Flash floods in Europe

Flash floods in Europe
Flash floods in Bad Münstereifel

Bad Münstereifel, Ashford’s German twin town, was badly hit by the flash floods in Europe on 14th July. Bridges and buildings have been destroyed. Ashford Twinning Association opened an appeal and have sent a £2,000 donation to help with emergency relief.

In Germany, the worst hit areas are in Rhineland Palatinate and N.Rhine Westphalia, where Bad Münstereifel is located. Emergency money is to be given to those provinces from the German Federal Government, more than €400m.

EU Solidarity

Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have also suffered from the destructive floods. They will all qualify for assistance from the European Solidarity Fund, set up in 2002.

The UK asked for help after the 2007 floods and received €162.3 m. There have been 80 disasters in the EU since 2002, and over €5bn has been disbursed from this Solidarity fund. When Angela Merkel recently visited some of the flooded areas recently, she declared (as reported via France24), “Europe is with you”.

This solidarity of response also applied to immediate emergency assistance. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism paid 75% of the costs of transport sent to the stricken towns, a helicopter and fire-fighting team from France that went speedily to Wallonia, in French-speaking Belgium, and Italian firefighters who rescued 40 people in Tilff.

The EU satellite, Copernicus, was also used for vital mapping of the disaster zones. When flash floods hit the UK again, as surely they will, as we are out of the EU, we are not entitled to all this.

How bad were these floods?

The first we in Britain realised that abnormal rain was striking in mid-July was the news that parts of London were flooding on 12th July: there were 1,000 calls to the London Fire Brigade on the night of the 12th; 120 residents in Kensington and Chelsea evacuated, 76.2 mm of rain in 90 minutes; some tube stations closed.

But the weather worsened across the Channel: 200,000 residents were evacuated in Liege, the Thalys Brussels to Germany train was stopped, rail services suspended in Wallonia; Dutch troops sent to evacuate residents in Limburg province, notably in Meersum where there was a hole in a dyke.

In Germany there were fears that the dam at Steinbachtal was unstable; the Dresden-Prague railway was closed because of mudslides. Hundreds of thousands of residents in the affected provinces of Germany suffered hours without electricity.

In Wallonia, overturned domestic fuel tanks spilled oil into water courses, which now affects the water supply to a large part of the population; Wallonia supplying the water for the rest of Belgium in lower-lying Flanders. Some residents in small Belgian towns waited nine hours on rooftops for rescue, while the water rose up to second floors.

Now recriminations have started about how local government cost-cutting (sounds familiar?) has reduced the staff and resources of the emergency teams.

EU Flood Precautions

Scientists found the flash floods in Europe unusual and noted how much the rainfall exceeded norms. Near Liege, 271.5mm fell in 48 hours, three times the norm; in Germany, the rainfall was the highest in 100 years, possibly 1000 years.

EU Directives on flood control

The most important directive on floods is from 2007 when the UK was still in the EU. It gave deadlines:

1. all governments in EU had to do a preliminary Flood Risk Assessment by 2011
2. Flood Hazard maps had to be drawn up, showing risks, of a 1/100 years of a serious flood, and the potential damage to the economy and environment of such an event, by 2013
3. a flood management plan had to be drawn up to mitigate the risk, by 2015
The Water Framework Directive set up a co-ordinated reporting format under WISE (Water Information System for Europe).

Silly red tape from Brussels??? It certainly is NOT.

KCC takes it all seriously and has issued a Kent Local Flood Risk Management Strategy 2017-2027. As a Kent resident, you can utilise an interactive map to see the flood risk to your home. There are some 64,000 properties in Kent at flood risk, mostly in Romney Marsh, Dartford and Gravesend.

The Science of flood control

Big Science wants a super-computer of CERN-like dimensions to be able to better predict abnormal climate events. Meanwhile, the satellite EU already has, Copernicus, develops the weather maps and forecasts, and also the photos of the affected areas. But one could argue that big Science prediction moves too slowly.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change) which collates all predictions on climate change reports only every six to seven years. However, then with data that is is about one to two years out of date by the time of the report. Experts already criticise the methodology as paying insufficient attention to tipping points, to feedback loops and outlier predictions.

Meanwhile, experts in the field of flash floods continue to minutely research the data that is available by various means. For example, a Belgian research paper into the Liège floods of 2008, tried to calculate the probability of such floods by going back a century through newspaper accounts and photos in the area.

Predictably, this being Belgium, they only had access to the francophone archives, and not the Flemish or German ones. They counted some 70 flash floods in Wallonia affecting some 253 communities across the century. These occurred with more than 43mm of rainfall in a day.

These academics are thorough on the physics of floods: on the quantity of rainfall that causes flash floods, on the weight of soil carried away in the water, the volume of large objects carried by the force of the water (rocks, tree-trunks and so on). But I skimmed over their equations because I was more interested in the conclusions that have a bearing on political decision-making, specifically:

  • Concentrated run-of from monoculture
  • Undersized drainage system for the volume of rainfall
  • Location of camping grounds
  • Lack of maintenance of dams

Conclusion: how to avoid flash floods

Don’t do monoculture, and don’t do urbanisation! In the UK, the recent legislation will reward farmers for using the land more environmentally. But it is quite possible UK supermarkets are still buying food from Belgian monoculture farms. With regard to urbanisation, all the nimbies in Kent dismayed by new housing developments threatening green and pleasant land will want to be alert also to flood risk.

There are Kent local councils who are authorising new builds on flood-plains, for instance in Ashford, putting a car park on the flood-risk ground floor,with an apartment block above. The recent London floods showed how the drainage system reacts to excessive concrete. Kensington and Chelsea has a number of properties with giant new basements.

Even in Kent, in many streets people choose to concrete over their front gardens as a place to park their cars, without any thought about what that does to rainfall drainage, or even to the resulting heat halo that exacerbates the weather in the hotter months.