Deadly floods in Germany and Belgium: Who is responsible?

Devastating floods hit the Rhineland in July, killing 160 people in Germany and 31 people in Belgium. Striking images show entire neighborhoods washed away by the rain, houses ripped open, roads split, and power grids destroyed. Germany, the country most affected by the storms, is questioning the effectiveness of its national warning system and intends to put the issue of global warming back at the heart of its legislative campaigns. How can this natural phenomenon claim so many victims despite being foreseen? What role does global warming play in this disaster? WiseFins tries to bring you some answers.

Extensive Damage and Catastrophic Images

Heavy rains hit Western Europe between July 13 and 15, 2021. In 72 hours, rainfall totals reached historical numbers, as was the case in Germany and more precisely in Nachrodt-Wiblingwerde, where 182 mm of rain were recorded. In Cologne, 154 mm were recorded, erasing the previous record of 95 mm. Luxembourg was also affected by heavy rainfall, as was the case at Findel airport, where 74 mm of rain fell. It was a torrent of rain, the likes of which we have rarely seen, that fell on these territories. This heavy rainfall followed particularly rainy days when the soils, already saturated, could not absorb any more, feeding the rivers. This weather situation is typical for Central Europe, but the duration of the rainfall is exceptional. Many districts and villages are still cut off from the world, some roads remain inaccessible, and telecommunications are still interrupted. Some citizens were trapped by the water or swept away by the currents. The Rhineland-Palatinate region is the most affected by this disaster and counts 132 dead, 766 injured, and 149 missing.

Irresponsible Spatial Planning

Bad spatial planning remains the first cause of flooding. It results in the sealing of soils, the loss of forest cover, natural areas, wetlands, which generally act as a sponge and natural barriers. The existing soils are water-saturated and cannot absorb the exceptional rainfall that pours into the valley floors. Risk prevention is neglected in many construction projects. On the one hand, the building sector does not consider past floods and future changes on the other hand. It is necessary to learn from past experiences and plan to develop the materials of tomorrow. Spatial planning, especially when it comes to banning construction in flood-prone areas, is the common-sense solution, but unfortunately, it often comes up against personal interests.

A Result of Climate Change

From a meteorological point of view, the phenomenon that took place in Western Europe in July is considered normal, even classic. However, the intensity and violence of the rainfall are where global warming can be blamed for this disaster. As it stands, it is difficult to attribute a specific event to climate change. On the other hand, the more frequent and intense weather events are considered by meteorologists as a direct consequence of rising temperatures. Global warming, therefore, significantly increases the occurrence of severe weather events. On Thursday, July 22, Angela Merkel reiterated her appeal, following the extreme floods that affected her country, to speed up the fight against global warming. Decision-makers and developers still do not sufficiently consider the consequences of a world with more extreme weather events and continue to act and build irresponsibly without mitigating or preventing the risks associated with climate change.

Is France Capable of Protecting Itself?

France, including the North-East region, was also affected by the bad weather in July. The country is not and will not be spared in the future. Flooding is France’s most common natural hazard, with 17.1 million people exposed to flooding and 1.4 million people exposed to submersion. Floods represent about 55% of the claims. Recent violent episodes linked to floods remain engraved in people’s memories. In the Alpes-Maritimes department, the severe weather of October 2020 destroyed houses, cars, and roads, leaving some villages cut off from the world, as was the case for Saint-Martin-Vésubie. In the Aude, the floods of October 15, 2018, caused the death of 15 people. Despite this, and with a quarter of the French population already exposed to these risks, France has not developed its territory by integrating the risk of flooding. Today, the urgency is to avoid worsening the current situation by stopping all construction on flood-prone areas and ceasing the ultra-impermeabilization of new buildings.

Extreme Weather Events, When Will We Take a Stand?

Climate change has multiple consequences on our past, present, and future lives. Although scientists and experts have warned us for decades, neither society nor the public authorities have acted. These floods marked the end of a period in Germany when we could feel safe. After the urgency of supporting the affected people and rebuilding, it is time to provide answers for the future. On Monday, August 9, the scientific experts of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a report on climate change. This work will be decisive during the COP26, the major climate summit, which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021. The conclusions of this report highlight the already existing correlation between human activity and global warming. It demonstrates that human activity is accelerating the rate of global warming and increasing the occurrence of extreme events such as floods, heatwaves, and fires that we experience today. Changes in glaciers, oceans, and sea levels are among the most visible and dramatic symptoms of the climate crisis. No matter how small, every increase in temperature will affect the frequency and intensity of future extreme events. In 2015, the international community set a goal of not exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, or even 1.5 degrees Celsius, of global warming by the end of the century. The IPCC warns that rapid changes are needed to accomplish this mission. At our current rate, the report shows that we will reach the +1.5 degrees Celsius threshold between 2030 and 2052 and +3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This report confirms the importance of rapidly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and of cooperating around the same objective, carbon neutrality by 2050. The disasters plunging neighboring countries or countries further away into mourning must serve as a wake-up call. Limiting future loss of life and climate disruption must guide a reconstruction based on a more informed and ecological way of life. It is up to governments, particularly the French government, the 8th leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, to set an example and take their responsibilities.

Written by Maeva Ortega.

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