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EXPLAINED: With Over 180 People Dead, How Floods Hit Germany, Belgium With Such Fury

A police officer and a member of the Bundeswehr forces look at partially submerged cars on a flooded road following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen - RC29MO9BBEPC

A police officer and a member of the Bundeswehr forces look at partially submerged cars on a flooded road following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen - RC29MO9BBEPC

Weeks after a heat wave swept parts of Europe, the likes of Germany and Belgium are dealing with extreme rainfall that has left scores dead

From the frying pan into a deluge, that can be an apt description for the turn the weather situation has taken in Europe in the course of about a month. After record highs clocked by the mercury some weeks back, European countries are now grappling with floods that have left scores of people dead. Here’s all you need to know.

What Caused The Floods?

More than 180 people in Germany and Belgium have been killed and hundreds others are missing following heavy rainfall over the last few days that caused rivers to breach their banks and saw sewage systems struggle to cope with excess rainfall. Germany accounted for the majority of the deaths, with a toll of over 150 while Belgium listed close to 30 dead with many still missing.

Reports said that Germany recorded between 100mm and 150mm of rain between July 14 and 15, which is the kind of rainfall that the country typicall would see over two months. Providing an explanation, Jean Jouzel, a climatologist and former vice-president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told news agency AFP that “masses of air loaded with water had been blocked at high altitude by cold temperatures, which made them stagnate for four days over the region" before the clouds broke and swamped regions with rainfall.

Europe has witnessed severe flooding events before, but the rain this July was “exceptional in terms of both the amount of water and the violence" with which it occurred, German hydrologist Kai Schroeter said.

What’s Being Seen As Having Driven The High Toll?

While the rainfall indeed has been surprisingly heavy, questions have been raised regarding the emergency response to the flooding.

BBC quoted Prof. Hannah Cloke, an adviser to the European Flood Awareness System, which provides early warnings of dangerous floods, as saying that while alerts had been sent to the various authorities, the reaction in some areas had not been adequate.

“There were alerts going out… saying there’s some very serious rain and floods coming: be aware. It’s then for the national authorities to take that information and go with it," she said, adding that there were “places where those warnings did not get through to the people and they did not know it was going to happen". For example, she said that Germany has a “fragmented" system when it came to weather warnings and that had seen a lack of uniformity of response across its provinces.

Thus, while some places in Germany reportedly erected barriers and put in place necessary precautions, officials in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate — one of Germany’s worst affected in the floods — said that while they had issued warnings for rise in water levels in the major rivers, information for tributaries and smaller rivers was not easily collated.

Add to that the fact that people in the affected areas are not used to dealing with such extreme weather phenomenon. Countries in the tropics, like India, see heavy rainfall and frequent flooding, but the experience of facing such events regularly means that the general public and the relevant systems have built up some resilience against such phenomenon. Not so in Europe. Friederike Otto, an environment expert, told BBC that “urgent education" was needed regarding flooding.

How Did The People Respond To The Floods?

As the water receded and the extent of the damage became apparent, it was seen that the worst-hit areas were those that lay near small rivers or tributaries, which mostly lack the flood defences that can be seen along the banks of the bigger rivers. Combined with the torrential showers, the absence of flood barriers resulted in these smaller rivers breaching their banks.

Armin Laschet, who is the frontrunner to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel when she steps down, said that while the likes of the Rhine river “is used to floods" and areas along its banks have infrastructure to control flooding, the towns and villages along the smaller rivers in the hard-hit North Rhine-Westphalia region lacked similar protections.

Experts added that while the emergency response may have been inadequate when it came to moving people to safety, the human toll was exacerbated by the fact that in many places, people were clueless about the risks of sudden floods.

“Some victims underestimated the danger and did not follow two basic rules during heavy rainfall. First, avoid basements where water penetrates. Second, switch off the electricity immediately," BBC cited the head of a German agency that deals with natural disasters as telling a local daily. Reports have noted that many bodies were recovered from the cellars of houses in the affected areas.

Further, given that the floods hit areas that normally do not receive such heavy rainfall, experts said that insufficient attention to such risks and increase in the urban built up area had left little avenues for the floodwaters to either be saturated by the ground, or escape.

“The fact that so many soils are sealed (with the construction of buildings, roads, etc.) also leads to more dramatic impacts than would be the case if the water could go somewhere," Otto told BBC.

Does Climate Change Have A Part To Play?

Weeks after an extreme heat wave across parts of Europe and North America, the occurrence of devastating floods has left many questioning whether this is all an impact of climate change. The German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is said to have remarked that the flooding “is a consequence of climate change" and that the country “must prepare much better" in the future against such events.

Although experts have warned against linking the flooding to climate change, it is widely believed that an increase in extreme weather events will be a key consequence of a warming planet.

“We cannot yet say with certainty that this event is linked to global warming," Schroeter told AFP, but “global warming makes events like this more likely". Jouzel, the ex-IPCC vice president, told the news agency that there is a “plausible" link between such weather events and climate change though nothing been proven yet.

“Unfortunately, we are in the early stages of global warming, and what lies ahead will be even worse. We must not kid ourselves that climate change is limited to a few isolated disasters or to one region or time period," he told AFP.

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first published:July 18, 2021, 10:48 IST