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Death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium floods




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The death toll in devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 170 on Saturday (17 July) after burst rivers and flash floods this week collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines, write Petra Wischgoll,
David Sahl, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam.

Some 143 people died in the flooding in Germany's worst natural disaster in more than half a century. That included about 98 in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, according to police.

Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels while communication in some places was still down.


Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.

"Everything is completely destroyed. You don't recognise the scenery," said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back tears.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.


"We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members," he said. "Their fate is ripping our hearts apart."

Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.

But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilising since the night. "It's too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic," he said.

The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, however, remained at risk of breaching, authorities said after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.

Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.

Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party's candidate in September's general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.

Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood water following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen
Austrian rescue team members use their boats as they go through an area affected by floods, following heavy rainfalls, in Pepinster, Belgium, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis centre, which is co-ordinating the relief operation there.

It added that 103 people were "missing or unreachable". Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in hospital without identity papers, the centre said.

Over the past several days the floods, which have mostly hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.

RWE (RWEG.DE), Germany's largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.

In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.

Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.

Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.

Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.

Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night (16 July) to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.

The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.

Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.


EU Cohesion policy: Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy receive €373 million to support health and social services, SMEs and social inclusion



The Commission has granted €373 million to five European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) operational programmes (OPs) in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy to help the countries with coronavirus emergency response and repair in the framework of REACT-EU. In Belgium, the modification of the Wallonia OP will make available an additional €64.8m for the acquisition of medical equipment for health services and innovation.

The funds will support small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in developing e-commerce, cybersecurity, websites and online stores, as well as the regional green economy through energy efficiency, protection of the environment, development of smart cities and low-carbon public infrastructures. In Germany, in the Federal State of Hessen, €55.4m will support health-related research infrastructure, diagnostic capacity and innovation in universities and other research institutions as well as research, development and innovation investments in the fields of climate and sustainable development. This amendment will also provide support to SMEs and funds for start-ups through an investment fund.

In Sachsen-Anhalt, €75.7m will facilitate cooperation of SMEs and institutions in research, development and innovation, and provide investments and working capital for micro-enterprises affected by the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the funds will allow investments in the energy efficiency of enterprises, support digital innovation in SMEs and acquiring digital equipment for schools and cultural institutions. In Italy, the national OP ‘Social Inclusion' will receive €90m to promote the social integration of people experiencing severe material deprivation, homelessness or extreme marginalisation, through ‘Housing First' services that combine the provision of immediate housing with enabling social and employment services.


In Spain, €87m will be added to the ESF OP for Castilla y León to support the self-employed and workers who had their contracts suspended or reduced due to the crisis. The money will also help hard-hit companies avoid layoffs, especially in the tourism sector. Finally, the funds are needed to allow essential social services to continue in a safe way and to ensure educational continuity throughout the pandemic by hiring additional staff.

REACT-EU is part of NextGenerationEU and provides €50.6bn additional funding (in current prices) to Cohesion policy programmes over the course of 2021 and 2022. Measures focus on supporting labour market resilience, jobs, SMEs and low-income families, as well as setting future-proof foundations for the green and digital transitions and a sustainable socio-economic recovery.


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Climate change made deadly floods in Western Europe at least 20% more likely - study




A house hit by a landslide is seen after heavy rain caused flooding in towns surrounding Lake Como in northern Italy, in Laglio, Italy. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Climate change has made extreme rainfall events of the kind that sent lethal torrents of water hurtling through parts of Germany and Belgium last month at least 20% more likely to happen in the region, scientists said Tuesday, writes Isla Binnie, Reuters.

The downpour was likely made heavier by climate change as well. A day of rainfall can now be up to 19% more intense in the region than it would have been had global atmospheric temperatures not risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures, according to research published by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) scientific consortium.


"We will definitely get more of this in a warming climate," said the group's co-leader Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford.

"Extreme weather is deadly," said Otto, recalling that she urgently contacted family members who live in the affected areas to make sure they were safe when the floods hit. "For me it was very close to home."

With extreme weather events dominating news headlines in recent years, scientists have been under increasing pressure to determine exactly how much climate change is to blame.


During the last year alone, scientists found that U.S. drought, a deadly Canadian heat wave and wildfires across the Siberian Arctic have been worsened by a warming atmosphere.

The July 12-15 rainfall over Europe triggered flooding that swept away houses and power lines, and left more than 200 people dead, mostly in Germany. Dozens died in Belgium and thousands were also forced to flee their homes in the Netherlands. Read more.

"The fact that people are losing their lives in one of the richest countries in the world -- that is truly shocking," said climate scientist Ralf Toumi at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study. "Nowhere is safe."

Although the deluge was unprecedented, the 39 WWA scientists found that local rainfall patterns are highly variable.

So they conducted their analysis over a wider area spanning parts of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. They used local weather records and computer simulations to compare the July flooding event with what might have been expected in a world unaffected by climate change.

Because warmer air holds more moisture, summer downpours in this region are now 3-19% heavier than they would be without global warming, the scientists found.

And the event itself was anywhere from 1.2 to 9 times -- or 20% to 800% -- more likely to have occurred.

That broad range of uncertainty was partly explained by a lack of historical records, WWA explained, and worsened by the floods destroying equipment that monitored river conditions. Read more.

Still, the "study confirms that global heating has played a big part in the flooding disaster," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist and oceanographer at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who was not involved in the study.

"This is in line with the finding of the recent IPCC report, which found that extreme rainfall events have increased worldwide," he added, referring to a U.N. climate panel's findings. Read more.

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Seven residents of Belgian nursing home die after outbreak of B.1.621 lineage of COVID-19




Seven residents of a nursing home in Belgium have died after being infected with a lineage of the coronavirus first detected in Colombia despite being fully vaccinated, the virology team that conducted tests said on Friday (6 August), writes Sabine Siebold, Reuters.

The virology team said the residents had been infected with the B.1.621 lineage of COVID-19 that originated in Colombia and has been detected in recent weeks in the United States but cases in Europe have been rare.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has listed the B1.621 lineage as part of the Kappa variant of the coronavirus, but not as a variant itself.


The seven people who died at the nursing home in the Belgian town of Zaventem, near Brussels, were all in their 80s or 90s, and some of them were already in a poor physical condition, said Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the University of Leuven which conducted tests on the virus found at the nursing home.

"It is worrisome," Van Ranst said, commenting on the fact that the residents died despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

So far, scientists do not know if the B.1.621 lineage is more transmissible than other lineages or variants of the coronavirus, he said.


In Belgium, B.1.621 currently accounts for less than 1% of known cases of COVID-19, he said, compared to 2% of cases in the United States and more than that in Florida.

At the nursing home in Zaventem, 21 residents were infected with the variant along with several members of staff, Van Ranst told Reuters. The infected staff experienced only mild symptoms.

Van Ranst said the dominant coronavirus variant in Belgium with around 95% of infections is the Delta, first discovered in India, followed by the Alpha that was previously dominant in Britain.

Additional tests will be run on Friday to rule out any possibility that the nursing home residents died from a different variant of the virus or a different respiratory disease, Van Ranst said.

"It is unlikely but not impossible," he said.

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