As world leaders gather in Glasgow for a climate change summit, survivors of Europe’s deadly floods this summer tell the BBC’s James Cook that urgent changes are needed if lives are to be saved in future weather disasters.
“We didn’t sleep, we only heard crying,” says Linda Kleber. He shudders when he remembers the people who asked for help on the night of the great flood.
Her family survived, along with a man her husband rescued from the water, but her 16th-century restaurant in the German town of Ahrweiler fell into disrepair.
The flood that hit communities across the Eifel mountain region of western Germany and eastern Belgium in mid-July claimed the lives of more than 200 people.
More than 130 lives have been lost here in the Ahr Valley, about 20 miles (32 km) south of Bonn.
Another 38 people died during the flooding of the Vesdre valley in Belgium, where recriminations continued in the autumn with debates over dam management and even an investigation into the possibility of manslaughter charges over alleged failures by authorities to react to warnings issued by the EU flood warning system.
In the Netherlands, the province of Limburg has been declared a disaster area, although some reports suggest that the Dutch experience in dealing with floods has paid off. When a dam was breached, authorities said the water flowed harmlessly into an overflow area.
In contrast, there were 6,500 reports of damage to homes and businesses in Luxembourg, and insurers said the disaster was the most costly in their history, estimating total losses at around € 125 million (£ 106 million).
Above all, it is the scale of death and destruction in Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world and a nation with a formidable reputation for technical innovation and engineering prowess, that has raised doubts about the readiness of even the richest countries to face the climate change.
The Ahr usually flows smoothly through this steep, narrow valley adorned with vines on its way to the Rhine, but on the morning of July 15 it still raged, having demolished hundreds of buildings, swept away dozens of bridges and destroyed the railway.
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For Lisa Thalheimer, who studies climate change at Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, the failure to save more lives was shocking.
According to Dr Thalheimer, whose great-grandfather was a cobbler in Ahrweiler, the least citizens can expect should be the least citizens can expect an effective early warning system that delivers personalized information and advice locally.
Such a system works well in the United States, says the academic, who thinks Germany has been slow to develop one due to data privacy concerns.
He would like to see warnings related to the immediate release of emergency funds, ensuring that people fleeing their homes and businesses have the resources and information.
Lamia Messari-Becker, a professor of civil engineering at Siegen University and a German government consultant for sustainable urban development, agrees, saying digital flood alarms for at-risk properties should be as common as smoke detectors.
Their absence, he says, “is a catastrophe for an industrialized nation like Germany”.
For many Germans, the blame for the failures lies with the complexity of the national system of local, state and national government; others chastised individual local leaders, none of whom wanted to be interviewed for this article; and some criticize the forecasters.
Germany’s National Meteorological Service insists it predicted extreme rainfall, but at its Frankfurt headquarters, research leader Professor Sarah Jones tells the BBC that translating the forecast into specific local flood warnings has been “complex” and involved many agencies.
“What is a good forecast today in terms of weather variables still leaves a high degree of uncertainty about what will happen locally on the ground,” he admits, adding: “It is clear that we need to improve our systems.
“We need to be able to make more accurate predictions.”
Scientists say the task is urgent. A study, not yet peer-reviewed, suggests that climate change may have been a factor in this flood.
More generally, as greenhouse gases are heating the air and as warmer air can hold more moisture, scientists say there is no doubt that such events will become more frequent and more dangerous globally.
“Human-induced climate change is probably the main cause“of an increase in the frequency and intensity of torrential rains since the 1950s, concludes the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“It is very likely that heavy rainfall events will intensify and become more frequent in most regions with further global warming,” he adds.
To be ready, “Europe, not just Germany, is facing a gigantic task of upgrading its infrastructure”, says prof. Messari-Becker.
Settlements in some floodplains may need to be abandoned, he warns, to allow floodwaters to spread more space without causing damage.
In front of Franziska Heil’s riverside house, however, reconstruction is already underway, with trucks transporting materials across a temporary metal bridge over the Ahr.
With the economy faltering, there is a tension between safe rebuilding and rapid rebuilding.
Autumn usually sees the region filled with tourists sampling local pinot noir vintages during the harvest festivals.
Instead Michael Kriechel, whose family has been making wine here for hundreds of years, is counting his losses: about 30,000 bottles of wine plus another 40,000 liters (8,800 gallons) in damaged barrels.
“The whole infrastructure is broken,” he says in German.
Mr. Kriechel points out that the Ahr Valley was hit by severe flooding long before anyone had heard of climate change, including a flood in 1910 that claimed the lives of around 200 people.
Ironically, as one of Germany’s northernmost red wine producers, warmer summers could actually improve its yields, according to him: an assessment apparently supported by the IPCC, which it says “the foreseen future changes could benefit the quality of the wine“in Western and Central Europe.
However, this is hardly comforting at the moment.
Daniel Koller, who runs a scheme called flutwein (flood wine) to raise funds for victims by selling muddy bottles of wine that survived the flood, estimates that up to 15% of the valley’s vines have been destroyed, with total industry losses reaching perhaps 450 million euros (385 million pounds).
“Disasters like this will happen more often in the future,” warns Koller, who thinks reconstruction should adopt new technologies.
Professor Messari-Becker says this could mean deeper foundations along with ground floors of buildings designed to allow water to flow safely in the event of a flood, as well as taller and stronger bridges.
She is an advocate of the “sponge city” concept of urban planning., using measures such as roof gardens, permeable pavements and urban forests to absorb water rather than traditional concrete dams, dikes and drainage systems to carry it away.
Climate change is clearly challenging humanity’s resilience and resourcefulness, but Linda Kleber, who now runs a new restaurant on higher ground, is confident.
“Wir schaffen das“he says in German, before switching to English to explain.
“This is what we always say. Wir schaffen das. We’ll make it”.
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