European Floods 2021 – an overview

In the course of the European Floods 2021, more than 230 people lost their lives across Europe. Measured in terms of the at least 191 fatalities, the European Floods 2021 is the most severe natural disaster in Germany since the storm surge in 1962. How the European Floods 2021 came about, what role climate change plays in it and what it means for urban planning – read about it here.

In July 2021, the low-pressure area Bernd led to severe flooding in Western and Central Europe. In Germany, the federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate were particularly affected. Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland were also hit the hardest. In Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, a massive crater formed in the course of the floods and three residential buildings and part of the historic castle collapsed.

European Floods 2021: No looting despite media reports

In Germany, the 2021 European Floods 2021 is being described as the worst flood disaster in decades. The current (September 16th 2021) confirmed death toll is over 180. 122 people died in the district of Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, and 40 000 are also affected by the consequences of the flood. Some of them still have no electricity or water. In NRW, 48 people lost their lives and one person also died in Bavaria.
Several media outlets also reported that looters and disaster tourists had “haunted” the affected areas in the course of the flood disaster. According to the the German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, however, Andreas Müller, press spokesman for the Aachen police, and a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior in North Rhine-Westphalia denied the information about looting. According to him there have been no major problems of this kind so far.

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How the European Floods 2021 occurred

Although floods are part of natural events, they cause more damage worldwide than any other force of nature. On the one hand, floods are caused by the tides or melting snow, on the other hand by one-off events such as tsunamis, storm surges or so-called floods of the century or even millennium floods. The European Floods 2021 is already being called the flood of the century.
The starting point for the European Floods 2021 was the comparatively stationary low-pressure area Bernd, which led to continuous rain as well as severe thunderstorms over northwestern Switzerland, Ticino, eastern Belgium, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony. The German Weather Service reported up to 150 litres of rain per night.

Waters in some places exceeded highs from the Alpine floods of 2005

After a certain point in time during continuous rainfall, soil can no longer store the water quantities. The water then flows unhindered into the nearby streams and rivers. The surrounding floodplain landscapes, which have formed in the course of natural flooding, are flooded. This is a natural process, especially during the months of snowmelt. It only becomes a problem when, firstly, the floods rise above their “normal” levels (in 2021 some water bodies exceeded the highs of the Alpine floods in 2005 and the floods in Switzerland in 2007) and, secondly, the corresponding floodplain areas are or become more and more populated.

This is why the flood waves lasted so long in 2021

In the areas affected by the 2021 flood, the flood disaster took a different course. In the mountain regions, the heavy rain caused the streams and rivers to swell quickly. The flooding was rapid, but short. At the edge of the Alps, however, the water rose slowly but steadily. That is why the flood waves lasted for days in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate (both Germany) among other places: the water level did not drop. The water washed out many houses or even carried them away. According to geomorphologist Michael Dietze, whom the FAZ quotes, the higher the flow velocity and the waters, the stronger the forces that can push cars and containers in front of them.

European Floods 2021 – a consequence of climate change?

As a result of climate change, heavy rainfall events are increasing. This has been scientifically proven several times. However, individual events – such as the European Floods 2021 – can hardly be attributed to climate change. Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, among others, confirmed this in a statement to the German Science Media Center (SMC). According to the climate researcher, weather patterns today are always an interplay of the usual weather coincidence and the changed boundary conditions caused by the greatly increased amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Lamia Messari-Becker, Professor of Building Technology and Building Physics at the University of Siegen, also agrees in an interview with Deutschlandfunk. She says that weather extremes and natural disasters are part of humanity, but climate change will intensify them. She also said that we must now work on early warning systems and improve them massively.

British professor defines monumental system failure

In the course of this, the question is raised whether disaster protection in Germany has failed. Several politicians criticised the risk prevention. Annalena Baerbock called for a “threefold national effort” in the ARD morning show. More climate adaptation measures must be implemented. Cities must be rebuilt, more space must be given to rivers, said the Greens’ chancellor’s counsellor.

Criticism also came from inside Germany as well as abroad. British hydrology professor Hannah Cloke defined a “monumental system failure” in the Sunday Times. Satellites had detected the signs in time and the German authorities had been forewarned.

Urban planning: Andrea Gebhard sees municipalities and federal states now under obligation

In her interview with Deutschlandfunk, civil engineer Lamia Messari-Becker called for a different kind of urban planning. She referred specifically to the models of the water-sensitive city and the sponge city. Excess water should not overload the sewage system. Accordingly, it must be drained off quickly, Messari-Becker said. In addition, large green areas must be planned for reconstruction, and setbacks would be indispensable. The sewage system would have to be adapted and retention basins planned. You have to learn to build with nature – not against it, says the civil engineer.

“Landscape plans must be given a different status”

Andrea Gebhard, President of the Federal Chamber of Architects in Germany, takes a similar view. In an interview with our colleagues from Garten + Landschaft on the European Floods 2021, the landscape architect said: “We have to deal with our areas differently. We need retention areas, we have to analyse the course of the river from beginning to end and take a closer look at settlement areas. As in other countries, people in Germany are settling in areas that are actually unsuitable for settlement from the point of view of flood protection. Urban redevelopment should always include flood and climate protection as well as recreational provision and biodiversity. In this respect, it is essential to get much more involved in conceptual work, but also in formal work. For example, landscape plans need to be given a completely different status because it is precisely they that look at overall land use.”

“We as a society must act”

According to Andrea Gebhard, the authorities are now obliged to seize the opportunity. They also need to adapt land use plans, landscape plans, development plans and green space plans as well as integrated urban development concepts to the challenges. “I have been practising urban planning and landscape architecture for over 30 years. We have discussed the issues again and again, named the dangers and opportunities, but their relevance was sometimes not recognised. Now this relevance is hitting us with full force. We as a society must act”, says Andrea Gebhard.

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