How Do We Prepare for Extreme Flooding?

Our damage evaluations show that private precautionary measures can significantly reduce flood damage,” said Annegret Thieken, a professor who focuses on natural hazards research at the University of Potsdam. She also pointed out the need to secure potentially destructive elements like fuel tanks used to heat homes.

Fuel oil can penetrate deep into the masonry and also damage neighboring buildings,” she said. “In severe cases, oil damage can make buildings uninhabitable. Flood proofing can prevent oil tanks from heaving up, reducing damage to buildings and the natural environment.”

Weatherproofing Cities
It’s not enough to just focus on buildings. Cities and other urban areas need to think about controlling the water before it has a chance to flood basements in the first place, by reinforcing reservoirs and dams that can help absorb sudden surges.

Last week’s floods showed that small streams in narrow valleys, where the water doesn’t have much room to spread out — like in the devastated Ahr region south of Bonn — can turn into deadly torrents within hours. In such places, said Messari-Becker, dams and dikes need to be raised and expanded to better protect cities from high water levels.

She warned, however, that this won’t be cheap — simply extending a dike, for example, can cost at least €1 million ($1.2 million) per kilometer. “And the narrower a valley is, the more costly these measures are,” she said.

In order to effectively protect infrastructure against such extreme events, the current design of our water management and hydraulic engineering systems are not sufficient — as the current dire consequences have shown,” Lehmann said. Experts have stressed the urgency of future-proofing aging infrastructure over the next decade.

But, Lehmann pointed out, we can’t just expect better building measures to solve all our problems. “From a technical, economic and practical point of view, it’s not possible to completely reassess, reconstruct and thus protect all elements of our built environment and infrastructure due to such extreme weather events,” he said.

Working with Nature, Not against It
That’s where planners and engineers will have to find ways to work with the natural world, rather than trying to control it. Wherever possible, said Messari-Becker, waterways should be allowed to flow as nature intended, and not be altered or straightened. Doing so concentrates and further accelerates the volumes of water during a flood event, she said.

Instead of confining rivers, levees should be moved back to make space for flood plains — wide open green spaces which can serve as overflow reservoirs during floods. Such places were expanded along the Elbe River in eastern Germany, following several destructive flooding events in the early 2000s.

Another approach is to make urban areas more permeable, so that water is more easily absorbed over a wider area and not concentrated in specific spots. According to the Federal Environment Agency, 45% Germany’s residential and traffic areas have already been covered with concrete or asphalt. As a result, water can’t naturally seep into the ground, leading to overflowing sewage systems and an increased risk of flooding.

The town of Leichlingen, southeast of Düsseldorf, has been hit by severe flooding several times in recent years, including last week. To ease the stress on their water management, they are aiming to make use of a new planning model known as a “sponge city.” 

The idea is to channel rainwater from roofs, squares and streets into grass-covered ditches at the side of the road. Excess water would then be allowed to drain away naturally and add to the local groundwater, reducing the load on water management infrastructure. Backup cisterns would also be installed to collect overflow and could be used to water the city’s green spaces.

Preparing People for the Worst
Improving infrastructure and water management systems won’t help if people don’t know how to react when faced with a wall of water. Which is why Lehmann, the hydraulic engineering expert at the Technical University of Darmstadt, stressed the need for an increased public awareness.

Especially in the case of flash floods caused by extreme weather, there’s not just a lot of water — there’s also a great deal of floating debris, garbage and other things moving with the water,” he said, adding that people who go into these waters risk drowning and being crushed. He said ongoing education campaigns were necessary to teach the public how to react in extreme situations — for example, how to escape from a car caught up in a current.

‘Run away from the water and get to safety as quickly as possible’ — we should start teaching such rules of conduct as early as elementary school,” he said. “In the case of emergency, it can save lives.”

In the extreme case, people will have to reconsider where they’re living in the first place. Instead of rebuilding in the same location some might be forced to go for higher ground, away from potentially dangerous flood zones. Some areas might no longer be tenable.

But, Messari-Becker said, if the necessary investments in protection measures are made quickly and effectively now, it might not be too late.

Martin Kuebler is a Canadian journalist for DW. Tim Schauenberg is environment reporter for DW.This article is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).