Photo: Beso Gulashvili

Beglar the hippopotamus is a symbol of the devastating flash flood that hit Georgia’s capital city in June 2015. The flooding killed 22 people, destroyed the Tbilisi Zoo and left 300 animals dead, and caused USD 24.3 million in direct physical damage. But somehow Beglar survived. Found wandering the wrecked streets of the city, he was rescued and brought back to safety.

Seeing him as a symbol of survival, Georgians lavished Beglar with love, building a brand-new home for him in the reconstructed zoo, which was relocated to higher ground. He now has his own Facebook page and will soon have a sculpture erected in his honour in downtown Tbilisi.       

Photo: Beso Gulashvili

But Beglar’s story was a lonely ray of hope in an otherwise catastrophic situation.

The devastation caused by the 2015 floods was a wake-up call for Georgia’s authorities. They recognized that the unprecedented rains that caused the flooding were merely a first taste of the havoc that climate change is set to wreak. Spurred to action by the disaster, they began a quest for solutions to protect people and property from the impact of climate-driven disasters.

Four years later, with support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Switzerland, Georgia has kicked off a USD 70 million programme that aims at protecting the entire country from any recurrence of the Tbilisi disaster. This pioneering initiative has the scope and ambition to serve as a model of adaptation and resilience for other countries that face similar climate-driven challenges.

Photo: David Khizanishvili/UNDP

The challenge

Georgia’s geography is defined by high mountains and roaring rivers. The high peaks are what visitors notice first, and mountain adventures – skiing, hiking, camping, paragliding – are what drives much of Georgia’s robust and growing tourism revenues. Rivers and mountain torrents, meanwhile, provide a seemingly unlimited source of energy in the form of hydropower.

But these same spectacular mountains and powerful rivers are the source of high and rising risk to the population. River flooding, flash floods, rockslides, landslides and mudslides are already the chief source of natural disaster in Georgia, and the costs over the past two decades have been staggering: more than 152 lives lost and economic losses totalling more than USD 1.2 billion. In a country where 40 percent of the population depends on farm income, annual agricultural losses from flooding run to USD 68 million. Extreme flood events cost USD 190 million per year.

The risks are growing as the extreme weather events that are a consequence of climate change, such as the torrential rains that caused the Tbilisi floods in 2015, hit the country with increasing frequency and severity. Scientists now estimate that climate-driven disasters could cost Georgia as much as USD 12 billion over the next ten years. That’s 80 percent of current annual GDP.

Photo: David Khizanishvili/UNDP

The solution

Fortunately, Georgia is not sitting idle in the face of these challenges. Thanks to a programme launched in 2019, Georgia is enacting the policies and undertaking the investments needed to adapt to climate change and protect the entire country from climate-driven disasters. The initiative is a joint venture between the Government and UNDP, with the total USD 70 million in funding coming from the Government itself (USD 38 million); the Green Climate Fund (USD 27 million); and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (USD 5 million).

The programme aims to replace the reactive approach traditional in Georgia, in which the state pays for compensation and reconstruction after each successive disaster, to one fully grounded in prevention. Rejecting the fatalistic conviction that disasters are inevitable because “you can’t change the weather,” it assumes that, with proper preparation and investment, Georgia can prevent even the most extreme weather events from turning into disasters. This takes money, of course, but as a rule each dollar invested in prevention saves seven dollars in recovery costs.

Photo: Vladimir Valishvili/UNDP

The programme is comprehensive, with nationwide scope. Set to last seven years, it covers all 11 of the country’s major river basins and will provide direct protection to 1.7 million people, or 46 percent of the population. Its aim is to reduce climate-driven losses by 90 percent.

Its key elements include:

  • Conducting satellite-based hazard and risk mapping of all the country’s major river basins to locate and characterize the main threats to people and property;
  • Upgrading hydrometeorological observation networks to monitor weather conditions and understand, in real time, when and where water levels are changing;
  • Creating early warning systems to ensure that affected populations are alerted in time to take action, and that people at risk know what actions to take;
  • Working with national institutions and local communities to improve zoning and building permit systems, to prevent construction in high-risk areas; and
  • Wherever threats are imminent, building protective barriers or adopting other nature-based measures to prevent flooding, such as reforestation to reinforce river banks.

The programme builds on pioneering work already along the Rioni River, the country’s biggest and most flood-prone water body, in 2012-2017. This USD 5 million pilot programme, financed by the Adaptation Fund and implemented by UNDP, has created safer conditions for more than 200,000 residents and provided “proof of concept” for the new, much larger programme.

Photo: Vladimir Valishvili/UNDP

A model for others

Many other countries face similar climate-driven hazards yet remain chained to the reactive approach that Georgia is now working to put behind it. The new programme will provide a tested and ready model that they can replicate in preventing climate-driven disasters.

Moreover, at a time when countries are seeking ways to heed the UN Secretary-General’s admonition that “beautiful speeches are not enough” and that bold actions are vital, Georgia is providing a timely example of how to expand climate resilience at a national level.

Like many of its neighbours, Georgia has only a small role to play in climate mitigation, since the collapse of Soviet-legacy industries in the 1990s already put an abrupt end to most of the country’s pollution-generating factories. Radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are just not possible. However, where the country is making its mark is in climate adaptation – an equally pressing need for the world as global temperatures continue their ominous rise.

What’s more, by helping local residents engage directly in reducing the risks they face, Georgia is building a culture of resilience that is a core value of democracy and self-government.

So even a story as tragic as the Tbilisi floods can have a happy end, and not just for Beglar the hippo.

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