Torrential rains flooded south eastern Europe last week, leaving many neighbourhoods in ruin. In Athens, where more than one month's rainfall fell in just a couple of hours, meteorologists described the downpour as the heaviest in more than half a century. Could this just be the new normal?
A worldwide review of global rainfall data led by the University of Adelaide recently found that the intensity of the most extreme rainfall events is increasing across the globe as temperatures rise. Dr. Seth Westra, who led the study warns that, if extreme rainfall events continue to intensify, we can expect to see floods occurring more frequently around the world.
We are already familiar with images of roads becoming rivers; of dramatic helicopter rescues as families cower terrified on roofs; of bloated corpses of farm animals floating amongst the debris of peoples’ lives. Without action to curb climate change, we are likely to see far more of these distressing sights. But for those of us not directly affected, do we really understand the impact these events have on countries, towns, individuals?
Once the cameras are packed away, the journalists have boarded their flights home and the daily newspaper is lining the cat-litter tray, how often do we think about the impacted communities and how much do we know about the dangers and hardships they continue to face?
The economic impacts alone can send some farmers to the wall, especially those who have been hit by flooding time and again. In Australia recent floods have led to the loss of around 15% of the citrus crop in an area that grows about half of the country’s supply of lemons and mandarins. Elsewhere, 50,000 litres of milk were dumped after dairy farms were cut off for days by floods; affected farmers in New South Wales cannot keep their livestock alive or repair fencing and damage to sheds and milking equipment without government support.
Flooding can also force unwanted interactions between humans and wildlife. Snakes and crocodiles were flushed into Bangkok during the 2011 floods, along with scorpions and giant centipedes. In Nigeria last year floods displaced tens of thousands of residents as crocodiles, hippos and other water animals washed into homes.
But it may be the unseen hazards that pose the greatest risks. Live power cables trailing in water cause many deaths and debris carried along in the rushing water is responsible for countless injuries. Infectious diseases thrive as animal carcases and human and animal waste are carried into communities. The US Center for Disease Control has identified about 21 diseases that have been associated with flood waters, including Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS Leptospirosis and Legionaire's Disease, Norovirus, Tetanus, Toxoplasmosis, Cholera, Tuberculosis and Trench Foot Disease.
Nor do the dangers recede along with the floodwaters. Floods may indirectly lead to an increase in vector-borne diseases according to the World Health Organisation. Stagnant pools left behind can act as breeding sites for mosquitoes and increase the risks of dengue, malaria and West Nile fever.
For those returning to damaged homes and businesses, mold and mildew can create unforeseen problems. These simple microscopic organisms thrive anywhere there is a moist environment and, can start to grow on a damp surface within 24 to 48 hours. All molds, in the right conditions and high enough concentrations, are capable of adversely affecting human health and for some, a relatively small number of mold spores can cause health problems such as wheezing, asthma attacks, eye irritation, skin irritations, headaches, memory loss and mood changes.
For some, flooding can pose substantial social and mental health problems that may continue over extended periods of time. A 2012 study found that flooding affects people of all ages and it can herald: bereavement; economic problems for families; behavioural problems in children; increased substance use and/or misuse; increased domestic violence; as well as exacerbating, precipitating or provoking people’s existing problems with their mental health.
So far this year there has been flooding in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Peru, Zambia, Jordan, Ghana and Mozambique – by no means an exhaustive list – and there are now countless families coping with homelessness, economic loss, physical and mental health issues and bereavement as a result.
Are governments and fossil fuel companies really prepared to accept more of the same – or worse? Is that truly what they wish for themselves and their fellow citizens?
Unless we see genuine efforts to regulate greenhouse gases and switch the world to clean renewable energy sources, we have to assume that it is.