A collapsed wall by a strong earthquake is pictured in Kunimi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, 14 February 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo).

Author: Daniel P Aldrich, Northeastern University

Until recently, it may have been hard for the average person to grasp how deadly and damaging disasters and shocks can be. No longer. Few anywhere in the world have emerged from the past year and a half without a strong appreciation of the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Along with COVID-19 taking more than 4.5 million lives and upending health systems, business revenue and global logistics, other acute and long-term shocks and stressors have affected communities around the world, including bushfires in Australia, North America and Europe, lethal heatwaves in Oregon, and mudslides in Japan.

Policymakers often respond to disasters by falling back on standard responses involving physical infrastructure and megaprojects. Extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves are among the most common disasters. In Japan, central and regional government officials have pushed for the construction of massive concrete seawalls and tetrapods to protect coastal communities.

Japan is one among many nations that instinctively turn to such solutions when seeking to mitigate climate change and rising seas. Venice relies on Project MOSE with its inflatable floodgates to reduce flooding in La Serenissima. Boston considered a US$11 billion seawall to try to reduce the impact of regular flooding during king tides.

Politicians and bureaucrats rely on the standard approach of building physical infrastructure in response to disasters for several reasons. First, physical infrastructure provides a visible, tangible symbol of ‘doing something’ for those seeking re-election. Second, cost benefit analyses can more easily estimate the outcome of a physical structure than less tangible projects. Third, the construction industry has a strong and successful history of successful lobbying for new work. Fourth, alternative, non-physical …continue reading