Article by Lea Schiller
The floods that swept across Western Europe in mid-July were the worst in 500 years according to German meteorologists (Eddy, 2021). Extremely heavy rain had rivers overflowing across Germany, Belgium as well as parts of the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg. In Germany alone, more than 150 people are dead and hundreds remain missing (Brock & Fuessel, 2021). It is a disaster that left many, including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “stunned“ (Eddy, 2021). After visiting one of the many affected areas, chancellor Angela Merkel said: “The German language has no words, I think, for the devastation“ (Eddy, 2021). But, as unprecedented as these floods are, was their occurrence really so sudden that nothing could be done? And have there been and will there be measures to prevent and mitigate extreme weather events?
In fact, the first warnings of a potentially catastrophic weather event reached Germany’s federal meteorological service days before the floods hit (Die Zeit, 2021). The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) was founded after the devastating floods of the Danube and Elbe rivers in 2002, that caused the deaths of at least 110 people (German Meteorological Service, 2003). Its aim is to protect the population by giving out warnings in advance, allowing for preparations and evacuations by buying time. This time, EFAS was able to predict the tragedy several days in advance. But its warnings never reached the population.
Why the tragic loss of life was not prevented is a question asked by many and there is no straightforward answer. For one, it is unclear where the responsibility lies: Officially, disaster preparedness is the competence of state and local authorities, but some local mayors say they do not have the competence to give the order for evacuation (Morris & Davis, 2021). This led to a situation in which warnings were only given out sporadically and inefficiently. Another contributing factor is that people quite simply could not comprehend what was coming for them. Both local officials and residents did not think the risk was real – after all, they had never experienced a tragedy like this before (Morris & Davis, 2021).
But the weather is changing. The Danube and Elbe floods of 2002 were “Century Floods” – so severe that floods of their magnitude should statistically only happen once every 100 years. In the last thirty years, there have been several century floods in Germany, among them the century floods of the Rhine and Moselle in 1993 and 1995 (German Meteorological Service, 2003). Additionally, so called “flash floods“ of the type that caused destruction in Western Europe this year are typically found in warmer climates such as the Mediterranean (Morris & Davis, 2021). Global warming has caused them to spread. Additionally, the floods are only one catastrophic weather event in Europe this summer. In Greece and parts of Turkey, fires ravaged the Mediterranean region, damaging homes and forcing tourists to evacuate. Civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias noted that the number of fires in Greece in increasing every year (Gatopoulos, 2021).
Just days before the floods hit, the EU announced a plan to overhaul its economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% (Nugent, 2021). But stopping the planet from heating up even more is not enough – there is an urgent need to adapt to the weather changes we are already experiencing.
Our warning systems as well as our own perception of danger needs to change. Wealthy countries in mild climate zones still largely have a belief of being unaffected by extreme weather events, while droughts are pushing hundreds of thousands of people into famine in more climate-sensitive regions such as Africa. But this is a false sense of security. Scientists have found that recent extreme weather events form a consistent pattern and are likely to continue (Fountain & Schwartz, 2021). Extreme weather events can cause disasters anywhere on the planet, now more than ever. Europe’s floods should be a wake up call to wealthy nations. Not recognising the danger can lead to tragic, unnecessary loss of life.
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