July 22, 2007 / 11:35 PM / 11 years ago

Floods force many to face climate change reality

BRIESKOW-FINKENHEERD, Germany (Reuters) - Fisherman Peter Schneider knows the floods come each year and says they are good for business — but few other people see any benefit as experts warn of more high water to come.

Resident Rene Helm points to a plate on his father's house July 19, 2007, marking the peak that floodwaters from the river Oder reached in the village of Brieskow-Finkenheerd in 1997. The dam on the river Oder near the German village of Aurith broke ten years ago on 23 July 1997 causing the worst floods in post-war German history. Many smaller villages in the surrounding area, including Brieskow-Finkenheerd, were badly effected by the flooding. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

“We fishermen have always lived with that. We’re happy when the floods come, because it can only be good for the fish,” he said in his village close to the Oder river that forms the border between Germany and Poland.

Schneider’s business almost went belly-up 10 years ago, when the river gushed through the dykes protecting a low-lying swath of land in this former East German region and immersed the building where he keeps his boats and nets.

The catastrophe forced thousands from their homes in Germany and elsewhere, and experts now say climate change may cause more disasters in Europe and across the world, with evidence increasing that global temperatures are rising.

“It would be wrong to deny the possible impact of climate change on flooding because if we (waited for more) statistical proof it may be too late,” said Wolfgang Grabs at the World Meteorological Organisation of the United Nations.

Warmer air can hold more water and will unleash more energy when the weather turns bad, Grabs said, making storms heavier and boosting rainfall.

That mechanism may well explain an observed rise in flash floods in Europe over the last decade, he said.

Fisherman Schneider said flooded meadows offer breeding fish warmer water and more food, but most people would struggle to find benefit in flooding.

A combination of two pictures shows (top) a man waist deep in floodwater from the river Oder, rescuing files from his house in the village of Brieskow-Finkenheerd in July 22,1997 and (lower) a car driving past the same house July 19, 2007. The dam on the river Oder near the German village of Aurith broke ten years ago on 23 July 1997 causing the worst floods in post-war German history. Many smaller villages in the surrounding area, including Brieskow-Finkenheerd, were badly effected by the flooding. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

In recent weeks, parts of China have seen the heaviest rainfall since records began, killing more than 400. Some 770 people have been killed by flooding in South Asia, with hundreds of thousands displaced by flash floods in southern Pakistan.

Thousands of flood victims in Britain last week were clearing chaos and braced for more after floods in northern parts of the country, triggering the country’s biggest peacetime rescue effort.

European grain prices have risen to their highest level for around 10 years on fears that bad weather will hit this summer’s crops, stoking food price inflation.

Initially, a spring drought caused damage to wheat crops across Europe and in key grower Ukraine. Since June, heavy rain in western Europe has increased concerns over quality, which may leave bread-makers short of high-grade grain later this year.


Floods killed more than 7,000 people in the world last year, a recent study by reinsurance group Swiss Re study showed — roughly a third of all victims of natural catastrophes such as storms, earthquakes, droughts and extreme cold or heat.

Statistics gathered by insurers — who look at the cost of a catastrophe to measure its severity, not the death toll — also indicate climate is changing.

“One single event can never be a sign of climate change,” said Jens Mehlhorn, who heads a team of flood experts at the Zurich-based company.

“But when you see a series of such events, and that’s what it looks like at the moment ... it may be about time to say something is changing,” he said.

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This year’s UK floods were an event statistical models say should happen once only every 30 to 50 years, Mehlhorn says: the floods in 2000 were a 25-30 years event.

Two such events in only seven years are not statistically impossible, but they are unlikely. Other countries have seen similar increases in such disasters.


While Britons ponder whether homes should still be being built on flood plains, in the Netherlands — where many live on land well below sea level — people in some cities are building floating houses and houses on stilts.

The country is also upgrading a 30 km-long dyke at a cost of $1 billion that protects much of the land.

If such protection is on offer, flood plains should not be a bad place to live most of the time, said Colin Thorne, head of physical geography at Britain’s Nottingham University.

“Most of the world’s great civilizations grew up along rivers — people are always going to live there. But you have to have plans for flooding,” he said.

Near the Oder, Klaus Mueller proved the point.

“That dyke won’t burst again,” said the 69-year old retiree, who fled the rising water by walking his flock of sheep over a distance of more than 12 km (7.5 miles) in 1997.

“It’s at least 1.5 meters higher, if not two. And it’s at least 10 meters wider,” he said.

Additional reporting by Peter Apps and David Evans in London

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