One in 12 people globally consume commodities grown in the Mississippi River basin, by some estimates. More than 60% of grain in the U.S. moves along the waterway to reach international markets.

So, climate impacts — particularly recent swings between droughts and floods — hit the river hard.

“Over the past few years, (New Orleans) has seen increasingly stronger storms, and more recently, life-threatening heat waves and a prolonged drought that damaged our greenspace and contributed to a saltwater intrusion that threatened our drinking water,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, part of a coalition of mayors – called the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, or MRCTI – who attended the recent United Nations climate-change conference in Dubai.

Using federal data on the damage costs of natural disasters, MRCTI reports a $246 billion loss throughout the Mississippi River basin in less than two decades. 

As mayors of cities set on the banks of the Mississippi, who are affected by climate troubles on the river, the mayors sought to represent their interests on a world stage and discuss the best ways to adapt to climate change, in ways that protect their cities.

Three other MRCTI Mississippi River mayors — Mitch Reynolds of LaCrosse, Wis.; Brad Cavanagh of Dubuque, Iowa; and Errick Simmons of Greenville, Miss.; — joined Cantrell at the conference. Surrounded by international leaders, the four mayors announced a slate of new initiatives, including natural infrastructure projects to reduce disaster risks, signing an agreement with a river advocacy group in India and piloting a new regional insurance system to support Mississippi River towns

The international convening was contentious this year and went into overtime after a disagreement over whether the U.N. should call for total fossil-fuel phaseout in the report that is issued at the end of the conference. The final international agreement slightly softened that stand, emphasizing the need to transition from fossil fuels. 

Yet some of the most important work happening at the gathering may be among the mayors’ coalition and other similar groups, said Reynolds, the mayor from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. 

“Our organization, like so many other subnational groups around the globe, is doing the hard work on the ground at home to adapt to climate change and build resilience so that real solutions can happen quickly,” Reynolds said in a statement. 

Cantrell also saw it as a group mission, saying that leaders need to “take collective, global action towards eliminating these risks and creating a safer, healthier environment for our people.” 

The executive director of MRCTI, Colin Wellenkamp, said the group met with coalitions from other countries and discussed how similar issues, like flooding, drought and extreme heat were playing out there, and how they could share knowledge. Wellenkamp said they had conversations about the river basin with French President Emmanuel Macron and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Mayors eyeing natural infrastructure, and seeking international designs

Two of the projects MRCTI unveiled in Dubai are for infrastructure on the river. 

The first is an effort to make the lower river more resilient in the face of climate-related disasters. 

At the time of last year’s U.N. conference in Egypt, the coalition of mayors was working to secure $40 million for natural infrastructure projects on the lower river to harden it against climate change. Environmental advocates have been lobbying for something like it for years, following suit with a decades-old counterpart in the upper basin, which has a much more robust system in place for restoration and research.

They upped the lower-river project this year, and Wellenkamp said it’ll fund projects, such as expanding floodplains and restoring marshes, across 100,000 acres in states along the river. They’re aiming to complete the projects by the end of the decade and estimate it will cost $100 million.

The other infrastructure project on MRCTI’s agenda – which pairs Mississippi River cities with world cities to help form resilience plans – is funded by a grant from the Netherlands hosted by the Resilient Cities Catalyst. Still in its early phases, the plan is to divide the river into three regions. Cities will apply to be one of 10 cities in each region to host global infrastructure firms. 

The goal is to start matching cities with firms by the end of next year and eventually cut disaster exposure by 25%. 

New insurance pilot

The group also announced a new insurance pilot program that would provide payouts to cities and municipalities after disasters. Working with Munich Reinsurance Company, MRCTI is working to bring “reinsurance” to cities in the basin. 

It’s called “parametric” insurance, and it provides protection to policyholders against specific events by paying a set amount based on the magnitude of the event — a 100-year storm, for example — rather than the magnitude of the losses.

The goal is to create a private market-funded resilience fund for cities to deal with damage from things like flooding, without having to draw down on federal funds. 

Munich Reinsurance will leverage the ecosystem restoration projects run by Ducks Unlimited to create a risk pool whose environmental improvements will then be marketised to the reinsurance program.

Spokesman John Lawson said the city of New Orleans is “excited by the prospect of the parametric insurance pilot program being developed between MRCTI and Munich Reinsurance.”

Lawson said the pilot program details are still being finalized, “including the scope of coverage and the region of the Mississippi River it will cover.”

They should be finalized by the end of October, he said. He said the city will continue to work with MRCTI and “look to potentially join the pilot program or a later full Mississippi River region program once those details are finalized.”

Wellenkamp said because the system is a pilot that Munich Reinsurance hopes to scale, the details are proprietary at this time. 

“It’s unique,” he said. “No one else is doing anything like this.”

Agreement with India 

MRCTI’s mayors also signed a memorandum of common purpose in Dubai with an Indian river advocacy group, signaling the beginning of what’s meant to kickstart shared knowledge between the groups.

“All of these river basins are under stress,” Wellenkamp said. “They’re all experiencing significant and persistent climate impacts that are degrading them, and our dependency on them is just growing in direct contradiction to those impacts.”

In India, the Ganges and Indus River basins are major food sources. 

The group of mayors from India and the Mississippi River basin are looking at sharing best practices for managing urban rivers, including bringing nature back to urban areas, restoring aquatic ecosystems and monitoring water quality. 

Wellenkamp said a delegation from MRCTI hopes to travel to India next year.

Lens reporter Delaney Dryfoos, Eric Schmid, of St. Louis Public Radio, and Tegan Wendland contributed to this reporting. This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative is also a Walton grantee.