Germany’s Floods: a crisis within a crisis within a crisis

By Hanna Vogt, in collaboration with Rehabilitating Earth.

Whilst our day to day lives during the pandemic are still not what they used to be, Germany was shocked in mid-July by record breaking flooding. Resulting in 170 deaths and counting, with hundreds of people still missing. The floods have destroyed properties and infrastructure, as places hit by the floods have been warped, now unrecognisable to any of the local people who live there.

Being from Germany, I feel shame and disappointment. For these kind of extreme weather events have been hitting countries in the Global South for decades; yet it has taken for it to happen here for the climate crisis to enter mainstream public debates. We continue to fail to act appropriately, and the crisis has arrived at our doorstep too. The catastrophic floods have prompted much-needed debates and hopefully improvements in Germany’s disaster risk management. Now, with a view to the upcoming federal elections, Germans must consider the floods connection to the climate crisis and how this intersects with Germany’s past and current political trajectory. It is time we all wake up to the climate crisis.

The link between Germany’s floods and the climate crisis

We’ve been hearing it for years: ‘the climate crisis will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events’. For a start, heavy rainfall on its own is a normal weather phenomenon which we can deal with without any major issues usually. However, as such phenomena occur more often and with increasing severity, as is currently the case, our systems are put under increasing pressure as they were not designed to deal with this kind of extreme weather. This is why in a climate crisis era ‘record breaking’ weather events have become our norm. The meteorological mechanism behind this shift is pretty simple, warmer air can hold more water and so heavy rainfall events are more likely to occur. Alongside atmospheric changes, anthropogenic changes to landscapes such as urbanisation, soil sealing and river straightening add to the problem: During heavy rainfall, water masses cannot enter the ground or are not given space to spread out, and therefore flow off superficially, leading to flooding. So really, we are witnessing a climate Inception, a crisis (extreme weather events such as flooding) within a crisis (the global pandemic) within a crisis (climate change).  

What now?

Currently, clean-up work is under way and urgently needed. In some regions the mud is contaminated and with more rain expected, sewage pipes, drains and riverbeds need to be cleared as quickly as possible so that new rainwater can flow off. To help with this work, hundreds of volunteers travelled to the affected regions. However, this inadvertently caused so much traffic that operations by the German disaster control forces were impeded. Now, people from outside the regions are being asked to stay home, (or to arrive with organized groups only), and to help out with donations if possible. According to current estimates, insurance damages alone are expected to cost about 4 to 5 billion euros and this is even excluding half of the houses destroyed, as they were not insured for flood damage.

Germany’s floods and the links to the climate crisis currently feature on daily news shows, in online magazines and political discussion shows. There are debates on what exactly went wrong in the chain of warnings that were sent out. The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) sent out more than 25 warnings to German states ministries of the environment, the federal office for civil protection, and the disaster control before July 14th; yet, action to prepare for the flooding was still limited. It is under investigation where exactly communication systems failed, but either way, it is clear there was a monumental failure of the system.

Personal remarks

For decades, we have been warned that if we do not act then climate change will become unmanageable. On my social media, I see news recordings from the 70s, 80s and 90s where news reporters speak about the likelihood of floods and droughts becoming more frequent and severe.

Since Germany’s floods have been close to home for me (quite literally), I mainly feel three things: empathy, shame and disappointment. Empathy for all the affected people, especially those that have irreversibly lost their family, friends, and homes. At the same time, I know that not being affected personally, I cannot even slightly understand what it must be like to live through such a catastrophe. I feel shame about the emerging sense that ‘this is unacceptable’ and that ‘this is happening to Germany’, making it seem as though Germany is a passive victim in the development of climate change. Especially since such ‘unacceptable’ events have destroyed people’s lives in so many countries in the Global South for decades. Finally, I am disappointed. Disappointed that internationally, Germany is often praised for being world-leading in science and innovation. Scientific knowledge on the climate crisis, including the damaging impact countries of the Global North are accountable for with their emission trajectories of the past and present, is undisputed. Yet, despite the fact we signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, officially professing our responsibility for the climate crisis along, we have not stepped-up sufficiently. Concrete climate action is still lacking. 

Furthermore, the current trajectory of Germany’s leading political party (the CDU) leaves much to be desired in terms of proper climate action. ‘Climate change’ is splattered everywhere in party’s electoral programmes for this year’s federal elections. However, a concrete plan for quantifiable climate action is missing. Absurdly, yet in the spirit of the party, the leader of the CDU, Armin Laschet, commented on the recent flooding “that you can’t just change politics because there is ‘a day like this’. Like other countries in the Global North, Germany continues to contribute to the deepening of the climate crisis – Germany most recently with having pushed back to phase out of coal only by 2038. When will we realise enough is enough?

I grapple with the discrepancy between scientific certainty and political action. The disastrous floods remind us how important it is to step up climate change action. Above all, it makes me sad to think what needs to happen for the climate crisis to enter public debate. There are such vast, undeniable differences in responsibilities for the climate crisis and its consequences – in-between countries and in-between generations.

I hope more and more people continue to wake up to the reality of climate change and do what they can, especially those privileged enough to be able to make a change.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.