Living with floods

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Flooding again occurred in areas in the Philippines including Metro Manila, Calabarzon, and parts of Central Luzon, even though it was only a low pressure typhoon. Work and classes were again suspended; but people seemed to have gotten so used to floods that they are now accepted as regular forces of nature. Flooding is now a worldwide phenomenon; and the Economist has recently made floods as its cover story. In the article, several sources are quoted to show that the number and intensity of floods is increasing worldwide.

In recent days, global attention has been focused on hurricanes and floods in the United States, specifically in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. The monetary cost is estimated at billions of dollars. The  reason for the heightened attention is because of the global reach of American media.

In India, Bangladesh and Nepal monsoon floods have so far left at least 1,200 people dead and millions left homeless. More monsoon floods are still expected for the rest of the year. In Sierra Leone, a West African country with a population of only six million, torrential rains recently caused landslides that killed over 1,000 people. In terms of victims to population ratio, that would be equivalent to 17,000 deaths in the Philippines and more than 50,000 in the United States. 

Floods increasing

There are several scientific data showing that storms and floods are becoming more common. According to Munich Re, a global reinsurer, the number of storms and floods causing weather related disasters has increased from 200 in 1980 to over 600 last year. 

A recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) stated: “Unabated climate change would bring devastating consequences to countries in Asia and the Pacific, which could severely affect their future growth, reverse current development gains, and degrade quality of life...More intense typhoons and tropical cyclones are expected to hit Asia and the Pacific with rising global mean temperature...Coastal and low lying areas in the region will be at an increased risk of flooding. Nineteen of the 25 cities most exposed to a one-meter sea-level rise are located in the region, seven of which are in the Philippines alone. Indonesia, however, will be the most affected country in the region by coastal flooding with approximately 5.9 million people expected to be affected every year until 2100.”

Global warming and Pope Francis

One clear cause for the increase in flooding is global warming.  According to the Economist article, on floods: “Warmer seas evaporate faster and warmer air can hold more water vapour, which releases energy when it condenses inside a weather system, feeding the violence of storms and the intensity of deluges. Rising sea levels...exacerbate storm surges, adding to the flooding.” 

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a German science research center, compared computer models of the atmosphere now and how it used to be. They found that planet Earth experienced 12 percent more record-breaking downpours between 1980 and 2010 that might have been expected had the climate not been changing. Scientists at the ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, found that the warming recorded since pre-industrial times made “...one-day records for rainfall over land 18 percent more likely.”

There are still sceptics who deny the existence of climate change – including Donald Trump. Pope Francis recently expressed his fears about the impact of climate change on the world’s poorest residents. He recently told reporters: “If we don’t go back, we will go down. That is true . You can see the effects of climate change with your own eyes and scientists tell us clearly the way forward. All of us have a responsibility. All of us. Some small. Some big. {We have] a moral responsibility to accept opinions, or make decisions. I think it is not something to joke about.’

Pope Francis then quoted a phrase from the Old Testament: “ Man is stupid, a stubborn, blind man. Those who deny [ climate change] should go to the scientists and ask them. They are very clear, very precise.”

Costs of floods

Insurers see an increase in water related disasters. The World Health Organization estimates that, in real terms, the global cost of typhoon damage is rising by six percent a year. Flood losses in Europe will increase five times in the next three decades. 

Developing countries are underinsured against natural disasters like typhoons and floods. Swiss Re, a major reinsurer, estimates that of the $50 billion or so losses to floods, cyclones and other natural disasters in Asia in 2014, only eight percent were covered by insurance. The Bank of International Settlements calculates that “... the worst natural catastrophes typically permanently lower the afflicted country’s GDP by almost two percent.” 

In the United States, the government subsidizes the premiums of most vulnerable houses through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  Because of recent spikes in natural disasters, the NFIP has been forced to  borrow money because it has failed to charge enough premiums to cover its losses.

Poor urban planning and lack of environmental protection has exacerbated flooding in countries like the Philippines. Cities need to protect flood defences and catchment areas like wetlands, rivers and lakes. Drainage systems should be efficient and developers should build ponds to hold run-off water. Building standards should be upgraded and properly enforced. Government should be building and reinforcing levees and reservoirs now before it is too late. 

I think that we have become so focused on disaster relief because we have given up hope of preventing or even minimizing flooding. If we give up flood control and prevention, then flooding will only become worse especially in the heavily populated coastal areas.

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