Wednesday 21 July 2021
Floods in Germany have left more than a hundred dead and wrecked whole towns. It’s not just a freak event, it’s a climate change catastrophe.
Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.
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Today, deadly floods in Germany and what happens when the unforgiving natural world hits a country badly prepared to handle it.
“The past several days of flooding have cut off entire communities from power and communications, and collapsed homes. And according to police estimates early on Saturday at least 133 people have died.”Reuters
Well over 100 people are dead and hundreds are missing. Germany normally gives help to countries in need. It’s not exactly used to being on this side of relief efforts.
Even the chancellor, Angela Merkel, is struggling to articulate what’s happened here.
“It’s terrifying. I would say there is no word in the German language to describe this devastation.”Angela Merkel speaking at the site of some flooding
Some meteorologists have put it down as a once-in-a-millennium event.
But as rescue teams search through the wreckage and as heavy rains continue to hamper their progress, the question of blame has emerged.
Was this just a freak event that no one could have accounted for? Or were the terrible consequences, in fact, preventable?
“It’s crazy to see all this. These people have now become poor from one day to the next. They need all the help they can get.”Werner Neumes, volunteer in flood-damaged villages
But those timber frames couldn’t handle the deluge of water when the rain came down and the nearby river burst its banks.
“In Schuld, the once quiet and picturesque village, residents survey what’s left… with this man saying, it’s unreal I can’t believe what I’m seeing here.“Global News
A region of Germany that normally sees 80 litres of rain per square metre in the whole of July, saw 148 litres in 48 hours.
The clean-up effort has created a lot of goodwill.
“There are so many people out there that you don’t even know. I don’t even know where they come from. They’re out here helping to clear up. So much willingness to clear up. It’s wonderful.”Flooding victim speaking to DW News
But it hasn’t warded off a question: could the authorities have done more?
In German, the word Schuld means guilt. And many people are trying to figure out who ought to bear it.
Of course, the weather was extreme – but that’s not quite the same as saying no one could have foreseen it.
Because many scientists are saying that what’s happened in Germany is consistent with climate change. It’s basic science: the hotter the atmosphere is, the more water it can hold.
The more there is up there, the more there is to come down. The EU leader Ursula Von Der Leyen agrees.
“It is the intensity and the length of these events, where science tells us this is a clear indication of climate change.”Ursula Von Der Leyen speaking at Next Gen EU
Germany did try to prepare.
It’s got a flood warning system called Nina, which is a mobile phone app. The problem is, only 8.8 million people in a country of about 84 million have downloaded it. And it worked patchily.
So one town – a place called Erfstadt – was given a warning that it was in extreme danger. But the Ahrweiler district where more than 100 people have died and where Schuld is, well, they didn’t get a red flag.
Of course, it didn’t help that the floods had knocked down mobile phone masts.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame the app, though.
At the start of last week, the European Flood Awareness System sent out a warning of extreme weather. That was around the time that flash floods were hitting London.
[Clip of flash floods]
The German weather service passed that warning down the chain – and under Germany’s political system it was up to those local communities, to decide what to do.
Some of them didn’t evacuate. And they’re counting their losses not just in homes and buildings – but in human life, too.
On Sunday, Angela Merkel said that things can happen “so quickly that you can’t fully escape the force of nature”.
And of course, she’s right. But the cost of these floods really could have been minimised.
It’s a warning to all of us.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thinks that if global temperatures hit 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, then every year around five million Europeans will have to live with flooding which they would previously have faced just once every hundred years.
We’re already at 1 degree.
The big picture answer is to tackle climate change head-on. But it’s also to prepare for the inevitable: what we’ve seen in Germany is likely to become much more normal. If countries don’t get ready, the suffering will become normal too.
Places like Schuld… hundreds of years of history, lives and livelihoods, wiped out in a matter of days.
They probably didn’t think something like this would happen to them. At least not so soon.
The lesson for other places, other countries, is that the devastating effects of climate change are already here.
Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.
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