Conflict Alerts # 410, 21 July 2021
In the news
On 18 July, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to Schuld, one of the two regions hardest hit by extreme rainfall in Western Germany, said, the number of such extreme weather events had increased in recent years, adding, "we have to up the pace in the fight against climate change."
On 14 July, in the Ahrweiler district, Rhineland-Palatinate, at least 117 people died after torrents of rainwater collected in the surrounding Eifel mountains and then a flash flood gutted through several villages. About 30,000 are currently without power, drinking water and gas. Along with Germany, Belgium also recorded a death toll of 27, according to the national crisis centre.
Issues at large
First, the nature of floods and extreme climate variability. Recurring flooding in Rhineland is relatively common yet this extreme deluge and swelling of rivers are rare in Germany. According to the data released after the deluge and interpreted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, parts of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia were inundated with 148 litres of rain per sq metre within 48 hours in a part of Germany that usually sees about 80 litres in the whole of July. The Köln-Stammheim station was flooded in 154mm of rain over 24 hours, obliterating the city's previous daily rainfall high of 95mm. With climate change, the events of hydro-meteorological extremes are expected to become more extreme. And the deluge coincides with the global trend of simultaneous extreme heatwaves across the Atlantic and cloudbursts.
Second, the response by disaster management mechanisms. In the Ahrweiler district, early warnings about record rainfall and expected floods did not make their way to the communities most at risk. In Erftstadt, south of Köln, the federal government's weather warning app advised many to stay inside their house, but by the next day, when the nearby dam was at risk of breaking, faster evacuation in keeping at pace with unfolding nature took all by surprise. Even though the European Flood Awareness System sent out specific warnings four days before the downpour, the ensuing flash floods still appeared to be a crisis.
Third, the nature of social preparedness. An overreliance on digital tools such as warning apps is yet to materialize in the border villages. The war-period sirens, now used by fire departments, and over-dependency on radio and television announcements are among the many factors impacting pre-emptive response. The flash floods that came after midnight on 14 July shut down the electricity and the telecommunication networks, cutting off people in the affected areas from official communication. The swelling of the river and the increase in the water level by every minute was never be expected.
Fourth, emphasis on tackling climate change. The deluge has brought the focus on regional effort to tackle impacts of transboundary natural disasters and it comes at a time when the EU entered the next phase of introducing a climate policy to put the continent on a path to climate neutrality by 2050. The aim is to introduce a new emissions trading regime for the transport and building sectors, and in this Germany, itself has a national climate action plan to cut the greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by making a complete switch to renewable energy.
In a federally administered disaster management system, the fear of the unknown surpassed all forms of preparedness. The systemic gap was exposed in a situation of a transboundary disaster, and the cooperative federalism was hindered by timely Centre-state coordination. In addition, the aftermath of the deluge saw the question of economic and social reconstruction of the vulnerable communities become a campaign issue. While the global efforts at tackling climate change are focused on cutting carbon emissions, the floods in Germany calls for the need to build communities resilient to face recurring natural disasters.