Floods & Climate Change: How Can We Adapt?

On July, 27th 2022, Kentucky, USA, was hit by a devastating flood leaving at least 37 dead, hundreds of people missing, and causing damages worth millions of dollars (BBC). This unfortunate event adds up to the increasing number of flood disasters occurring in several countries around the world in recent years. Last year, July, 2021, was one of the worst months on record in terms of floods and rain-related incidents, causing over 920 deaths and damages worth billions of dollars mainly in Europe and Asia (Davies, 2021). Research reveals that the proportion of global population exposed to floods has increased by at least 20 percent since the year 2000 (Tellman, et al., 2021). Flooding is the environmental hazard that affects the highest number of people around the world, as a result, it is vital that we take action to adapt to this new reality – which is the aim of this article.

Floods and Climate Change

Floods occur when water accumulates over land that is normally dry. The flooding water can emanate from inland waters such as rivers or streams; from coastal waters; or even from the accumulation of heavy rains, or a dam breach (Denchak, 2019). While the flooding water can originate from these different sources, researchers suggest that climate change, coupled with changes in land use and population demographics contribute significantly to the increasing frequency and severity of floods around the world (Tellman, et al., 2021).

Climate change does not directly create floods, but the increasing global temperatures due to climate change exacerbate several factors that create floods (Denchak, 2019). Let’s take a look at a few examples of how this can occur (Denchak, 2019).

  • Higher global temperatures allow more water to be held up in the atmosphere, and when it eventually rains, it pours heavily, thus increasing the risk of floods.
  • In regions where snowfall occurs, higher temperatures and warmer rains will result in faster and earlier snow melting in the Spring. This increases risks of spring floods, especially given that the soils are often still frozen and high in moisture, making water difficult to permeate.
  • Climate change makes strong storms/hurricanes more frequent, and this results in heavier rains and gustier winds. Stronger storms and winds make waves bigger and able to flood farther inland.
  • Climate change is responsible for rising global sea levels. This rising sea levels amplify storms and increase chances of high-tide flooding.

How to Adapt

Despite the fact that those who typically suffer the greatest impacts from floods are the low-income people, elderly, and minority communities, we should all realise that, floods can happen anywhere and could significantly affect anyone it encounters irrespective of wealth or race if we do not prepare effectively (Denchak, 2019). As we expect to see more frequent and severe floods due to climate change, it is urgent that we invest more in flood adaptation in order to reduce flood impacts such as mortality and asset losses. Investments in flood adaptation should address five key areas in order to be effective (Hegger, et al., 2014):

  1. Flood risk prevention – This covers measures to prevent development in areas at risk of flooding, in order to keep people as much as possible away from the water. For example, spatial planning, expropriation policies, etc.
  2. Flood defence – This covers structural measures, both natural or man-made that are used to keep water away from people. For example, dams, dikes, weirs, salt marshes, peat bogs, etc
  3. Flood risk mitigation – This includes measures to decrease the impacts of floods inside vulnerable zones. For example, regulations to flood-proof properties, as well as structures to retain or store water in vulnerable zones.
  4. Flood preparation – It is vital that measures to prepare for a flood event be put in place, and such measures include, flood warning systems, as well as disaster management and evacuation plans
  5. Flood recovery – This includes measures to enable a good and fast recovery following a flood event, and include, reconstruction plans, as well as compensation and recovery systems

Failure to invest in all five areas has proven to limit the effectiveness of any flood risk management strategy. For example, the high death toll from the floods in Germany in July, 2021, is suggested to be as a result of ineffective warning systems. Despite accurate forecasts, the warning systems weren’t effective at conveying the magnitude of the danger to the local population, as a result, many people failed to evacuate their homes on time and died in the flood. This example shows a limitation in flood preparation measures. On the other hand, countries such as Bangladesh, which is highly prone to floods and has much limited resources, possesses a more robust flood risk management strategy as a result of investing in all five measures. I invite you to learn more by watching the DW documentary: Extreme weather, rising sea levels, devastating floods – The global climate crisis

Take Action!

We all have a say in ensuring the preparedness of our communities against floods. The first step is to understand the risk of our local community to flooding. And then demanding/supporting the adoption of flood risk management policies in our communities while emphasizing all five areas of flood risk management.

Let’s all remember that, even as we fight to mitigate climate change, we can no longer avoid some of the consequences of a warmer environment, therefore, we have to adapt!

References

Davies, R. (2021, July). Worldwide – Over 920 People Killed in Floods and Landslides in July 2021. Retrieved from https://floodlist.com/asia/world-floods-july-2021

Denchak, M. (2019, April 10). Flooding and Climate Change: Everything You Need to Know. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flooding-and-climate-change-everything-you-need-know

Hegger, D., Driessen, P., Dieperink, C., & Wiering , M. A. (2014). Assessing Stability and Dynamics in Flood Risk Governance An Empirically Illustrated Research Approach. Water Resources Management. doi:DOI 10.1007/s11269-014-0732-x

Tellman, B., Sullivan, J., Kuhn, C., Kettner, A., Doyle, C., Brakenridge, G., . . . Slayback, D. (2021, August 4). Satellite imaging reveals increased proportion of population exposed to floods. Nature, 596, 80-86. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03695-w

Leslie Fotso
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