The New Extreme Reality of Floods

Yves here. Since at least the early 2000s, the Department of Defense has identified flooding as a major geopolitical risk, since it will produce destabiilzing mass migrations. In the US, we tend to underestimate the impact of floods, since the main impact has been damage to property, and (at least so far) there has been a propensity to rebuild in the flooded areas rather than condemn then and force relocation (except of course for poor people in places like New Orleans). But as floods become more severe and frequent, rebuilding will become a less viable option. And failing to manage these disasters and their aftermaths will be destabilizing.

By Sunita Narain, the Director of Centre for Science and Environment and the Editor of Down To Earth, an environment fortnightly magazine. Originally published at Triple Crisis

Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, whose state is submerged under water reportedly told the prime minister that he wants to cry. We should add our tears to his. This year’s floods not only have the imprint of our gross and near criminal mismanagement, but also mark the beginning of the world risked because of climate change. This should worry us. In fact, scare us. We need to realise that we do not have the luxury of delayed action and petty party politics. In this climate-risked world, where we are hit by a double whammy, we need to ensure that not only do we get development right, but we also need to do this at a scale and speed we have never done before.

The 2016 floods are huge in its scale—virtually all parts of the country have been hit by devastation. And remember, it is not just about some water that enters homes. Floods claim lives, destroy property and crops. In this way, all the years of developmental efforts are lost in one stroke. It is also clear that we worry about floods only when it affects the urban population. Even during the deadly 2013 Uttarakhand floods, the tragedy reached our television screens only because of the large numbers of people who died or were trapped in the swirling waters. Floods do not, otherwise, get serious media coverage. We do not know how bad the situation is or how it is getting worse. Floods then have become part of the cycle of boredom; they will come every year. So, what is new?

What is new is that each year the intensity and size of floods are increasing. What is also new is that this year, floods are happening in the time of drought. What is also new is that this year, it is evident that floods are not because of “normal” or even “excess rainfall”, but because of extreme and horrific rain events—rain that gushes down from the sky in record time to take over land and property.

In this issue of Down To Earth, my colleagues have carefully investigated this “newness” in floods. So, on the one hand, floods are destroying vast parts of the country because of how we have mismanaged our floodplains—willfully allowing encroachments on riverbeds, drains and storage lakes. Then we have built embankments and dams for flood protection that are making things worse. This is because by building embankments—walls to hold river water from spilling—the silt accumulates and raises the riverbed. Today when the river has water, it spreads over land, causing floods.

But on the other hand, there is also something new afoot. Extreme rain events. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) divides extreme rainfall events into two categories—rainfall of 124.5-244.4 mm in 24 hours is “very heavy” and rainfall more than that is “extremely heavy”. In July alone, Assam recorded six “very heavy” rainfall days. In Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur and Betul districts, in one day—on July 12—it rained to ruin completely. This is because rainfall was 1,000-1,200 per cent higher than “normal”. On August 20, Bihar’s 12 districts recorded “very heavy” or extreme rain events. In drought-hit Rajasthan, in just one day—on August 11—rainfall was 100 per cent above normal. In Pali and Sikar districts of the otherwise dry state, on that day, it rained so much that it broke all records—1,000 per cent above normal. The list goes on and on.

In each case what this has meant is as follows. One, the same region, in one stroke (literally) has gone from extreme and back-breaking drought to extreme and back-breaking flood. Two, in many cases, even when there is extreme flood in the state, the total rainfall received is below normal. In Assam, even when 90 per cent of the state is under water, the rainfall received was 25 per cent below normal. It is important to understand the “newness” in the growing numbers of “very heavy” rain events. The fact is that scientists have long warned that as the planet warms, not only will it rain more, but this rain will become more variable and more extreme. This is what we are beginning to see more and more.

My colleagues have also studied what scientists understand about the nature of clouds, and this points to yet another worrying discovery. It is possible that the air pollution that is choking us in our cities, is also disrupting the nature of cloud formation and leading to extreme rain events (‘On clouds’, Down To Earth, 16-31 August). The interaction between human-made aerosols—tiny organic and inorganic particles—and clouds is changing the nature of monsoon, say scientists. They find that these microscopic pollutants act as sites where water vapour condenses to form cloud droplets. The greater the number of aerosols, the higher the droplets. But then as nature’s interactions also show, the result is not linear or simple. This interaction between aerosols and droplets that form clouds could lead to less rain; it could lead to extreme rain and it could lead to lightening that, in turn, kills and maims on the ground. Despite the uncertainties that exist, what is certain is that change is happening; fast and deadly. It is time we took note of this new extreme reality of floods.

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  1. steelhead23

    Thanks for this piece. While global climate change is an accepted theory, there are heterodox corollaries many are unfamiliar with. I would like to point to the work of Dr. Jennifer Francis on the effects of Arctic amplification on the jet stream. By weakening the difference between tropical temps and the Arctic, the engine that drives wind patterns is weakened – meaning that storms have more time to develop and more time in one place to do damage. I consider the recent flooding in LA to be associated with the phenomenon – and perhaps that in India as well.

    Oh yes, there is a political issue here, one that is a tad ironic and sad. Following Katrina and Sandy, FEMA’s flood insurance trust fund was evaporated and FEMA had to beg Congress for billions. Congress reluctantly appropriated the funds, but demanded that FEMA revise its rate maps so that it could resume being self-funded. FEMA dutifully did so. Years of work, followed by rate increases for many policy holders. Then came the backlash. “Too expensive,” they said. Then, our very fiscally conservative Congress told FEMA to reinstate the old rates. As much as many hate FEMA, I feel sorry for them. They have become a political football – in a very wet and muddy game. We are NOT preparing for the economic effects of AGW, we are doing our very best to ignore them.

    1. sd

      As far as I know, there is no national land planning program in the United States. If there was, housing would not be permitted – or it would be extremely limited – in flood, fire, slide, zones. Farmland would be protected instead of used for shopping malls.

      Human nature just can’t seem to help itself from being self destructive in pursuit of short term pleasure.

        1. Alex

          Problem is the prediction of flood events is no longer so simple. What was once 100 years could now be 100 months.

      1. Malcolm MacLeod, MD

        sd: Land planning in Germany has worked beautifully, especially in the southern
        and most beautifully forested parts of the country. Intact villages and very few
        shopping malls (none of them like ours). Walmart was forced to leave where I
        lived. There is no sprawl, and driving between towns is a visual pleasure. Farms
        are sacrosanct, as is no clear cutting. Trees are protected by the government (thank
        god). They do have floods due to huge rains associated with climate change, but
        they rebuild like ants.

        1. different clue

          Do they rebuild right where they got super-flooded out? Or do they take the new higher flood level as a precedent marker and rebuild above the highest reach of the new improved flood?

      2. Jim

        New Orleans is a deathtrap. What happened with Katrina is nothing compared with the potential for a true cataclysm there. The place should be evacuated permanently. But then I suppose that Iceland should be evacuated permanently as that place will blow sky high one fine day.

      3. sittingstill

        Vermont has institutionalized science-based river floodplain planning to an extent unmatched in any other US state or perhaps even country – all would be well advised to enact similar programs:

        However, no amount of planning will be able to accomodate the type of rain events recently expereinced in Louisiana without dramatic damage to infrastructure.

      4. Philip

        I don’t think the problem is human nature. The way our society has been set up, with profit and “shareholder value” as ultimate values, rather than to exist within the environment as a part of nature, is the responsibility of those in power who have sit it up this way. There really is no democracy, which would entail a consolidation of the the views and directions of all the people into the course of state. Instead it is business and its business model, that it sees as the only acceptable model, that controls the overarching social organization. And that model is not an essential part of human nature. Human nature has been shown through extensive research to be primarily empathetic and cooperative, whereas the enforced model is competitive and rapacious. It is the enforced social model that is maladaptive, and not human nature.

    2. different clue

      Well . . . “we” aren’t. Our governators are. Maybe enough pressure and torture will change our governators’ minds.

      In the mean time, what can jurisdiction-loads of people below the Federal Level do to prepare for the Climate Chaos Decay superswings of tomorrow? People living in predominantly Blue Zones can perhaps work with and through their Blue Zone Level governments to plan for more and more of this.

      Lonely Blue people living in Red Zones are entirely on their own. If they can individually study those “higher rate” FEMA maps ( if they are archived somewhere) perhaps they can sell their homes and move to homes outside the “higher rate” areas. If they can’t do that, then they are reduced to “survival in place” . . . . through such measures as jacking their homes many feet high on concrete pillars, figuring out which parts of their yards would be most attacked by fastest moving deepest water and pre-plant those areas to super-deep-rooted mixed species Prairie Sod plants. And so forth and so on.

      1. different clue

        And Louisiana . . . and Vermont . . . and Maryland . . . and just about anywhere that rain might spend half-a-day to a day-and-a-half falling faster than the built-up water can sub-erosively run back off the targeted raindump watershedlet.

  2. Jeremy Grimm

    The kind of flooding described in this post is not peculiar to Bihar, India. We have experienced this flooding here most famously in Louisiana and as Yves pointedly remarks in her intro for this post “… there has been a propensity to rebuild in the flooded areas rather than condemn then and force relocation.” This is exactly the wrong response to — borrowing a movie title — a clear and present danger.

    As sea levels rise storm surge and ordinary high tides will begin flooding most of our major cities and souring the ground water in coastal regions. Who will pay for this damage to NYC? Upstate? and what of the other cities. Where will the populations go and how will we feed them as the new weather patterns eat our corn and wheat before the harvest?

    Concerns for reducing CO2 emissions and worries about methane are concerns for the future. We must also think about our present and near future. We should also stretch our thinking to include how we might help other nations. Our present Global Climate is nearing crisis but our Political Climate offers neither hope nor solace.

    1. Bev

      We need to address climate change. A tropical low which stalled over Houston app. 15 years ago, flooded 70% of Harris county after 16 inches of rain fell over 5 days.

      This summer there was a flood of rain on the North West side of Houston where 16 inches of rain fell in 5 hours…5 hours instead of 5 days. Much more rain. I then heard the phrase “Rain Bomb.” Further, in addition to increased particles, is the increased water volume. Because of global warming, water from seas, oceans, and lakes is evaporating in much larger volumes into the atmosphere, causing these worsening events.

      The only candidate who will try to mitigate climate change now:
      Jill Stein

      The presidential debates are a critical element to the success of our campaign. If we can get into the debates, a new day will dawn. Without a doubt – it will be an absolute game-changer.
      Evidence is mounting that there is a green “sleeping giant” out there among the national electorate. I would urge you …

      Don’t listen to the national polls!

      It’s my belief that the American electorate will surge green on election day – that there will be some big surprises! How could there not be? We’re talking about Trump and Clinton, two of the most unpopular candidates in history!

 The American people want more choices and more voices – and that will be evident on November 8th.

      Thank you for helping to Open the Debates!
      Sign here:
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      As the great civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery said of Crosscheck, “This is Jim Crow all over again.”

      Click here to sign the petition to the US Department of Justice to force these states to divulge their Crosscheck blacklists — and STOP THE PURGE NOW.

    2. different clue

      Carbon skydumping reduction and plant-driven skycarbon suckdown increase are not issues for the far future. As long as the atmosphere is not drained of its recently added excess carbon, the size and frequency of such wild swings between superflood and superdrought will increase and keep on increasing.
      Atttempts at mitigation and adaptation will be chasing a moving target which will begin moving fast and faster and then more fasterer yet within the lifetimes of some people reading this thread. So carbon skydumping will keep drawing more attention to itself more forcefully and will eventually win the argument about whether it matters or not.

      So why bother with mitigation and adaptation in the meantime? Secondarily because of the lives and wealth it will save for a while. And most of all because socially organized whole-society mitigation and adaptation actions will lead some people, and then more and more people, to ask just why all this adaptation and mitigation have become too necessary to argue with. And a population successfully mobilized and organized to mitigate and adapt may decide to move on to reduce or cancel the cause of the need for yet more endlessly rising levels of ever more mitigation and adaptation to come ever onward into the future.

  3. craazyman

    I’ve noticed some guys are starting to wear what we used to call “flood pants”. These are short in the leg and look ridiculous, especially when you sit down and they come up your calf so far your skin shows.

    We used to joke (and this was back in like junior high school) and say “Wow. Looks like _____ (insert name) is expecting a flood.” Then we’d all crack up.

    Maybe the new trend is a sympathetic reaction to global weather. OR some guys like showing off their socks. I think even Brook Brothers has some shots of models in flood pants.

    personally, I like a longer trouser that show a classic break over the shoe. If I’m ever walkin around in a flood, i’d just as soon look sartorially good rather than worry about whether my pants get wet around the cuff area. But that’s just a personal opinion.

  4. Donna Knipp

    Why is that private insurers have not increased their rates in the flood plain, especially for big commercial developers who are putting up new projects?

    Shouldn’t it cost more to insure a new development that’s in the flood plain? A lot more? My understanding is that flood insurance rates have not gone up for such projects, not meaningfully, anyway.

    1. Jon Sellers

      The nice folks who generally live in areas prone to flooding are often folks with wonderful ocean-front, river-front, lake- front views. And these folks often have a disproportionate impact on the views of our representatives and senators.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      I believe it has to do with the National Flood Insurance Program whereby you can build in areas prone to flooding that no private insurer would cover and Uncle Sugar (IE all of us) will provide subsidized below market rates and pick up the tab after the water comes. That way rich people can still build condos on sandbars like Cape Hatteras and not have to worry too much when they are inevitably washed out to sea.

      Ain’t America great?

    3. John Zelnicker

      @Donna Knipp – lyman alpha bob is correct. Private insurance companies do not provide flood insurance on any property, flood plain or not. It is only available through the National Flood Insurance Program he mentions. And, as noted above in the first comment, the premiums are far below what is necessary to cover the damage of a major flood. The damage in LA might not empty the insurance fund because a lot of flooded properties were not required to have flood insurance by a mortgage lender and so they didn’t.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      You’re correct except Al Gore didn’t make the prediction — he just helped make it better known. If the kind of rain that fell on Baton Rouge isn’t the Sky Falling what do you want? — golf-ball sized hail? Just wait.

      1. different clue

        Golf-ball sized hail happens often enough already anyway. It wouldn’t convince anyone. Now . . . melon-sized hail would turn some deniers into accepters. (What size melons? Well, canteloupe and honeydew. And if that doesn’t do it, maybe watermelon sized hailstones after that. Watermelon sized hailstones would really get some attention.)

    2. RUKidding

      I guess if we don’t talk about these types of events, we can all just stick our heads in the sand and pretend they’re not happening. And then we don’t ever have to do anything.

      Yeah, yeah… that’s the ticket. Do nothing.

  5. Gaylord

    Impending climate chaos is beyond “extreme” — it is accelerating, hyperbolic, exponential. We have passed the crook in the hockey stick. One after another extreme event will be described as “never before witnessed” until the final catastrophic event occurs: mass extinction, the sixth time earth will have undergone one. We humans blew it big time, for all time, because we caused it to happen.

    1. different clue

      Well . . . no . . . . it was strictly Industrial Revolution humans who caused it to happen. The other humans are just unlucky bystanders.

      Now . . . if Industrial Revolution humans understand reasonably well how we in particular caused it, perhaps organized Industrial Revolution humans can organize ourselves and our societies to run those causes backwards, and begin de-causing it. But that might require winning a Class War of Social Class Extermination against the OverClass . . . . which welcomes the onrush of Climate Chaos Decay in the belief that they personally will survive it all in their Private Army Guarded Bunker Communities and Galt’s Gulches and so forth. With the OverClass and its supporters physically removed and disposed of, thereby relieving us of their active opposition and underminement of any and all realistic counter-warming action, we might be able to work on carbon skydumping reduction and carbon suckdown increase.

      Of course, if the Global OverClass had a unanymous change of heart and decided to drive all the societies under its control to Global DeWarming action . beginning with their own collective personal selves; then we might all most-of-us still survive the Long Run . . . . including a less oppressively exploitive OverClass.

  6. lyle

    Recall when homes with over 50% damage where required to be elevated after Katrina, with an open lower level. (I.e. the house is up on stilts with a carport below). The was much complaint, but the real culprit was building houses so that the main floor was below sea level. The issue is that the cutoff does not have an additional trip that the losses from all flood events in a given period are summed to hit the limit. Interestingly the Dutch who are experts on floods, solved the problem outside their levees by building houses on barges that float up and down on poles

    1. Russell

      As well the Dutch, the Netherlands, ceded to the sea that which they saw they could not keep.
      I knew a Dutch guy who said their system was unsustainable, but he was educated as a scientist and could work in whatever nation where there was a lab to hire him.

  7. armchair

    Hanging out with friends from Micronesia last weekend. Don’t worry Phonpei on Micronesia has a big mountain behind it, but they do some aid work in the Marshall Islands. My friends described being stuck on in a school bus at high tide on a Marshall Island. The kids are used to it. Wait for low tide. Sometimes jets skip the airport when the runway is inundated. A common phrase when talking about Marshall Islands is, “New Beginnings.” There is talk that Fiji can take the influx. This is present tense. We live in climate crisis from now on. These are the early days.

  8. Firefly19

    Living in St. Pete (FL) in flood zone VE in a home built in 1962 that has never flooded, we see the writing on the wall. When hurricane Hermine came ashore 200 miles north of us earlier this month, over a foot of rain fell here over the course of several days. Our road didn’t flood, the water just ran down the street into the bayou. However, the city’s NW water treatment plant, a scant mile from us, was overwhelmed with groundwater flowing into the old leaky sanitary sewer pipes, that the city released millions of gallons of partially treated or untreated sewage into the stormwater pipes. This effluent not only flowed into Boca Ciega Bayou, but also also coursed into peoples yards, down streets, into a city park lake, before reaching the waters surrounding Pinellas County. I personally drove through it on Park St. where the road was flooded and with this stuff flowing out of a bobbing manhole cover.. The city posted helpful notices in the affected streets advising residents not to “fish, swim or play” in the flooded streets. With rising sea levels, this problem will only get worse. The higher seas block storm water from escaping and backwash occurs more frequently when seawater comes up through the storm drains near the shore. Related, one of my neighbors can no longer use her irrigation well because of salt water intrusion.
    Even so, this area is on fire in terms of real estate sales. We hope to take advantage of this crazy climate change denial by putting our house up for sale and return to the high and dry midwest. Kiss goodbye to our $4K flood insurance premiums (for a house that we paid $150K five years ago) and say hello to Ohio state and local income taxes! A fair trade trade in my view.

  9. rOn cOn cOMa

    On top of that our FL Gov the Honorable Rick Scott has his henchmen dismantling the Water Management Districts. These are the folks who are responsible for managing flooding. Glub, glub . . .

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