Life

Flash Floods Are Proof That Climate Disaster Is Already Here

The catastrophic floods in London, Germany, Belgium, China and India are a wake-up call for the world.
July 27, 2021, 8:00am
Pudding Mill Lane DLR station in London flooding and cars going through the flood in Nine Elms, London
Pudding Mill Lane DLR station in London flooding and cars going through the flood in Nine Elms, London. Photo: Twitter and JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

On the evening of the 12th of July, bookseller Lynn Gaspard received a text from her mother, concerned that their west London bookshop would flood yet again. “We were really worried,” she says over the phone, “but thinking, ‘What can we do?” 

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It’s a desperate question that has reverberated around the world, perhaps this month more than ever. The floods that have swept across the southeast of England in July caused significant property damage, leading to evacuations in London – on the 12th of July and, remarkably, again on Sunday – and the cancellation of Standon Calling festival.

But they are not yet comparable to the devastation in Germany and Belgium, where over 180 people were killed in flash floods, nor the horrific scenes of submerged homes in India or flooded subway train carriages in China. In the UK, many are praying that it won’t take an equally significant loss of life for the government and media to call these events what they are: climate disaster, the kind that refuses to loom menacingly on the horizon, but instead stares us directly in the face.

After a month’s worth of rain fell in just one day, Gaspard and her mother’s bookshop Al Saqi Books was one of several London buildings badly hit, causing thousands of pounds’ worth of damage. A GoFundMe page started to raise funds not covered by their insurance was established, and by its closing date on Monday 21st July had passed £18,500.

While Gaspard was “blown away” by the response, she naturally worries that her business, already hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, will suffer again. Does she think the UK is well prepared to deal with these sort of challenges? “I mean, I don’t think we’re prepared for much, you know?” she quips.

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“We’ve been told that sea levels will rise, and they’ve highlighted the areas that will or might get flooded, and the preparations that need to take place. But the fact that this happened in London, and there’s been hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage, people losing their homes and their belongings – it is a shock to the system.”

Even then, Gaspard acknowledges there were many who were less fortunate still. “Obviously we’re much luckier than a lot of people in the area who had to vacate their homes and be rehoused,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for them.”

One person who was forced to evacuate their home was Juliet Kinsman, who was out at the time reports began coming through. “I started getting all these messages on my phone saying, ‘Is your flat okay?’” the journalist says from her temporary Airbnb residence. Sure enough, upon arriving back at her flat, the water had come through the floor in the bathroom and both bedrooms. “I only live in a fairly small basement flat, but three out of four rooms were flooded. At that point you don’t know if the water’s contaminated, but you can’t take the risk.”

Kinsman – who, in a painful twist of irony, is the sustainability editor at Condé Nast Traveller – says she was oddly philosophical about the whole thing. “I just thought, ‘Of course this has happened, and of course it’s going to happen again.’ We’re all on the frontline. It just makes me sad that it takes something like this – a wake-up call – for people to take notice.” 

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What can we do? Although the focus when it comes to flood resilience strategy has traditionally – and understandably – centred around assessing coastal or river areas, there are a few reasons why cities like London will face a different type of threat. It may not surprise you to know that one of the biggest problems the city faces is the exorbitant spending habits of the super-rich.

Mary Dhonau is one of the leading flood risk experts in the UK, and says we all need to be concerned about the proliferation of so-called “super basements” in areas like Kensington and Chelsea. “There are a lot of celebrities in those areas – Simon Cowell, Kate Garraway, Brian May – and they were all flooded,” she tells me. “A lot of them have these super basements, and when you stop and think of the earth that has been excavated to accommodate all these projects, that’s earth that would have absorbed water had it still been there.”

Dhonau has become well-known for her “jigsaw” approach to flooding, arguing for a multifaceted approach to flood resilience planning. One of those key factors is money. “Part of the problem is that the planning system is in favour of development rather than in favour of sustainable development.

The reason for that, she says, is that developers have “got the ear” of government. “It makes me very cross, because they know if they have to adopt sustainable urban drainage, and perhaps things like using grey water to flush your loos, generally making houses more sustainable, they are going to cost more to the end user and they’ll struggle to sell them.”

Though she offers numerous approaches to limiting the effects of increased flood damage, Dhonau is unequivocal about the root cause. “It’s climate change. We absolutely have to focus on climate change. Because of climate change, this kind of flooding that we saw on Monday is going to happen very regularly.”

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There are several reasons why climate change makes flooding more likely and more dangerous. Sea levels are rising globally due to the melting polar caps, and the atmosphere can hold more moisture at warmer temperatures. But it also renders large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns like the jet stream more violent and unpredictable – meaning more extreme weather events of all kinds will likely occur across this century and beyond.  

We will almost certainly not avoid climate emergency now. As the Met Office puts it: “Even if we were to stop all emissions today, we would not prevent some changes. However, the sooner we cut emissions, the smaller the changes will be.” There is no longer time to stop the process; that ship has well and truly sailed. But there is still time to mitigate the worst of its damage.

And yet, just last week, North Somerset Council found itself still having to defend its actions for refusing to expand Bristol Airport. The world’s international banks are still making promises on climate action they brazenly contradict through their investment in fossil fuels. As it stands, whatever optimism shines through, the UK remains dangerously unprepared to meet this challenge.

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Juliet Kinsman has not yet been able to return home when I speak to her, and is growing frustrated watching the same patterns unfold in her work in sustainability. “It’s totally tied in to the top 1 percent – that’s your Brian Mays, that’s your Kate Garraways,” she says, adding that at least 24 people became new billionaires in the UK during the pandemic. “So yes, capitalism is to blame – but this onus on us all to reduce our individual carbon footprint is bullshit. That was invented by oil companies like Shell.”

Perhaps the question of ‘what can we do?’ is not the right one to ask after all; a self-lacerating response engendered by a society that has gaslit us into believing that it’s our plastic straws that are to blame – rather than, you know, the 71 percent of all carbon emissions that come from just 100 companies.

“The onus is on the government to reduce emissions,” Kinsman adds. “That’s why they exist, to protect every member of society. We all have to think what we can do more, of course, but essentially this is on the government, private sector, and manufacturing to think of solutions.” 

Our role, it seems, will primarily be to face the consequences of their inaction – floods and all.

@matthewgneale