The impacts of climate change in Norway will vary among regions and municipalities. This means that the challenges must be met at the local level, and the municipalities are one of the key players in these efforts.
Drinking water at risk
The municipalities have powerful means at their disposal for limiting the scope of damage caused by extreme weather conditions. These include regional and transportation planning, construction projects and water management. Nevertheless, adaptation to climate change presents local challenges. The drinking water source for the Moss region, the lake known as Vansjø, is one example of this.
In cases of heavy precipitation, Vansjø is put at risk because the run-off from agriculture carries fertilizer to the lake. The run-off may lead to the growth of toxic algae, and although the quality of the drinking water is excellent for the time being, it is vulnerable during certain periods.
Not only is the water quality at risk during heavy precipitation, the water production itself is in danger. Vansjø has a large catchment area and poor drainage. When it rains, the lake manages to drain only one-third of the water that collects in a reasonable period of time. The result is that the city centre of Moss is threatened with flooding and the water level rises in Vansjø. The rising water level threatens the Hafslund power company’s transformer station which powers the water intake to the purification facility. The flooding in 2000-2001 was so serious that the station was nearly shut down.
These problems are a potential threat to the 60,000 residents of the region. Because Vansjø is also the reserve water source for the cities of Sarpsborg and Fredrikstad, up to half of the population of Østfold county could be affected if this drinking water source becomes polluted.
How can this problem be solved? One possibility is to limit the use of fertilizers in agriculture or to better protect Vansjø against run-off. Another is to build a flood tunnel leading directly out to the fjord. The Hafslund power company could move its transformer station, or generators could be purchased to ensure the supply of electricity in critical situations.
All the alternatives have undesirable consequences. If the use of fertilizer is restricted, many farmers will see their livelihoods reduced. The same is true for the opportunity of the region’s residents to buy locally produced food products. If Vansjø is to be better protected from run-off, this in turn could lead to a major encroachment on the landscape – and recreational areas may be affected.
Basis for strategies and measures
In the project entitled “Adapting to extreme weather in the municipalities”, seven research institutes are cooperating to help municipalities develop solutions across a wide range of interests and policy areas. The goal is to reduce the municipalities’ vulnerability by developing a sound information base that the municipalities can draw on in their efforts to adapt to climate change. The project identifies adaptation strategies, which is a vital part of the information that the project provides to the municipalities. These strategies form the basis for the measures that are implemented. Clean drinking water is another crucial topic when it comes to protecting the health of the Norwegian population. Norwegian cultural heritage is a visible testimony to earlier times, and adaptation measures in this area may prevent documentation from being lost due to climate change. A fourth topic addressed by the project is the natural environment. In this context, it is important to keep in mind that what is referred to as “natural disasters”, especially in connection with floods, are actually only natural events. In other words, when buildings are destroyed by flooding, the people who are affected may perceive it as a disaster, but for the eco-system it is a natural and important event that occurs on a regular basis.
What are the municipalities doing?
In 2007, a survey of Norwegian municipalities conducted by CICERO and the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research Planning documented how municipalities are working to prevent damage caused by extreme weather conditions. The responses showed a clear connection between municipalities that experienced extreme weather events and the implementation of preventive measures. This is not surprising, but it means that the municipalities did not take action until after a severe weather event had occurred. A reaction after the fact is often much more expensive than measures taken in advance. But because there is great uncertainty surrounding extreme weather, it is difficult to know what measures should be taken and how to gain support for them. Because there are often enormous costs connected with this and it is difficult to prove that certain measures are the best ones, it is easy for politicians who plan to seek re-election to push the problems into the future. In addition, measures taken after an event are much more visible because they receive a great deal of attention.
To avoid the misuse of public funds, municipalities must think long term. As a result, the various scientific fields must communicate as well. Through a common understanding of the cross-disciplinary challenges, it will be possible to develop appropriate solutions that ensure residents of Norwegian municipalities feel safe and secure. The project on adaptation to extreme weather in the municipalities seeks to achieve a common understanding by fostering a close dialogue between the seven institutes and compiling detailed information from Norwegian municipalities. The project has selected the municipalities of Moss, Time, Åmot and Åsnes, all of which are susceptible to extreme weather conditions, but are different with regard to the type of weather and potential damage. The researchers will conduct interviews with the municipal employees who play a key role in implementing measures to address extreme weather events. In this way, the project can identify how the municipality works; whether some interests are given more weight than others; what is seen as the greatest obstacles to implementing measures – and what are regarded as good solutions. A close dialogue between the public administration and researchers may help to reduce the vulnerability of Norwegian municipalities to climate change by ensuring that resources are allocated on the basis of detailed knowledge instead of political winds.
Translation by Connie Stultz.