Azara Blog: Deforestation allegedly does not increase risk of major floods

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Date published: 2005/10/13

The BBC says:

Deforestation and logging do not increase the risk of major floods, according to a new report.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) say the evidence shows no link.

Loss of forest cover does play a role in smaller floods and in the loss of fertile topsoil, it says.

It accuses Asian governments of blaming floods on small-scale loggers and farmers to deflect criticism.

The belief that deforestation causes major floods and increases the damage which they do appears to be widespread.

China's catastrophic floods of 1998, when the Yangtse and Yellow rivers broke their banks, were linked to deforestation by Chinese officials, the environmental group WWF and the Red Cross.
"I think the belief comes about because forests do help to reduce floods in small areas, and so people assume it must also apply to severe floods in large areas," said Cifor's director-general David Kaimowitz.

"But our sense is that in general the conclusions of scientific studies indicate that changes in land use and land use cover have only a minor role in large-scale flooding events," he told the BBC News website.

On a smaller scale, forests act like sponges, soaking up excess water.

Water can spread out and be absorbed in surrounding forest soil; but when all the woodland is inundated, the ground simply does not have enough capacity.
The report does acknowledge, however, that forests can safeguard natural resources by binding soil and preventing it from being washed away.
FAO/Cifor say that Asian governments in particular have curbed small-scale logging and land clearance by local people without justification.

"You have to be very careful before taking repressive measures against small farmers on hillsides or small-scale logging activities, because you're destroying peoples' livelihoods," said David Kaimowitz.

"The most extreme case was the logging bans established in regions of China following the floods of 1998 which put more than a million people out of work, when it's almost certain that logging played very little role in the floods.

"Sometimes one gets the impression that governments don't want to consider whether they should have warned people, evacuated people, made sure they're not so poor that they have to live in vulnerable areas."

These are issues which are unlikely to disappear soon, as the incidence of floods with major loss of life appears to be rising rather than falling.

As the FAO/Cifor report makes clear, this is partly due to the growing global population and the consequent expansion of human settlements into areas which had once been marginal. As a result, each flood claims more lives than it would have done a century ago.

Interesting stuff. Of course preventing flooding is not the main reason given for not chopping down forests. On the other hand, part of the litany of the so-called environmentalists is to claim that practically every disaster is a result of environmental change.

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