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Why Flood Risk Management is One of Today's Biggest Emerging Challenges

At AEM, our purpose is to empower communities and organizations to survive – and thrive – in the face of escalating environmental risks. Major storm systems are becoming more common and more severe across the globe, making flood risk management one of today’s biggest emerging challenges.

In this article, we'll...

What is flood risk management?

Flood risk management is the practice of proactively planning for flooding in high-risk areas so as to minimize the damage and disruption to daily life as much as possible when floods do occur. That means considering the entire flood event curve to ensure proper preparedness, proper response, and proper recovery and follow-up afterwards.

Why is flood management important?

Floods are incredibly dangerous and disruptive, and flooding is on the rise around the globe due to climate change. For these reasons, flood management will be one of the top challenges for communities around the globe for the next half-century and beyond.

Public Safety

Floods present a wide range of public safety challenges. Anybody outside during a flood is at risk of being swept away or drowning in a situation where they fall or hit their head. As the flood waters rise and enter homes, the risk of housefires, electrical emergencies, and drownings rises even higher.


Uncontrolled floods also wreak havoc on roadways, making roads impassable and causing a huge spike in automobile accidents. During a major flood, these increased hazards, road closures, and disruption to daily life can go on for days or weeks.

Protecting Infrastructure

Flood waters might not look as scary as a fire or an earthquake, but they can be just as damaging to buildings, roads, bridges, dams, and so on. That’s part of why flood risk management is such a complex field: much of the infrastructure communities rely on to execute their recovery is the same infrastructure that’s most vulnerable to flooding.

Why it’s more relevant than ever

Flooding is on the rise globally for several reasons.

In coastal regions around the world, high-tide flooding is becoming more common because sea levels are rising. Inland, wildfires and bushfires are growing due to hotter, dryer conditions, destroying root systems that provide natural flood resilience.

What causes floods?

By definition, a flood occurs when water overflows and covers land that is typically dry. With that said, there are a variety of scenarios where natural or human factors can cause floods to happen.

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Storms & Heavy Rain

Heavy rain is the most commonplace and obvious cause of floods.

When a major storm system like a hurricane or tropical cyclone dumps heavy rains onto a concentrated area for hours at a time, the water accumulates more quickly than drainage and absorption can carry it away. Flash floods can form in hours or minutes, creating dangerous debris flows and sweeping currents.

Dam Failures

Manmade dams are crucial infrastructure that help communities tame and control rivers in ways that are designed to reduce seasonal flooding, generate electricity, and more. When those dams are no longer structurally sound or become overwhelmed, however, they can transform into tremendous hazards to their communities.

If the idea of a dam failure in the modern world seems far-fetched or like something out of a disaster movie, you’re in for a nasty surprise. According to the Association of Dam Safety Professionals, there were 173 dam failures and 587 near-failure “incidents” in the U.S. alone between 2005 and 2013.

Overflowing Rivers

Even in the absence of a dam failure, rivers can overflow their banks, damaging nearby property and putting community members at risk. These overflows can be caused by a variety of factors, from natural erosion reshaping the riverbed to lower its capacity over time to water runoff from mining operations.

Drainage Failures

You don’t need very much water to create a flood in the absence of drainage – the sink in your bathroom is a simple illustration of that principle. When sewers, drains, and runoff ditches become clogged or overwhelmed, water backs up exceptionally quickly, causing a flood’s just as dangerous as one caused by a much bigger storm.

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In urban and suburban areas, drainage failures can cause major road weather disruptions and ultimately lead to unsanitary conditions that necessitate an expensive clean-up. In rural and agricultural communities, drainage failures can easily lead to the destruction of valuable crops and farm chemicals improperly entering the water table.

Rapid Snowmelt

It’s no mystery that snow and ice are made out of water. Each year, that winter accumulation burns off gradually, typically running down mountain drainage, absorbing into soil, and flowing back to larger bodies of water.

As climate change brings more unseasonably hot days in the late winter/early spring, however, that process is playing out much more unpredictably than before. More snow and ice melting faster increases the risk for avalanches in the mountains and pooling/flooding in flat or low-lying areas.

Wildfires & Deforestation

Wildfires and floods are both on the rise around the world, and there’s a direct relationship between the two of them. When wildfires burn an area, they destroy all the vegetation. This disrupts the soil, as plant roots are responsible for holding the earth in place.

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When heavy rains hit an area after a wildfire, the water flows rapidly over and through the denuded ground, causing a flash flood. These post-fire floods often include dangerous debris flows and can also trigger dangerous mudslides.

Who needs a flood risk management strategy?

As we’ve illustrated, all people have a stake in the rising threat of floods, but federal disaster relief agencies, local governments, utilities, military bases, and airports are some of the most crucial organizations when it comes to flood risk management and preparedness.

Federal Government Agencies

Flooding from major storm surges and dam failures can regrettably lead to major regional public safety, health, and housing crises. For those reasons, federal emergency management and disaster relief agencies need a strong scientific understanding of severe weather and flooding risks in order to keep the public safe.

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When flooding does occur, federal agencies are expected to lead and coordinate the response, collaborating with a wide variety of public and private entities to help people as needed and begin to restore normalcy.

Local Governments & Response Agencies

While federal agencies often take a leadership role during or after a flood, local agencies are often responsible for the ground-level response. In order to best serve their communities, local leaders need the ability to forecast flood conditions as or before they develop, communicate with the public about what to do, and be ready to respond to people in their time of need.


Electricity and water don’t mix. Natural gas and water don’t mix. Wastewater and clean water don’t mix. For those reasons, utilities have a lot of key decisions to make during a flood in order to protect the public.

Utilities need to be able to anticipate major storms and floods so they can prepare for proactive, reactive, or unplanned service interruptions, and they need to be able to communicate with their customers in a clear, useful way about incoming weather risks.

Military Bases

Military bases are self-contained communities that have their own utility services, roadways, airports, and recreation centers, not to mention the military operational equipment and facilities. That means they share all the challenges we discussed above and then some.

Furthermore, many military bases are located in coastal regions, which means they’re often lower lying and therefore more prone to storm surge and flash flooding.

Coastal Airports

In order to keep the public safe on airport roadways and ensure maximum continuity and safety of operations on the tarmac, coastal airports need a flood risk management. In fact, the number of airports who need to consider the risk of flooding is rising sharply.

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According to a study published in Climate Risk Management, more than 100 airports around the world will be below global mean sea level by the year 2100, with more than 1,200 more in the low elevation zone, even if conservative climate change models pan out. That means flooding is poised to emerge as the biggest growing disrupter to aviation and air travel.

How to protect businesses and people from floods

If you’re in one of the groups mentioned above, it’s your responsibility to be proactive about flood risk management and response planning. You need to create a flood risk management plan that includes:

  1. Your known flood risk and exposures, sensitive sites, waterways, etc.
  2. Monitoring technologies you’ll use to track weather and flood risk
  3. Detection technologies that you’ll leverage to identify floods
  4. Communication technologies and chains of command you’ll use to inform response
  5. Monitoring technologies you’ll use after the flood to ensure continued safety

Why you need an environmental monitoring partner for flood management

Flood risk management is a high-stakes game. Lives and property are on the line. You can't afford to take a guess at your approach to flood risk management. You need a proven service provider who can provide you with the expertise, technology, and training your team needs to keep your community safe.

The AEM Advantage

If you’ve got a flood risk management challenge, AEM is here to help! Our seven brands of environmental service providers are here to help you craft a custom toolkit of weather and flood monitoring, detection, response, and communication technologies backed by our combined century-plus of experience. We can help you address the entire flood event curve by...

  1. Building a flood risk management plan
  2. Creating a weather monitoring network
  3. Installing flood cameras, sensors, signage, and alarms
  4. Creating flood command centers and collaboration hubs
  5. Training your team to make the most of the technology


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