European flood defence system questioned in wake of German catastrophe

This week, Germany will continue to count the cost of last week’s ferocious floods that wreaked havoc in western Europe. Germany experienced the worst losses of the countries affected, with North Rhine-Westphalia, the Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland bearing the brunt of the damage.

Nevertheless, as devastating as the effects are, RMS, the US-based catastrophe risk modelling company pointed out: “In the wake of past floods, mitigation measures have been implemented across Europe and their performance will have significant influence on how much damage the current floods will cause. The flooding recorded to date would have covered a much more widespread area and caused far more damage than we’ve already seen, if it were not for these measures.”

At the same time, questions do have to be asked regarding the application of the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), designed to issue flood warnings, so authorities can make the necessary preparations.

Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist who was involved in establishing EFAS, said authorities in Europe had received alerts over the weekend, some days before the flooding occurred.

In spite of that, Professor Cloke noted: “[There were] places where those warnings did not get through to the people and they did not know it was going to happen.” In other words, there were breaks in the line of communication.

It seems likely therefore that this system will be overhauled going forward, to improve the transition from detecting a natural hazard to formulating a pre-emptive response to that hazard.

This would be particularly important if, as many observers believe, such events will become increasingly common in future due to climate change.

Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, said: “With climate change we do expect all hydro-meteorological extremes to become more extreme. What we have seen in Germany is broadly consistent with this trend.”

The other pressing issue is: who will foot the bill for these huge losses? Germany’s finance minister Olaf Scholz said a package of €300m in immediate aid would be proposed at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Regarding insured losses, broker Aon said the floods are expected to lead to another billion-dollar loss for the insurance industry. That comes on the back of a torrent of hail and heavy rain in June that Aon forecast would lead to $4.5bn in payouts from insurers, making it Europe’s costliest two-week stretch on record.

The German Insurance Association (GDV) largely concurs with that view. It sent out a Tweet on 15 July saying that the storms, flooding, heavy rain and hail seen so far this year were making 2021 the worst year for natural catastrophes since 2013, with heavy rain and hail in June already having triggered insured losses of €1.7bn in the German market.

Although the severity of this summer’s weather has come as a surprise, the industry has been aware of changing weather patterns and their inherent natural catastrophe potential for some time. So, there is a wealth of information available to support insurers in formulating an effective response.

In the meantime, hopefully the immediate flooding has subsided. Although RMS did sound a note of caution, reminding us that, “floodwaters are expected to rise further over the coming days, potentially near cities with greater populations”.

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