ayutthaya, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1991, was subjected to an extreme flooding event in 2011, the worst flooding Thailand has experienced in decades. Under the project, we will undertake flood risk assessment and develop a risk mitigation plan. The project began in March 2013 and is expected to be completed in 20 months. Our project team consists of experts from UNESCO-IHE in Delft, UNESCO Bangkok, AIT Bangkok and the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute (Bangkok). We are working closely with ADB Resident Mission in Thailand and our main government counterpart is the Fine Arts Department in the Ministry of Culture.

A special challenge in this project is the fact that we are dealing with intangible values of heritage sites. We are developing intricate one- and two-dimensional hydrodynamic models that capture the floodplain characteristics in the Ayutthaya region. Simultaneously we are directing considerable efforts to determine how to combine tangible and intangible values into a common holistic framework for flood risk assessment.

The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.


About the Champion

Zoran Vojinović is Associate Professor of Hydroinformatics at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, in Delft, the Netherlands. An engineer by profession, Zoran is an expert in urban water systems, and more particularly in stormwater and wastewater management, with almost 20 years experience covering different geographic locations, from the Asia-Pacific to South America and the Carribean.

Zoran's expertise ranges from being a designer and supervisor of various complex water engineering systems to being a specialist advisor for waterboards and governments through multidisciplinary team leadership and project management. He also led the team that developed the wastewater management expert system or WaMEX. Zoran is the author of two books: "Urban Hydroinformatics: Data, Models and Decision Support for Integrated Urban Water Management" (with Roland K. Price) and "Flood Risk and Social Justice: From Quantitative to Qualitative Flood Risk Assessment and Mitigation" (with Michael B. Abbott), both published by the International Water Association.

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