Flood Control vs. Flood Management

by Philip A. Williams, Pres.; Philip Williams & Assocs. Ltd., San Francisco,

Serial Information: Civil Engineering—ASCE, 1994, Vol. 64, Issue 5, Pg. 51-54

Document Type: Feature article


For the last 130 years, flood policy in the U.S. has been dominated by the belief that floods can be controlled by structural methods, such as levees, dikes and embankments. These efforts have been copied on river basins throughout the world, from the Rhine to Bangladesh, but the Midwest floods of 1993 suggest that these plans are likely misguided. Long before last summer, river managers have noted that structural works tend to make rivers run higher and faster, increasing erosion and inhibiting deposition. Worse, they provide a false sense of security to those living behind them, lulling the population into ignoring basic damage mitigation and escape procedures. When floods hit - and they always do - the results can be catastrophic. Instead, flood management accepts that certain parts of the land will flood and seeks to reduce the ultimate cost to a society. The approach can incorporate levees, but only as part of a larger strategy that includes: floodproofing important structures, zoning certain types of development out of the floodplain, establishing warning systems and refuge areas, and creating financial incentives. The experiences of the last few years suggests the managed approach has the fewest costs, both economically and environmentally and all over the world, flood policy may soon change to reflect that.

Subject Headings: Floods | Levees and dikes | River bank stabilization | Disaster warning systems | Basins | Developing countries | Managers | Erosion | Bangladesh | Asia

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