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ALERT: Leaders need to take early warning signs for floods seriously

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

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The perception of a disaster's outcome is important to avoid extreme impacts.

Ignorance by Aveera Juss

Flooding is the most universally experienced natural hazard, but somehow, it is also the most commonly underestimated. Just like most natural hazards, floods have warning signs that, if taken seriously, could save hundreds of lives and spare a tremendous amount of damage.

The recent floods in Germany and other European countries, which have taken more than 200 lives, represent the perfect example of an unprepared governance system in the face of a rapidly changing planet. It is therefore crucial for leaders to not look the other way when nature is trying to alert us of an upcoming disaster.



There are certain natural phenomena that indicate a potential flood, its type, and its intensity. It is essential for leaders and communities to be aware of these warning signs to take the necessary defensive measures.

The most common and identifiable warning signs of floods are…

  • Intense rainfall of short duration over a small area: this is a clear warning sign for flash floods, which are the most dangerous type of flooding because of their destructive power and speed – making them catastrophic at the local level.

  • Dam or levee failure: this rare but possible event is a warning sign for downstream flooding, which can be extremely hazardous for cities located downstream of dams.

  • Slow-moving tropical storms and hurricanes: these can cause storm surges – the local rise in sea level – and heavy rains that lead to extensive flooding that can cover a very large distance.

  • Early snowmelt: this causes runoff water to join nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies, making them overflow.




Now, you might be thinking that scientists clearly pick up on these early warning signs through satellite images, predictions, and other tools. So, where exactly does the problem lie?

The problem arises when it is the national authorities’ turn to act upon the early warning signs. As Professor Hannah Cloke stated in an interview with BBC News on the recent floods in Germany, the alerts of serious floods and heavy rains were being sent to national authorities early on, but a few barriers limited this flow of information.

These barriers are present in many countries and are mainly rooted in the structure of a governance system and its ability to cope with natural hazards. To better understand this problem, let’s take a closer look at where things tend to go wrong and how leaders don’t take early warning signs seriously enough.

To start with, it is ultimately up to the authorities to determine the flood risk and take appropriate protection measures, causing the science-policy interface - or partnership - to not always be aligned. For instance, flood responses might not be effective enough for the intensity of the flood.


In addition, national authorities are often highly fragmented, allowing each region/state of a country to respond differently. This is the case in Germany and it can easily cause poor and inefficient action to be taken in certain areas.

There is also a lack of knowledge among leaders and individuals. As the environment ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate – one of Germany’s most affected regions – explained, information about smaller rivers and tributaries in the country is not detailed enough for many floods to be prevented. Perhaps even more grim is that many people don’t know how to act during floods, putting their lives in danger.


This lack of awareness can be attributed to the absence of flooding records/hazard maps that could provide important information on flood-prone areas, flood intensities, and more.

Taking early warning signs for floods seriously would help communities be more resilient. Not only would the impact of floods be reduced by providing more time for preparation and evacuation, but it would also transform the perception of floods and increase the knowledge about them.


The notion of risk amongst people and institutions would change, highlighting the real danger of floods and ultimately increasing society’s adaptive resilience.


A common observation that arose during the recent floods in Germany was that the flooding’s impact, including the number of casualties, was highly unexpected, especially when considering the country’s wealth and ‘development’. This clearly illustrates the effects of climatic change, emphasizing the importance of realizing that abnormal events like this one will be more likely to occur in unexpected places.

It is therefore crucial for leaders to rethink the way they utilize and perceive early warning signs for floods, to be better prepared and avoid disastrous impacts that would need to be dealt with later.


References

Boeckmann, C. (2018). Flash Floods: Warning signs and staying safe. The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Cornwall, W. (2021). Europe’s deadly floods leave scientists stunned. Science.

Cuddy, A. (2021). Germany floods: How a country was taken by surprise. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57867773

Keller, E. A., DeVecchio, D. (2019). Natural Hazards - Earth’s Processes as hazards, disasters, and catastrophes(5th ed.). Routledge.



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