As right as rain, opening the floodgates to climate change awareness

In an instant, Copenhagen was transformed into a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie. We were soaked to the bones in seconds, and the road we were walking down turned into a wild river of rainwater with a pinch of sewage. My friends and I never made it to the jazz concert that we had tickets for that night. Instead we watched, helpless, as cars floated around in the streets and people waded through water up to their knees. These were the bizarre events of July 2011 that have become known as the “Monster Rain”, or the “Copenhagen Cloudburst”.

This event often comes back to me when people talk about climate change, and is just one example of the growing number of extreme weather events around the world. It also illustrates how cities are generally not prepared to respond to such events. As water managers become more aware of the vulnerability to extreme weather events of water and wastewater systems in urban areas, they are looking for international best practices and practical solutions that can help them.

The recent Water and Sanitation Safety Planning and Extreme Weather Events symposium brought together experts to discuss how to best ensure continuous, high quality water and sanitation services during extreme events. Their key conclusions highlight both the challenges the water sector faces, and how the sector can better prepare for an unpredictable future.

Water and Sanitation Safety Planning is critical for climate resilience

Climate change is challenging traditional planning and decision-making within the sector, with extreme events becoming more frequent and severe. Water supply and sanitation risk assessments increasingly need to incorporate extreme events, and Water Safety Planning is a practical tool that can help water services management become climate resilient. At the same time, Sanitation Safety Planning is becoming increasingly important to ensure good human and environmental health, and can help trigger greater resource recovery from wastewater.

Water and Sanitation Safety Plans needs to be integrated

Understanding the linkages between the water supply and sanitation is crucial. In Copenhagen, the floodwaters contained sewage and this was critical to the effects and consequences of the flooding. Connecting Water and Sanitation Safety Planning can reduce contamination risks when flooding occurs.

Adaptation and mitigation to climate change needs to be local

It is important to take into account overlapping interest with different stakeholders, and because of the added co-benefits, green and blue infrastructure is often the preferred solution.

The available ‘big data’ must become ‘small data’ to provide local solutions

Available data needs to be simplified and visualized to make information and scenarios available in an easily accessible way. This way it can be useful and create a local understanding. Yet, combining and sharing data between institutions is challenging as data becomes “smaller” and more local.

Copenhagen was fortunate, when the rain stopped falling that evening in 2011, the water levels fell within hours. Other places have not been so fortunate. In Serbia in 2014, floodwaters didn’t fall down for a whole week, causing a much more severe emergency. As the climate changes, so too must the physical infrastructure to deal with it. Procedures and responses also need to change, especially if infrastructure cannot be adjusted sufficiently. Water Safety Plan implementation has helped the Serbian authorities improve their future emergency responses.

Copenhagen saw 2011 as a snapshot of the future. It has used the lessons from the floods to invest in climate resilience, and has become a climate adaptation and mitigation world-leader. Their holistic approach has integrated grey infrastructure, such as retention and storage systems, with green infrastructure. This has improved flood protection, but also created a more livable city. The world now looks to Copenhagen for lessons. It has taken investments, but that must be seen in light of the estimated total cost of the flood of over 1 billion USD.

That night when I walked home, Bob James’ “As right as rain” was running through my mind. It made me wonder if we always need a crisis to understand how serious a problem is? Do we need to be visually soaked in the issue and see personal consequences before taking action? Experience has shown, again and again, a crisis is often needed as a trigger to wake up to climate change.



What are Water Safety Plans? Learn more here.

What is Sanitation Safety Plans? Learn more here

Presentations from the Water and Sanitation Safety Planning and Extreme Weather Events symposium can be found here, a summary report will be published on this page around august 2017:

An IWA video with reflections from the symposium and its regulators forum:

A recent publication from the World Health Organisation offers guidance to make climate resilient WSPs


Marie Rødsten Sagen

Climate Change and Sustainability Coordinator, Bergen Water
Marie Rødsten Sagen is an environmental engineer responsible for benchmarking, strategy and sustainability initiatives at the Bergen Water Utility (Norway). Previously she worked as Manager of Technology and Business Development at the startup Inver... Read full biography