Floods of the future: what can we learn from recent responses to flooding?

Over the past few days, Germany ​​(along with parts of the Netherlands and Belgium) has experienced catastrophic flooding following record levels of rainfall in parts of the country. Questions have arisen around how such a devastating outcome was able to prevail as the death toll surpasses 180 and core infrastructure is predicted to remain a wreck for months to come.

According to reports from The Guardian, ‘early warnings about record rainfall and expected floods did not make their way to the German communities most at risk’, due to a failed alert system – which left entire communities defenceless against mother nature. Under fire currently is the European Flood Awareness System (Efas) which was created in response to the disastrous 2002 flooding of the Elbe and Danube rivers. At the time there was enough merit to diagnose serious failings surrounding the warning systems in place, and yet, two decades later, it seems these issues surrounding poor communication and other methods of questionable disaster management remain prevalent ​​– despite the Efas.

In response, German Government officials such as Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, have shifted the criticism onto local authorities, stating that they were given the necessary warning and ‘make decisions on disaster protection’. Others are labelling the outcome a consequence of climate change and demanding more action be taken nationally through faster approval of forward-thinking green policies that will help prevent future repetition of similar disasters. Evidently, a lack of support and investment while battling bureaucratic red tape at the government level (or higher) has very real and devastating knock-on effects at a community level, and has hindered any chance of realistically achieving the global decarbonisation and sustainability targets being inflated ahead of COP26.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

One thing for certain is that flooding defences require a major overhaul, both on a central and local government level if responsibility remains to be split ​​– and this is not just applicable to Germany. In contrast, China ​​– a nation that has also experienced devastating past flooding ​​– responded to similar extreme weather cautions this week with strict measures and multiple alerts to citizens. Throughout the capital city of Beijing, residents complied with guidance that included a suspension of schools and social activities; while those most at-risk were removed from harm’s way, and security staff were deployed to the streets to assist in the fight against nature.

Already experts have begun to discuss the vast improvements made to China’s handling of these extreme situations in recent years. Professor Wang Hongwei, from the Renmin University of China’s School of Public Administration and Policy, told the Global Times, that this successful strategy we are currently witnessing in China can be partly credited to the formation of the Ministry of Emergency Management back in 2018. This dedicated resource has boosted China’s ability to predict the weather forecast, play a significant role in reducing the major risks, and help improve the country’s disaster relief response in the aftermath.

That said, there is a level of inevitability when facing these increasingly unpredictable natural disasters – showing that preparation is not the same as prevention. The rising destruction over the last few days in the Zhengzhou city area of central China is a prime example of how climate disasters are only set to get bigger and harder to combat. Reports state that the rainfall of the last three days is on par with the city’s annual average. While the state media reports 200,000 citizens have been evacuated to safe zones, there is a current death count of 25 so far, and vast parts of the province remain underwater, hiding the full diagnosis of damage. Even with the warning systems in place and measures like the Chinese military on the ground bursting dams to divert water flow, Chinese leader Xi Jinping admitted in his state-wide broadcast that “flood-prevention efforts have become very difficult”.

Photo by Jéan Béller on Unsplash

China’s preparation tactics show that a working partnership is required between national and local governments to ensure a coherent action plan is ready to address the impact of these natural disasters: before, during and after the incident, but it’s not enough to stop it from happening. This is where a hunt for solutions and methods that address the core issues relating to natural disasters need to be front and centre, which is where our focus lies at LGIU.

Local governments, especially in disaster-prone locations, can and should take some of their own initiatives to reduce the risk ahead of time, like working with the local voluntary and community sector to create action plans or joining the Local Government Flood Forum. It is also useful to investigate cutting-edge techniques from around the globe, as discussed in a recent LGIU blog that covers the use of sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), such as floodable parks in cities like Copenhagen and New York. Another useful resource for local governments is the LGIU partner FloodCitiSense, which aims to develop an early warning flood alert system by working together with citizens and local authorities. The app encourages entire urban communities to band together and create their own rain or flood report that can then be used to predict forecasts and enhance the response to these increasingly common floods in urban surroundings.

As always, there are, of course, lessons to be learned from other major floods and how they’ve been handled, such as the floods across areas of New South Wales and Queensland in Australia earlier this year. Our March LGIU briefing overviews the Australian local governments’ response and the disproportionate economic impact these natural disasters have on different groups. While the Scottish Flood Forum recently published a blog addressing the methods that can be used to construct and improve homes that are at risk from the watery forces of nature.

There is also much insight on offer from sharing local practices across the UK and Ireland, with a recent briefing highlighting the work of six local councils as they adapt and develop resilience against the impact of climate change in their areas. Our Chief Operating Officer, Dr Andy Johnston reports on the financial barriers of implementing these flooding solutions – alongside other major concerns for local governments as they look for ways to make a difference in this area.

Ultimately, discussions surrounding the community action needed at local levels to drive the whole sustainability agenda forward and hit these net-zero targets that are on the horizon is essential. In turn, this will aid in reducing the impact and hopefully, the occurrence of extreme natural disasters. From flood plains to channelized flow, to building new houses in suitable areas, LGIU is further researching methods of disaster prevention and flooding resilience that are being utilised by local governments across the globe to share more best practices. The topic of sustainable cities and climate change measures is also on our radar this summer, as it gains an ever-increasing presence in local government circles who are looking for solutions to protect their communities against these types of disasters that are inevitable for the future.

Anyone can sign up to our Global Local Recap which highlights resources for local solutions to global challenges. Find out more. LGIU Members should make sure they’re signed up to our Climate Change topic to receive our upcoming newsletter/series addressing sustainability and adaptation methods ahead of COP26 in November, and, register for our autumn training event on October 19 which focuses on how to tackle a climate emergency as a smaller council.