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The Challenge of Adaptation

In this video, we discuss adaptation and resilience with Richard Symonds of the Environment Agency, and Rich Pancost an expert in environmental change
I’m Richard Symonds, I’m a manager in the Incident Management Department here at the Environment Agency. My name is Rich Pancost, I’m a Professor of Biogeochemistry, I’m also the director of the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute.
So adaptation is recognising that things are changing in the world, in the climate particularly, and adaptation is making sure that we are prepared for those eventualities in the best way that we can be. So there’s different stages of adaptation, different things that we can do, there’s a resistance type of approach which is to minimise the risk in the first place. That would be through things like not building homes, properties in a flood risk area, for example, it could be making sure that you’re understanding what happens when floods might happen, where they would go, how the water would behave, and not putting things in the path of that water.
And then the other side of that is on the resilience side, which is recognising that floods do happen and when they happen the resilience will get you back to normal as fast as you possibly can be. I think the profile of a resilient individual is the same characteristics as the profile of a resilient community, a resilient city, and one aspect is that individual has to have agency, must have the ability to act. And that becomes quite interesting because what does allow someone the ability to act? Is it money? Is it political power? For example suppose we have catastrophic floods in Bristol.
The resilient individual might say, ‘well I’m going to go up and I’m going to make a little shanty town up on the Downs’. There’s a lot of people who say, ‘no you can’t come up to the Downs’. So agency is a complicated complicated thing, so it’s economic controls, it’s access to data and information, it is access to political power. The other characteristic that personally I find to be quite essential to resiliency as opposed to simply adaptation is flexibility and creativity. You know, adaptation or risk management would say ‘I will never be flooded’. The resilient person says, ‘actually, when a flood happens I’ve got options, I’ve got creativity.’
And this is what’s different than just the old adaptation narratives which were really more about how you prevent the bad thing from happening, but it’s about being quite flexible and creative about how you do it. And that’s what’s really exciting about what the next generation is going to bring because what they’re going to do is they’re going to come up with completely new ideas that we haven’t thought of yet. You know they’re going to come up with the Uber and Airbnb versions of resilience, they’re not going to just say ‘how do we make the old systems work?’ they’re going to come up with completely new ones. That’s what resilience has to become.
It has to be this thriving, evolving, creative entity.
I’ve experienced flooding first hand in home in in Somerset in February 2014. We had over 700mm of water indoors and it was there for just over a month, so it meant that we were out of the house whilst it was repaired for very nearly a year and we went through all of the heartache and heartbreak of seeing the house and the home and the memory sort of taken apart, destroyed, a lot of them were stored outside on the drive before they entered the skip and things like that.
And then we’ve had to sort of rebuild the house, put back the memories and rebuild it with more resilience built in, we hope, but we never want it to be tested again thank you very much. When you experience something like a flood it’s very much like a bereavement. You’ve lost everything, you’ve lost your home, you’ve lost your community, you’ve lost your neighbours and it does take it out of you to experience something like that, multiple bereavement really. It’s made me very much more aware of what people are going through when we see the news of the reports and things like that.
I think one of the things that helped us to get through it is that we did have a plan of what to do when we knew those circumstances were close to us, so for a long while before we had water in the house we never went upstairs empty-handed. We stored a lot of stuff upstairs, we’re fortunate because we’ve got an upstairs.
Many of my neighbours are in bungalows so they didn’t have that luxury and therefore they have perhaps lost more than we lost; all of our valuable things, all the irreplaceable things, were upstairs, but there was still other things that you lose, you can’t help but lose, when you get those sorts of circumstances and the knowledge of that certainly has impacted how I am now involved in incidents of a similar nature.
There’s lots of examples so let me try and separate it out. So in terms of resistance, protecting properties, the Environment Agency spends a lot of money every year in reducing the flood risk through construction of defences, whether those are hard defences, so concrete walls and things like that, or now increasingly much more softer side, working with nature and trying to slow the flow of water down into the communities, by holding it back further up the catchment which is a term called natural flood management.
I think when you’re thinking about the challenges and the really really big picture, it’s really important to hold in your head how they’re all interconnected so that you’re open to a huge range of solutions. So for example, if you’re thinking about climate change and only climate change, and thinking about flooding and that’s all you’re thinking about, you might think how do I lobby government or lobby, you know whether it’s local or national, how do I lobby people to ensure that my flood walls are as high as they need to be? That’s one possible solution. There’s plenty of avenues of where the empowered citizen can make a difference.
The other possible solution is I think, well actually how do we make sure that when it floods, it affects all of us, how do we ensure that we’re all equally protected? So you tackle the problem from one of equality or how do you make sure that we’re all prepared? And maybe then you think a little less about the flood wall, although that’s still important, and you think a little about the community and how it’s connected and how it supports one another. This is already happening, the vast majority of people who are rescued during floods are not rescued by the national services, they’re rescued by their neighbours.
So it’s already there but how do we empower that, how do we make that better, how do we make it stronger? I think that’s what I would suggest when we think about how we tackle the problems, is to look at them in their broadest sense. If we look at them too linearly, you’ll have some solutions but there’ll be fairly linear solutions, they’re not going to be creative and new solutions. What we do know though is that these things are becoming more frequent and the impacts are becoming more serious as we build more and more properties in this country, so everybody needs to have a plan to know what to do when these sorts of conditions occur.
It could be just a very heavy rainstorm, thunderstorms, very intense downpours of rain, or it could be a more prolonged period of rain, little and often, but occurring over a long period of time. They will have different impacts and people need to understand what those impacts will be.
I’ve done some work with Bangladesh, with Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We had some visitors over here a few years ago and it’s really interesting to talk to them about the way they approach it. There are many similarities but the scale of the challenges they face are far greater even than this country. So take Bangladesh for example, 60% of that country is floodplain, so if it floods out of the Himalayas there’s going to be massive impacts on people in many many different communities.
Many of those communities are remote so they won’t be able to get help to them, the officials won’t get help to those communities for a long long time after the flood has happened, and those communities will have to rely on their own, and they’ve got all sorts of ingenious schemes to do that. I’ve even seen vegetable beds that float so they are watered automatically because they’re on the water all of the time but they can go up and down as the flood water comes and goes, which is a really clever solution and means that they can recover more quickly because they have the food supplies that they need.
Everybody has something to contribute and I would say that the main obligation you have is to find a certain degree of hope that you can tackle the challenge, a certain degree of optimism that you are not alone, that there are other people working with you, and you can trust that collectively you’re moving in the same direction, and then see what it is that you can do that is going to make a difference but also tap into your real passions for life, so that you’re harnessing the best of yourself as you tackle it.

Humanity’s activities are causing changes in our environment which are in turn affecting us. The most obvious of these is the impact of climate change on weather patterns.

In this video, we discuss the concepts of adaptation and resilience in the face of such changes, specifically the increased incidence and impacts of flooding in the UK, caused in part by the increased amount and intensity of rainfall resulting from climate change.

In this video, you’ll hear from two people involved in this. Richard Symonds works in the Incident Management department of the Environment Agency, based in Bristol. He works on the agency’s response to flood events, and has experienced the personal impacts of flooding firsthand when his home in the Somerset levels was flooded in the winter of 2013 to 2014. He speaks both of the agency’s work in England, and what he has learned from the agency’s connection with communities in Bangladesh.

Rich Pancost is the Head of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol, a cross-disciplinary research institute which includes extensive work on the impacts of Global Environmental Change and humanities response to it. He speaks more generally about the concepts of adaptation and resilience, and the personal and social factors which are involved in these.

  • Have there been any moments in your life when you’ve faced the need to adapt?
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