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Flooding in Western Europe 

July 2021: The apocalyptic pictures of landslides, destroyed houses, flooded German, Belgian and Dutch cities, towns and villages took the front pages of Western media last Friday. The heavy rainfall that battered parts of Western part of Germany, Belgian Wallonia, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands caused rivers to burst their banks, killing people and animals and causing considerable damage. Lina Kolesnikova provides an overview of events.

Flooding Schuld

Damage in the aftermath of the floods in the town of Schuld, in Ahrweiler, Germany (image Shutterstock)

Given the complexity of the situation and the extent of the devastation, it is impossible at this time to make a final assessment. As we know, electricity, water and gas installations were badly damaged, and communication is still a problem in most affected areas. 

It is also too early to say how many people died, as the immediate focus has remained on rescue efforts, with hundreds of firefighters, emergency responders and army personnel working to save people from the upper floors and rooftops of their flooded houses, to fill sandbags to stem the rising water, and search for missing people. 

As of this morning (July 19), he total death toll from the flooding in Western Europe had reached 188 but hundreds of people were still unaccounted for. Dozens of communities are left without power, while some villages are cut off entirely, as telephone and cell phone networks are down. With all these combined impacts, it is very difficult for the authorities to establish who is missing. In the meantime, Germany also reported the death of two firefighters during rescue operations. 

There is another issue – disaster tourism. People from non-disaster areas are visiting the affected areas intending to film the disaster sites, victims etc. Such cases were reported in Germany and the Netherlands. CRJ wrote about the problem of gawkers, who film victims of road accidents and then upload such footage to social networks here

The worst-hit areas were western Germany, where at least 63 victims have been reported in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, and 43 in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. One of the most heavily hit is Germany’s Ahrweiler district, where flash floods surged through the village of Schuld, washing away six houses and leaving several more on the verge of collapse. The police said at least 100 people had died in this district.
In Erftstadt, a town southwest of Cologne which has been badly hit by the storm, several residential buildings and part of the historic castle have collapsed. According to the Ministry of defence, more than 700 soldiers have been deployed across Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia to provide support to the local communities. And though the risk of further flooding is diminishing, there is growing concern about the Steinbachtal dam in North Rhine-Westphalia, south-west of the city of Bonn, as large parts of the structure have come away leaving it extremely unstable.
As the Meuse continued to rise to dangerous levels on Thursday, regional authorities urged people in Liege and in nearby areas to evacuate, and if that was not possible, to shelter in the upper floors of buildings. All stores were ordered to shut down, and tourists were advised to leave. Meanwhile, Liege, Verviers and Spa are severely hit by the deluge.

Liege5 copy

Flooding in Liege, Belgium (This image and thumbnail image both courtesy of Aleksander Melnik)

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the recent days of heavy flooding in Belgium were the worst the country has ever seen, as he declared July 20 a national day of mourning. “We are still waiting for the final toll, but this could be the most catastrophic flooding our country has ever seen,” he said.

Following the severe bad weather that hit Belgium, the agricultural sector is expected to be severely impacted. Now that the heaviest rains have passed, the first damage reports will commence, although it is still too early to tell the true extent of the destruction. Wallonia has suffered immense agricultural losses that are still difficult to assess. The late spring frost as well as the cold and snow in May had already slowed this year's harvests, which were at least 15 days behind schedule and should have already taken place. 

Regarding livestock, many farmers managed to move their animals to shelter before the water reached 1. 50 metres in some meadows. Unfortunately, power cuts owing to the floods prevented some farmers from milking their cows.

As rising waters broke through a dyke and swamped cities, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared a national disaster in the southern province of Limburg, which is located between badly flooded areas in western Germany and Belgium.

Authorities were preparing to evacuate large parts of the city of Venlo on Friday afternoon, and told people in the smaller municipality of Meerssen to leave their properties. Emergency services said the flood waters were set to swamp the surrounding villages of Bunde, Voulwames, Brommelen and Geulle. Sirens sounded and drone footage showed water flowing into streets and homes. The military later managed to reinforce the dyke near Meerssen, but the evacuation order remained in place. 
Climate change
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, insisted that the intensity and length of weather events such as the devastating floods in Western Europe were a: “clear indication” of climate change, underlining the need for: “urgent action.” She promised that the EU will activate mechanisms to support affected member states. She also mentioned the recent initiative to replace fossil fuels with modern clean technologies and to move to a circular economy using less energy and less waste, which contributes to the fight against the climate change. Chancellor Angela Merkel also called for a determined battle against climate change after disaster in Germany.

Scientists agreed that climate change exacerbates the extreme weather that has been on show from the western US and Canada to Siberia to Europe’s Rhine region. Scientists believe that climate disruption will bring more extreme weather and humans are making things even worse. The world has already warmed by about 1.2C since the industrial era began and temperatures will keep rising unless serious long-term actions are be taken by governments.

According to the UN 55 per cent of the global population resides in urban areas in 2018, and 68 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050. The increased agglomeration of people, buildings and infrastructure suggest a more vulnerable society in the event of climate-induced hydro-hazards. A stressed hydrological cycle as a result of climate change has led to an increase in the frequency of natural hazards, such as floods. Some researchers have predicted that North-Western European cities and those on the British Isles can expect a 50 per ent increase in their 10-year high flows between 2015 and 2100, subsequently resulting in more frequent flooding (Guerreiro, S B, R J Dawson, C Kilsby, E Lewis, and A Ford. 2018: Future Heat-Waves, Droughts and Floods in 571 European Cities. Environmental Research Letters 13 (3).
The director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, Carlo Buontempo, insists that: “With climate change, we do expect all hydro-meteorological extremes to become more extreme. What we have seen in Germany is broadly consistent with this trend.”

Meanwhile, the EU has a special Flood Awareness System to: “Support preparatory measures before major flood events strike, particularly in the large transnational river basins and throughout Europe in general.” According to Professor Hannah Cloke, an advisor to this system, alerts were sent to authorities in Europe over the weekend before… but there were: "Also places where those warnings did not get through to the people and they did not know it was going to happen." So it seems that there is a real gap in delivering alerts quickly, and in educating people how to react when an alert is received. 

With more and more people becoming increasingly concerned with the climate agenda, it is clear that the time is nigh for governments, private sector and individuals to take smaller and bigger steps towards reducing the impact on nature and our planet. Each of us can do something and can play our part.

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