“Natural disasters are not natural”
At the heart of Resilient Delta lies the belief that by converging science, policy, industry, and society, adaptations for complex urban deltas can be created and shared. In the six-part interview series “Voices of Generation Delta” we talk to those who have joined our mission to tackle society’s biggest challenges through boundary crossing teamwork. First up, Audrey Esteban, Postdoctoral researcher from TU Delft whose work centers around urban flood resilience.
“The Dutch have a huge trust in their delta works as well as the government. They’ve calculated the flood risk at 1 in 10,000 years and people perceive this probability as never happening in their lifetime. However, that risk can play out tonight, tomorrow, or even this morning.”
Dr. Esteban holds a Postdoc position within the transdisciplinary research program RED & BLUE, which focusses on real estate climate risk governance strategies for lower-lying urban areas in the Dutch delta. Esteban’s research centers around the knowledge that while we may still live safely behind dikes now, we do not know how tenable this will be in the long run.
Central to RED & BLUE’s research is the bringing together of varying disciplines from related sectors, ranging from climate scientists and economists to scholars like Esteban: “I come from the social sciences world of the Erasmus University, while also being an urban planner. My interest lies in looking at the collective engagement around urban resilience.”
You can make houses more resilient, but so must be the people living in them. A city is as resilient as its people.
In practice this means she does not research the risk of floods happening anytime soon, but how cities can build resilience through collective engagement. Esteban focused her research on Rotterdam and Dordrecht, comparing how both cities build urban resilience through government and self-organization approaches. One key takeaway from her research proved worrying: “A lack of risk communication, combined with high trust in the government and infrastructure, nurtures feelings of complacency which directly relates to a low perception of flood risk.”
“In the Netherlands we have very strong infrastructure and the money to build all these delta work systems, but resilient cities are more than just dikes. You can make houses more resilient, but so must be the people living in them. A city is as resilient as its people.”
While hard science can give graphs and formulas needed to build practical solutions, Esteban points out that social science adds pieces to the puzzle. “In research projects everything must be scientific, but as scientists we should also be able to bridge the gap between science and reality. Even when you have good motives, wanting to make everything climate efficient, the community must understand why they need to reduce their carbon emissions or buy solar panels.”
There is a difference between a natural disaster and a natural hazard. A disaster happens because we did not build properly, allocated appropriate budgets, and allowed weak foundations.
This need to link theory to practice plays a central role in Esteban’s professional life. Her background as a UN Consultant and Asian Development Bank officer helps her bring actual realities to academia as a form of research. “You can’t just get your secondary data and plan. There is value in talking to people and listening very well.”
Her new paper on the politics of urban flood resilience, narrows in on why and how politics has influenced the flood management in the Philippines. “People think that disasters are happening because of climate change. For me there is no such thing as a natural disaster. There is a difference between a natural disaster and a natural hazard. A disaster happens because we did not build properly, allocated appropriate budgets, and allowed weak foundations. Politics also play a role.”
The Philippines faces floods regularly, being in the Typhoon Belt. The country has consistently held a top spot in the World Risk Index, facing the highest disaster risk. Its current infrastructure and resources do not prove enough. However, to say that they are therefore not resilient, proves false. “When there is a huge flood, you see people swimming in waters, dancing in the rain. While amusing, it also angers me because their government is not doing enough to prevent these disasters. But the people are very resilient, they have created a strong coping mechanism.”
“You can be working on the same data but look for different things due to your area of research. It (transdisciplinary research) helps me become a better professional and person.”
It is this multi-faceted nature of the term resilience that drives her in her work for RED & BLUE. The boundary crossing teamwork allows for different knowledge and science to contribute to the project. “You can be working on the same data but look for different things due to your area of research. It helps me become a better professional and person.”
When asked what changes she wishes to see in her current hometown of Rotterdam, she refers to a slogan which came to characterize the city after the second world war. “We can only be ‘sterker door strijd’ when we work with the people. Rotterdam built itself up after the bombing. We can build a resilient city by engaging with all her communities.