Germany: why is the flood toll so heavy?

Submerged houses, overturned cars, roads collapsed under the weight of muddy waters that surge without stopping. The torrential rains that hit western Germany have already claimed at least 103 victims, while Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are also affected. 1,300 people are missing in the canton of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler alone. And the toll will certainly increase in the hours and days to come.

→ READ. Germany: victims and missing after a landslide following the floods

“I am overwhelmed by the disaster that so many people have to endure in the flooded areas”, reacted Chancellor Angela Merkel, Thursday, July 15, while she was visiting Washington. The emergency is in the organization of relief: more than a thousand soldiers have been deployed to evacuate the inhabitants of the regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, forced to take refuge on the roof of their House.

Historical disaster

The country had not experienced such a serious natural disaster since the floods in Hamburg, which killed more than 300 people in 1962. “It is very worrying to see that today in Europe, floods can claim so many victims”, notes with amazement Linda Speight, hydro-meteorologist at the University of Reading in England.

Across the Rhine, global warming is already at the heart of all discussions. “This means that we have to speed up climate protection measures”, said Armin Laschet, president of North Rhine-Westphalia and favorite to succeed Angela Merkel next fall. Even Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the discreet President of the German Republic, called on Friday July 16 to “Resolutely commit to climate change” for “Master extreme weather conditions”.

The role of global warming

“One degree more, globally, is equivalent to 7% more water vapor in the atmosphere”, underlines Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, professor of climatology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. However, if the atmosphere contains more water vapor, precipitation becomes more important.

→ DEBATE. Floods in Germany and Belgium, heat in Spain… Is Europe experiencing an extreme climatic summer?

Extreme weather events such as floods are therefore likely to be more frequent and more violent. “The IPCC(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Editor’s note) already alerted to this risk from its first report in 1990 ”, recalls the expert.

These rains cause even more damage as they fall on highly urbanized areas. The artificialization of soils reduces their permeability. “By building roads, parking lots, upgraded banks, water can no longer penetrate the ground”, explains Jean-Pascal van Ypersele.

Dwellings are sometimes built in the major bed of watercourses, that is to say the overflow zone in the event of a flood. Holger Sticht, regional president of the German Federation for the Environment and the Protection of Nature, has also castigated buildings in flood zones.

Insufficient preparation

However, these elements turn out to be insufficient to explain the very heavy human toll. “The European meteorological agencies had warned the German authorities of a significant risk of flooding”, recalls Linda Speight. Despite the alert, no one expected events of this magnitude. “The European forecasting and warning models are good, continues the specialist. But evacuation measures should have been taken sooner. “

→ MAINTENANCE. Global warming: “The world of tomorrow will be harder in many places”

If the lack of preparation of the German authorities was undoubtedly detrimental, Linda Speight also calls for a citizen awareness of these risks: “In areas that are infrequently affected by flooding, people tend to think that it only happens to others. This is wrong: these risks exist and will recur. “

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