From China to Germany, floods expose climate vulnerability

Recent floods killed more than 30 people in Henan (left) and over 200 in Germany (right) and Belgium. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AFP

SINGAPORE (REUTERS) - Deadly floods that have upended life in China and Germany in the past week have sent a stark reminder that climate change is making weather more extreme across the globe.

More than 30 people in the central Chinese province of Henan died on Tuesday (July 20), including a dozen trapped in a city subway as waters tore through the regional capital of Zhengzhou after days of torrential rain.

Coming after floods that killed more than 200 people in Germany and Belgium, the disaster has reinforced the message that significant changes will have to be made to prepare for similar events in the future.

"Governments should first realise that the infrastructure they have built in the past or even recent ones are vulnerable to these extreme weather events," said Associate Professor Eduardo Araral, co-director of the Institute of Water Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

In Europe, climate change is likely to increase the number of large, slow-moving storms that can linger longer in one area and deliver deluges of the kind seen in Germany and Belgium, according to a study published on June 30 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

As the atmosphere warms with climate change, it also holds more moisture, which means that when rainclouds break, more rain is released. By the end of the century, such storms could be 14 times more frequent, the researchers found in the study using computer simulations.

While the inundation that devastated wide swathes of western and southern Germany occurred thousands of kilometres from the events in Henan, both cases highlighted the vulnerability of heavily populated areas to catastrophic flooding and other natural disasters.

"You need technical measures, bolstering dikes and flood barriers. But we also need to remodel cities," said Dr Fred Hattermann at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

He said there was increasing focus on so-called "green adaptation" measures, like polders and plains that can be flooded, to stop water running off too fast.

"But when there's really heavy rain, all that may not help, so we have to learn to live with it," he said.

Reinforcing dikes and climate-proofing housing, roads and urban infrastructure will cost billions. But the dramatic mobile phone footage of people struggling through subways submerged in chest-deep water in Zhengzhou or crying in fear as mud and debris swept through mediaeval German towns made clear the cost of doing nothing.

"It is shocking and I have to say it is scary," said Mr John Butschkowski, a Red Cross driver who was involved in rescue work in western Germany this week. "It is ghostly, no people anywhere, just rubbish. And it is inconceivable that this is happening in Germany."

One year's rainfall in three days

Associate Professor Koh Tieh-Yong, a weather and climate scientist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said an overall assessment of rivers and water systems would be needed in areas vulnerable to climate change, including cities and farmlands.

"Floods usually occur due to two factors combined: one, heavier-than-normal rainfall, and two, insufficient capacity of rivers to discharge the additional rainwater collected," he said.

In both China and north-western Europe, the disasters followed a period of unusually heavy rain - equivalent in the Chinese case to a year's rainfall being dumped in just three days - that completely overwhelmed flood defences.

After several severe floods over recent decades, buffers had been strengthened along major German rivers like the Rhine or the Elbe, but last week's extreme rainfall also turned minor tributaries like the Ahr or the Swist into fearsome torrents.

In China, built-up urban areas with inadequate water evacuation and large dams that modified the natural discharge of the Yellow River basin may also have contributed to the disaster, scientists said.

But measures such as improving the resilience of buildings and raising riverbanks and improving drainage are unlikely to be enough on their own to avert the effects of severe flooding. As a last resort, warning systems, which were heavily criticised in Germany for leaving people with insufficient time to react, will have to be improved.

"It really needs to be embedded in practical knowledge that people have so they know what to do," said Professor Christian Kuhlicke, head of a working group on environmental risks and extreme events at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.

"If you can't keep the water back, if you can't save your buildings, then at least make sure that all vulnerable people are moved out of these places."

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