Climate Disasters: Flooding in Europe

Last week, videos and photos began surfacing of the catastrophic flooding that took place in western Europe. Many across the world are wondering how this happened, why the government wasn’t better prepared, and what this means for those impacted. This article focuses on communities in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and how residents have been impacted.

As of July 19, 2021, across western Europe, at least 190 people have been found dead and hundreds remain missing after significant flooding hit major areas of the continent. After days of unprecedented rainfall, rivers overflowed, sewage systems were devastated, dams broke, and a major gas pipeline in the Ahrweiler region was destroyed – bringing a purification plant to a stop. This has left tens of thousands of residents without access to their homes, power and/or clean drinking water.

Figure 1 – Map of Flooding

Officials expect that as the floodwaters begin to recede, the death toll will only continue to rise. According to the mayor of Altenahr (a town within the Ahrweiler region), “It looks like the infrastructure is destroyed so badly that some places won’t have drinking water for weeks or months.” Even those water towers in these communities that were spared from the worst, had run dry and had to be refilled either by tank lorries or by setting up mobile water treatment plants. In addition, Germany’s Red Cross has transported two 7,000 litre and four 3,800 litre tanks of drinking water into the region.

Figure 2 – Before & After Ahrweiler Region

The flooding first hit parts of western Germany before shifting to Belgium and the Netherlands. Germany seems to have been hit the hardest, with entire towns, transit lines, roads, vehicles and more having been swept away. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has described this as the “worst natural disaster” in over a century. However, according to the Belgian Prime Minister, this flooding may be the worst the country has ever seen, with additional search-and-rescue teams being brought in from France and Italy to aid in locating missing persons and assist in cleanup.

Additionally, Belgium’s major highways were submerged and railway services were halted after a train was derailed in the Belgian Ardennes where a portion of the track was swept away by floodwaters.

Alternatively, several areas across the southern Netherlands still remain evacuated after the Maas river rose to unprecedented levels. On Friday (July 16th), Venlo, a city located right on the Maas was forced to evacuate over 10,000 residents as the water levels continued to rise. The city had attempted to fortify the area, with volunteers and members of the military racing against the clock to produce sandbags and erect flood defences, while engineers worked to strengthen dikes. Unfortunately, the rising waters managed to overwhelm the city’s defences and broke through. Families were told to immediately leave their homes and to turn off their electricity and gas.

Video 1 – Aerial View of Flooding

The question that’s on everyone’s mind now is: why weren’t these regions better prepared? Why wasn’t there a better warning? Continue reading to find some of these answers.

Federal and state levels of the German government are now being met with severe criticisms over their warning systems after this catastrophic event. However, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer dismissed any suggestions that federal officials had made mistakes, stating that warnings were passed along to local authorities “who make decisions on disaster protection.” Seehofer went on to say, “some of the things I’m hearing now are cheap election rhetoric. Now really isn’t the hour for this.” Even still, when visiting one of the worst-hit areas on Monday (July 19) he said, “Wherever we can improve anything – in alarms, in equipment, we must do so. We owe that to the families who have been affected, and above all to the victims.”

Alternatively, Armin Schuster, the head of Germany’s civil protection agency said the weather service had forecasted relatively well, and that the country was well-prepared for flooding on its major rivers. Schuster feels that “the warning infrastructure wasn’t our problem, but the effectiveness with which authorities and the population reacted to these warnings.” Flood warning systems sent out over 150 alerts a few days before the heavy rain, but unfortunately, they failed to reach many officials or residents in time. As well, Schuster stated that in many cases it was impossible to predict even half an hour ahead of time which areas would be hit the hardest. This has put into question the usefulness of warning apps, as the floods managed to sever phone connections. As such, Schuster is calling for an investment programme to increase the number of flood warning sirens in areas that are expected to see more floods in the coming years.

It is evident that there are significant communication issues when it comes to the existing infrastructure. Jeff Da Costa, a Ph.D. researcher in hydrometeorology in the UK, says, “there was clearly a serious breakdown in communication, which in some cases has tragically cost peoples lives.” Da Costa actually focuses on flood warning systems in his research, and his parents’ own home in Luxembourg happened to be impacted by this event. He said this flooding event illustrated the gap that often exists between weather warnings that scientists issue, and the actions actually taken by those in charge. Some of the warnings, including those in Luxembourg, were only issues after the initial flooding had hit, leaving people to their own devices without any direction, and without any opportunity to prepare.

While there are definitely mixed messages coming from various levels of government, one thing is for certain – with the consequences of climate change only beginning to illustrate its disastrous effects, the world’s leaders must do better to prepare. The word consistently used in the media since this mass flooding event has been “unprecedented.” Yes, this flooding was not expected at this time, as it has been a century since an event of its kind has been experienced in these regions. However, climate scientists have been warning the human population and world leaders for decades about the dangers of climate change, and what to expect as a result. This catastrophic event is exactly what the world can expect moving forward, as an increase in natural disasters is closely linked to increases in climate change.

As such, the world can no longer afford to go by precedent, but by forward-thinking, planning, strategy, and preparation. Most importantly, world leaders must listen to the advice of climate scientists and other academics if they hope to avoid devastation like western Europe has.

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