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Disasters

Floods lay bare Europe's 'gigantic task' in averting future climate damage

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People work in an area affected by floods caused by heavy rainfalls in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany, July 19, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

The catastrophic floods that swept northwest Europe last week were a stark warning that stronger dams, dykes and drainage systems are as urgent as long-term climate change prevention, as once-rare weather events become more common, write Kate Abnett, James Mackenzie Markus Wacket and Maria Sheahan.

As the waters recede, officials are assessing the destruction left by the torrents that terrorised swathes of western and southern Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, smashing buildings and bridges and killing more than 150 people.

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German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who visited the spa town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler on Monday, said the cost of reconstruction would run into the billions of euros, in addition to the millions needed for emergency assistance.

But the cost of designing and building better infrastructure to mitigate such events could be many times higher.

Coming hard on the heels of severe heatwaves and wildfires in North America and Siberia, the floods have put climate change at the top of the political agenda.

The European Union this month launched an ambitious package of measures to address climate change at source, focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the relentless rise in the global temperature. Read more.

It is also implementing a €750 billion coronavirus recovery package that is heavily weighted towards projects that boost economic resilience and sustainability.

But the devastation wrought by last week's floods has made clear that the extreme weather events predicted by climate change scientists are already happening now, and require a direct response.

"We need to build new infrastructure - containment basins, dykes, riverside overflow drainage areas - and strengthen sewerage systems, dams and barriers," said Lamia Messari-Becker, Professor of Building Technology and Construction Physics at the University of Siegen.

"It is a gigantic task. This is the hour of the engineers."

After a series of severe flooding events over the past 25 years, some of the affected countries had already taken action, for instance by lowering floodplains to help them absorb more water.

At the same time, the speed and scale of the disaster, caused by exceptionally heavy rain drawn together by a powerful low-pressure system, showed just how hard it will be to prepare for more frequent extreme weather.

"As climate change continues, as extreme events continue to increase in intensity and frequency, there are just limits to the extent to which you can protect yourself," said Wim Thiery, a climate scientist at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are certainly necessary, but will not substantially influence the weather, let alone cool the planet, for decades.

Long before then, countries will have to adapt or build basic infrastructure that goes beyond water management into agriculture, transport, energy and housing.

"Our cities developed over the centuries, starting from the Roman period in some cases, for climate conditions that are very different than the climate conditions we are heading into," Thiery said.

Even before last week's floods, which turned high streets and houses into piles of muddy rubble, Germany's vaunted transport and urban infrastructure had been deteriorating as a result of years of budget restraint.

In other vulnerable areas of Europe, such as northern Italy, destructive floods expose the weakness of decrepit roads and bridges almost every year.

And the coronavirus epidemic has left governments with even less spare cash to spend on maintaining their infrastructure, let alone strengthening it.

But they may have no choice.

"I think we all realise now that those extreme events are really happening," said Patrick Willems, professor in water engineering at Belgium's KU Leuven University.

"It's not just the forecast, it's really happening."

Disasters

Hope of finding survivors of blast in German industrial park fades

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A view shows Chempark following an explosion in Leverkusen, Germany, July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler

The operator of a German industrial park that was rocked by an explosion on Tuesday (27 July) dampened hopes of finding more survivors in the debris and warned residents near the site to stay away from soot that rained down after the blast, write Tom Kaeckenhoff and Maria Sheahan, Reuters.

Two people were found dead after the explosion at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies including Bayer (BAYGn.DE) and Lanxess (LXSG.DE), and 31 were injured.

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Five are still missing, Currenta chief Frank Hyldmar told journalists on Wednesday, adding that "we have to assume that we will not find them alive".

With the focus on the scene still on finding the missing people, including with the aid of high-resolution drones, the company said it was still too early to say what caused the explosion, which led to a fire in a tank containing solvents.

Experts are also analysing whether soot that rained down on the surrounding area after the blast could be toxic.

Until the results are in, residents should avoid getting the soot on their skin and bringing it into the house on their shoes, and they should not eat fruit from their gardens, Hermann Greven of the Leverkusen fire department said.

He also said that playgrounds in the area have been closed.

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Disasters

Blast in German industrial park kills two, several missing

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An explosion in a German industrial park on Tuesday (27 July) killed at least two people and injured 31, setting off a fierce blaze that sent a pall of smoke over the western city of Leverkusen. Several people were still missing, write Maria Sheahan, Madeline Chambers and Caroline Copley, Reuters.

Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies Bayer (BAYGn.DE) and Lanxess (LXSG.DE), that flared up after the blast at 9h40 (7h40 GMT), park operator Currenta said.

"My thoughts are with the injured and with loved ones," said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich. "We are still searching for the missing people, but hopes of finding them alive are fading," he added.

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Police said five of the 31 injured people were affected seriously enough to need intensive care.

"This is a tragic moment for the city of Leverkusen," said Uwe Richrath, mayor of the city, which lies north of Cologne.

The area and surrounding roads were sealed off for much of the day.

Police told residents living nearby to stay indoors and shut doors and windows in case there were toxic fumes. Currenta said locals should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gases.

Firefighters stand outside Chempark following an explosion in Leverkusen, Germany, July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler
Smoke billows following an explosion in Leverkusen, Germany, July 27, 2021, in this still image taken from social media video. Instagram/Rogerbakowsky via REUTERS

Chempark's Friedrich said it was not clear what had caused the explosion, which led to a fire starting in a tank containing solvents.

"Solvents were burned during the incident, and we do not know precisely what substances were released," Friedrich added. "We are examining this with authorities, taking samples."

Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency's mobile phone app warned citizens of "extreme danger".

Leverkusen is less than 50 km (30 miles) from a region hit last week by catastrophic floods that killed at least 180 people.

More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro (1COV.DE), Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.

Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MQG.AX) for an enterprise value of €3.5 billion ($4.12bn).

($1 = €0.8492)

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Belgium

Cars and pavements washed away as Belgian town hit by worst floods in decades

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The southern Belgian town of Dinant was hit by the heaviest floods in decades on Saturday (24 July) after a two-hour thunderstorm turned streets into torrential streams that washed away cars and pavements but did not kill anyone, writes Jan Strupczewski, Reuters.

Dinant was spared the deadly floods 10 days ago that killed 37 people in southeast Belgium and many more in Germany, but the violence of Saturday's storm surprised many.

"I have been living in Dinant for 57 years, and I've never seen anything like that," Richard Fournaux, the former mayor of the town on the Meuse river and birthplace of the 19th century inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, said on social media.

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A woman works to recover her belongings following heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
A woman walks in an area affected by heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Rainwater gushing down steep streets swept away dozens of cars, piling them in a heap at a crossing, and washed away cobbles stones, pavements and whole sections of tarmac as inhabitants watched in horror from windows.

There was no precise estimate of the damage, with town authorities predicting only that it would be "significant", according to Belgian RTL TV.

The storm wreaked similar havoc, also with no loss of life, in the small town of Anhee a few kilometres north of Dinant.

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