Europe floods: 'We must learn lessons from this tragedy''
Release Date 20 July 2021
Professor Hannah Cloke is one of a number of University of Reading scientists researching global flood forecasting and supporting advance warnings to help countries and organisations around the world to prepare for flooding events.
Although they work with partners at EFAS (European Flood Awareness System), run by the Copernicus Emergency Management Service, their media commentary on the recent severe floods in Europe has been expressed in their capacity as University of Reading scientists.
Here, Professor Cloke explains how the EFAS warning system works, and how more effective action by governments could prevent loss of life from flooding in future.
The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) is part of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service https://www.efas.eu/en. It provides early information on upcoming flooding to national and local authorities across Europe, and to the European Commission Emergency Response Coordination centre.
As an independent scientist at the University of Reading, I work closely with colleagues at the Copernicus Emergency Management Service on research to improve and analyse EFAS data. However I do not work in the team that issues early flood information to authorities. I spoke with colleagues on Monday and Tuesday discussing how serious the floods looked.
The forecasts on 9 and 10 July for the Rhine catchment covering Germany and Switzerland showed a high probability of floods, with flooding predicted to begin on Tuesday, 13 July . The following forecasts then also showed the Meuse in Belgium would be affected. The forecasts in the following days showed that the signal was strong, meaning there was a high likelihood of flooding on the Rhine, and that the floods were going to be serious.
EFAS sends out bulletins of early information and also displays forecast information on the web interface to its partner organisations. These bulletins contain the relevant data and are designed to be read, understood and acted on by people with relevant expertise, and are therefore not available directly to the public.
The forecasts are complementary information that are intended to inform follow-up action by relevant national authorities.
The first EFAS bulletins were sent to the relevant national authorities on 10 July and these continued for several days. Formal flood notifications were issued by the EFAS dissemination centre to authorities in Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg, as well as the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) of the European Commission throughout Monday and Tuesday. As the event neared and the uncertainty decreased, the start of the flooding event was pushed to Wednesday for the smaller rivers and Thursday for the larger downstream rivers. I understand that around 25 individual warnings were sent out to specific regions of the Rhine and Meuse.
It is worth noting that the EFAS information was not the only warnings that were issued. The German weather service DWD had independently forecast extremely high rainfall and issued warnings of more than 200 mm of rain. DWD issued their most extreme warning several days ahead of time. Regional warnings were also issued, for example by the Environment Agency for Rheinland-Pfalz (Landesamt für Umwelt Rheinland-Pfalz).
The floods that occurred fitted very closely with the scale and distribution of those that were forecast, several days in advance. I am very surprised therefore that so many people died, given that authorities knew about the event and had sufficient warnings to get people to safety before the floods began.
My criticism is that clearly, tragically, the whole system, which is designed to save lives by ensuring people act on warnings before floods arrive, did not work. It may be that individual parts of the system worked exactly as they were designed, and it is certainly true that forecasts were accurate, and warnings were issued. In some areas, many authorities and individuals did act in time, to evacuate people, erect temporary flood defences, and move vehicles to higher ground, for example. But this clearly did not happen in all locations.
Effective emergency response requires a true joint effort and everyone has to play their role, from scientists, governments, NGOs, emergency services, businesses and individuals. I believe it is the duty of everyone in the flood forecasting and emergency disaster management community to see clearly how systems designed to protect people are working, or not working. For so many people to die, we must admit that the system has collectively failed. We must now find out exactly what went wrong, and learn lessons from this tragedy, or we are putting more lives at risk from extreme flood events in the future. I am determined to work with colleagues and to our best ability to help with this.