Western citizens have come to believe that flooding is happening elsewhere. At worst, they happen in the developing world. When they occur at home, they are the bane of the countryside, where water beats through valleys and villages.
But the city, a fortress of asphalt and concrete, a marvel of modern civil engineering, has left us with a false sense of security. This dam may be on the verge of bursting.
After the recent floods in London, I thought to myself, ‘How could this have happened here? “
At the beginning of July, as the post-final euro hangover was felt, a powerful storm erupted. Rain swept across north and west London, from the historic hilltop district of Hampstead to the villas of St John’s Wood and Notting Hill. Portobello Road briefly became the Portobello River.
Four days earlier, rival London, New York, had received a similar watering, this one from Storm Elsa. Homes were flooded, but so was her metro system – passengers found themselves wading back to street level.
These two incidents are trivial compared to the floods that followed in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was not only precious items in the basements that were lost in the rising waters, but cars, bridges, houses and lives were washed away. The German press calls the flooding of the Rhine and Meuse basins “the hell of the Wasser”.
At the time of writing, the death toll in the three countries stands at 190, and hundreds are still missing.
There is a joke that the Germans have a word for everything. For that, they did not do it. During Chancellor Merkel’s visit, she said there were “hardly any words in German for the gruesome scenes”.
What caused this outpouring from heaven? It used to be like it was an act of God. Now we cannot just pass the blame.
In New York, the AOC, or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was quick to link the subway flooding to the failure of its Green New Deal proposal. In a scathing tweet, she blamed squarely on the “fossil fuel leaders” who would make your average New Yorker “swim to work” to protect their interests.
In London, this sparked a row over the tendency of the super-rich to dig ever deeper for basement extensions. While it was very likely that the storm sewers were submerged, accusations were made that those who had basements had taken up so much space below the surface with their concrete underground that there was no enough soil to absorb water.
It’s only in high-end London real estate upside down that the basement looks chic. This is usually the cheapest level to buy or rent in a building.
The basement is the first place you will feel the effects of water, as flooded residents of North and West London will remind you. His vulnerability is captured in Parasite in which the Kim family, who already work at the lowest level of Korean society folding pizza boxes, watch their Seoul basement apartment flooded – up to their necks in sewage.
It is a violation of your property when water begins to enter through the gates and up through the sewers. But these storms could also start to violate the spirit.
The intensity of these storms over Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands is unprecedented in written records. And it will be, I think, the first time in the Western world that many people will attribute the deaths of their own citizens to climate change. While the heatwaves in Europe in 2003 and 2019 created excess mortality, this largely affected the elderly population. Death by water is not so distinguished by age.
Regardless of the infrastructure failures in London, New York and Germany, a law of physics is always valid: the hotter the air, the more humidity it can contain. The more humidity, the more it rains.
See South Korea, where the temperature over the past 30 years was 1.6 percent higher than in the three decades from 1912 to 1940, according to a report by the Korean Meteorological Administration. There are 20 fewer rainy days per year compared to a century ago and even more annual precipitation: up about 7%, which means greater intensity. Now look Parasite again through the lens of climate change.
In the moral conundrum of climate change, some ask the questions: Why should rich countries restrict their activities for the poor? In London, where property values eclipse those of the countryside – so much so that it’s worth digging a basement – why change the behavior for the flood-prone hinterland? Why should the person in the upper apartment be worried about their neighbor in the basement?
The answer to the first two questions, as any hydrologist will tell you, is that rain falls on the rich as well as the poor, and there are only a certain number of defenses you can build. The answer to the second, as any builder will tell you, is that a waterlogged basement can bring down the whole building.
Follow Joie @joy_lo_dico
Luke Edward Hall is coming back next week
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