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UN Warns about Inequity Behind Levees in the United States
Ethnic minorities and poor communities in the U.S. are unequally exposed to the risk of levee failure under climate change, warns a new UN assessment.
Throughout history, people worldwide built levees to shield their communities from floods. In the United States, these levees, initially constructed by farmers and settlers to safeguard their land, now serve as the backbone of the nation's flood management system.
Approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population depends on these aging levees for flood protection. Unfortunately, many of these structures were built without rigorous standards and now average 57 years of age. This outdated infrastructure endangers millions of Americans, as seen in the recent breach of the Pajaro Levee in California in March 2023.
In 2005, 50 levees and flood walls in Louisiana failed, resulting in one of the costliest U.S. floods, impacting 134,000 households and causing around 1,400 fatalities. Flooding costs the U.S. $32 billion annually, expected to rise to $40 billion by 2050. Sea-level rise and more frequent and intense floods and hurricanes threaten the nation's inadequate flood protection, putting lives and assets in peril.
The recent study by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), also known as the UN Water Think Tank, reveals the injustice implications of deteriorating U.S. levees for disadvantaged population groups. By comparing those behind levees to those in non-leveed areas, researchers found that historically underserved and vulnerable communities are concentrated behind levees.
The report shows that racial and ethnic minorities, impoverished households, disabled individuals, and those without high school diplomas are overrepresented in leveed communities. They are at greater risk from floods and climate change due to limited capacity to cope with hazards.
Disadvantaged communities are overrepresented behind levees in 43 states. The most notable disparities are observed among Hispanic populations, individuals with limited education, those living in poverty, Native Americans, Asians, and Black communities. "We must appreciate different vulnerability levels across population groups and help more those who are in need of greater help" said Farshid Vahedifard, UNU-INWEH's Resilient and Equitable Infrastructure Lead, who led the investigation.
The United Nations report calls for addressing socio-economic and demographic disparities in flood management and climate adaptation. It emphasizes prioritizing vulnerable groups in future strategies, incorporating environmental justice principles into decision-making.
While the study focuses on the U.S., it underscores the global nature of the issue, highlighting justice and equity gaps in water management and climate adaptation in advanced economies. "This study just revealed the tip of the iceberg, but it's a constructive step toward building a just and inclusive future for all", said Kaveh Madani, the Director of UNU-INWEH.
Download the study at:
United Nations University Institute for Water,
Environment and Health