Communicating right can save lives

The unthinkable happened in Europe in 2021 — nearly 200 people died of flash floods that wreaked havoc in Germany and Belgium. Other countries, like the Netherlands and Luxembourg were also severely hit, but managed to avoid the loss of human lives.

Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood water following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021 Reuters

While the continent was trying hard to get back to normal, China got hit by the worst flood in a thousand years — most of the Henan province in central China went under flood-water after being pummeled by torrential rain.

Shocking videos were filmed by the victims trapped inside a flooded subway line. Many residents were left stranded in schools or at their workplaces with flood-waters turning city streets into roaring rivers.

It is already known that the higher air temperatures caused by climate change have made the atmosphere hold a higher than usual level of moisture, which in turn lead to more extreme downpours, creating powerful torrents. While it is almost impossible to avert the total loss of property, lives can be saved by communicating the possible risks and impact of any looming extreme weather event.

Countries like China, Germany, and Belgium do have such forecasting in place. For instance, in China, flood forecasting and warnings are done by the Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters (FCDRHs). In case of a serious threat or a critical situation, like surpassed water level, FCDRH issues public warnings through government at various levels and the media. They also prepare a flood combat scheme before any flood season.

On the other hand, Europe has its own European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) that supports preparatory measures before major flood events strikes, particularly in the large trans-national river basins and throughout Europe. It provides complimentary, value-added information among others probabilistic, medium-range flood forecasts, flash flood indicators, or impact forecasts to the relevant national and regional authorities. Furthermore, EFAS keeps the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) informed about ongoing and possibly upcoming flood events across Europe.

Despite the existence of FCDRHs and EFAS, people in Central China and Rhine and Meuse River basins in Europe found themselves caught off-guard against the flash flood that took a heavy toll on human lives and property. It is indeed a big question why the subways and streets remained opened despite record rainfall.

In Europe, experts have opined that communications failure in EFAS might have contributed to the loss of human lives. Communication failure has been at the centre of debate — the German Weather Service issued warnings three days before the flooding, there were also warnings from the hydrology services. Given the numerous questions, EFAS clarified that they issued warnings on July 9 and 10 with a high probability of flooding in the Rhine River basin that might affect Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland.

Despite all these forecasts, the developed economies of Europe witnessed the worst ever disaster they could imagine.

People in Germany knew that heavy rainfall was coming. They might have even known the magnitude of rain from the forecasts. What they did not know or understand was that the water level would rise rapidly, damaging property and killing people. The same thing might have happened in China.

General people have little or no interest in hydrology and meteorology. In most cases, they are not at all interested to know how a change in weather may cause a flood or storm.

What Europe witnessed this year was a very common scenario for Bangladesh just a decade ago. Cyclone Sidr in 2007 claimed 3,406 lives. The total loss was $2.31 billion.

Bangladesh was able to significantly reduce the loss when Amphan wreaked havoc in the southwestern coastal belt of Bangladesh, killing 26 people. The National Disaster Management Council initially estimated that the financial loss was $1.5 billion.

One might wonder, what led to the much lower level of loss in Amphan? Improved disaster prevention and management measures, an improved and efficient forecasting, and early warning system and structural measures can be credited in the first place. But those who died may not have understood the gravity of the danger.

Extreme weather events like super cyclones and floods are just the tip of the iceberg of extreme weather events in Bangladesh. Thunderstorms, nor’westers, and tornados claim more human lives. From 2011 to 2020, a total of 2,164 people died in lightning strikes in the country.

While we can reduce the loss to a great extent by adopting defensive measures like having an early warning system in place, afforestation, identification of lightning hotspots, and so on, we can save thousands of lives only by raising awareness and communicating the associated risks.

Weather warning is a science that general people hardly understand. As the frequency of extreme weather events is likely to increase in the coming years, learning how to communicate the associated risks effectively will be even more critical. It is high time that the world learns from the disasters of Europe and China, and revisits the need for communicating extreme weather events.

In doing so, there is no other alternative to a combination of early warning and understandable communication, with the message that a natural disaster or an extreme weather event can be as deadly as it can be. People should not be in an open place when there is a thunderstorm or torrential rain that can turn into a flash flood with a high possibility of killing people — this is what people need to know. 

But the ultimate answer lies with our behaviour — the climate will continue warming until we stop emitting CO2 and other planet-warming greenhouse gases.

This was first published in the Dhaka Tribune on 28 April 2021. Click here to read on the site.

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