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Can we outrun the flood risks of climate change?

Climate change is making floods worse and more common around the world. Professor Lindsey McEwen, Director of the Centre for Water, Communities and Resilience at the University of the West of England, warns that extreme floods will happen more frequently and become more damaging. This means that people need to change how they prepare for and deal with flood risks.

Consequences of floods

Multiple scientists agree that climate change will cause more frequent and intense floods.  This prediction, based on extensive research and modeling, considers the impact of rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and other climate-related factors.

The consequences of flooding are far-reaching, impacting the environment, economy, and society. Floods destroy habitats, pollute water sources, damage infrastructures, disrupt businesses, and force people from their homes. These problems are all connected, making it hard to solve them.

Vulnerable communities

Floods do not affect everyone equally and this means that not every community can prepare for flood risks the same way. Some have easier access to information, like flood warnings, or have more people who can get organized and work together. They might also have tools to help stop floods. 

This isn’t fair, and it makes it harder for some communities to protect themselves during floods. Without the right knowledge, power to act, and resources, it’s much harder to keep people safe from floods.

Europe’s rising tide

Europe provides a stark example of flood consequences. Experts predict yearly flood costs to jump from $5.724 billion USD to $43.2 billion USD by 2050. This significant increase stems from several factors, including the growing value of assets in flood-prone areas, the higher frequency and severity of floods, and potential delays in implementing effective flood resilience measures.

Beyond economic losses, the human cost is also staggering. The number of people affected by floods in Europe alone is expected to jump from 200,000 to over 500,000 by 2050. 

Community-centric flood management

For over 20 years, Professor McEwen has focused on floods and worked with communities facing them. She stresses that these communities are essential to handling flood risks and minimizing disaster damage.

Building walls and other traditional solutions funded by the government are important, but they’re not enough. Even with these measures in place, there’s still a chance of flooding (called “residual risk”). This makes community involvement critical.

Misconception about government responsibility

Not everyone trusts communities to help with flood protection, thinking it lets the government off the hook. But that’s not true.

Both communities and governments have important roles to play, and working together leads to better flood plans. When everyone joins forces, we can make our communities more resilient to floods.

The path forward

Climate change demands a shift in how we approach flood protection. While traditional methods like dams and levees serve a purpose, they alone cannot withstand the rising tide. 

“Investing in large infrastructure projects as the sole flood management solution simply hasn’t reduced ecological, financial and even sentimental losses,” explained McEwen. “Investment in defen­sive infrastructure alone, with its costs and design limits, can only be part of the solution.”

She suggests we must build resilience, and that goes beyond physical structures. “Flood risk management is all about how we shift the focus away from reactive responses to preparation and resilience at the household and community level. Much of that residual risk management needs to happen at a local level, but people might not have the necessary information, skills or resources to do this.”

Building flood-resilient communities

“A key question is how to increase community participation and agency when there is expectation of a key role of the state still pervades. There is a wider perceived disconnect between citizens and water in the developed world,” said McEwen.

Communities need comprehensive plans, early warning systems, and robust education programs to prepare for floods. Engaging local knowledge and understanding vulnerabilities through collaborative efforts are key.

Wealth disparities can worsen flood impacts. We must identify vulnerable populations, ensure equal access to resources and planning, and develop solutions that consider diverse needs and capabilities.

Strong social networks, empowered leadership, and collective action are vital. Communities working together, sharing information, and taking responsibility for preparedness can face floods head-on.

More about the flood risks of climate change 

Climate change significantly increases the risk of flooding in various parts of the world. As the Earth’s atmosphere warms due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, weather patterns become more extreme and unpredictable. 

This warming causes glaciers and ice caps to melt, contributing to a rise in sea levels, which in turn increases the likelihood of coastal flooding.

Warmer atmosphere

Additionally, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to more intense and frequent rainstorms. Heavy rainfall can overwhelm drainage systems and natural waterways, causing flash floods and river floods. 

Urban areas

Urban areas, often with impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt, face heightened flood risks. These materials prevent water from being absorbed into the ground, exacerbating runoff and flooding. 

Extreme weather

Climate change also influences the severity and frequency of hurricanes and cyclones. These storms bring heavy rains and storm surges, further increasing flood risks. 

Professor Lindsey McEwen has elaborated more on flood management in her book Flood Risk and Community Resilience.

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