One month after Europe’s disaster
Learning from a 100-year flood, and bad disaster movies
August 18, 2021
One month ago I was on vacation in northern Germany when terrible news started coming in regarding flooding in the western part of the country. Although my own home in Bavaria was thankfully not in a flood zone, many of my friends and colleagues were affected, and it was of course the lead story on every major news network.
This was the worst flooding that many had seen in their lifetimes, as large parts of central Europe – including Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands – were hit by catastrophic rains. More than 220 lives were lost, and over US$ 3 billion worth of damage done to date.
Strangely, the quaint rental apartment where I was staying had the 2004 disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow already in the DVD player. Although the movie is far-fetched and not terribly well-reviewed, I was struck by the coincidence. It is a story about how we ignore climate change and environmental degradation at our peril – a message being reflected in real-time on the news.
Major floods and other climate-related disasters are increasing in number and intensity. In the last millennia there have been more than 200 major floods in Europe that are known to have killed more than 60 people each. About half of these took place in the 20th century, and more than 50, or one in four, took place in the last two decades.
What can we learn?
So with the shocking footage of these floods still fresh, and with the knowledge that disasters like this will become more common in our lifetime, I thought it would be good to come up with five lessons that we can learn from this tragedy:
1. Disasters don’t discriminate
The major floods of the past 20 years occurred in more than 50 different countries on five different continents, ranging from the top to the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. Although more than 220 people have tragically died as a result of the flooding in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere, there were three other floods on this scale globally in the past year alone, affecting Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China and India.
2. “100-year floods” are often a misnomer
Many newspapers are calling these the “100-year floods.” However, a 100-year flood doesn’t mean that something of that magnitude happens once every 100 years, but that there is a one in 100 chance of it happening in a given year. Just two weeks after the onset of the 2021 European floods, we saw flooding just as bad or worse in the Indian state of Maharashtra, with even more deaths.
3. It’s not hopeless, and preparedness can help
There is often a laissez-faire attitude to disasters, a feeling that so-called “acts of God” cannot be contained. (Perhaps this is why many in Germany and Belgium live in villages by rivers that regularly flood - for some, last month’s flooding was the third in a decade.) While it’s true that many natural phenomena are too powerful for humans to control, we do have the ability to mitigate impact.
The flooding in Germany provides an example of how differing responses and levels of preparedness by regional governments led to differing outcomes. An early warning after a major dam broke along the Ruhr River near the Dutch border in Wassenburg and a rapid response to this warning led to the timely evacuation of 700 people. Unfortunately, further south in Ahrweiler (“hamlet on the Ahr river”), similar evacuation warnings did not reach residents in time.
4. Disaster risk factors are intertwined and can change over time
Economic instability, conflicts, disasters, climate change and disease can often be catalysts for one another, as well as interact to exacerbate damage. For example, the recent flooding in Europe was caused by unprecedented heavy summer deluges that are most likely linked to climate change (as the atmosphere gets warmer it holds more moisture which brings more rain.) UNDP has a wealth of in-house knowledge and experience when it comes to studying, advising and working in disaster and post-disaster countries. To better understand the complicated interplay of risk factors we specialize in Risk-Informed Development, which tries to analyse current and future risk scenarios and respond to these multidimensional risk factors.
5. Many hands make the load lighter
Although a different type of disaster, a Creole proverb that I remember from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake is “Men anpil, chay pa lou” [“Many hands make the load lighter”]. Communities, international organizations, governments and civil society must work in unison to tackle big problems. The proverb is top of the mind as the country confronts the impacts of yet another cataclysmic quake. In Germany, this took place on a local scale. An army of 80,000 volunteers has deployed over the last several weeks to support community clean-up, assess damage and rebuild critical infrastructure. They organized themselves under local chapters, and are now government funded.
These volunteers are carrying out many of the same activities that UNDP engages in following a disaster. And like many countries following a disaster, these affected communities will be thinking hard about how they can develop policies, skills, and capabilities to improve their climate and disaster resilience. These disasters will be more common in the future. The Day After Tomorrow may have been a bad movie, but its underlying message still resonates: devastating climate events can and will happen; it’s up to us to prepare for and mitigate their effects