Climate Change

7 postcards from a flooded world

Rescuers evacuate people from a flooded area to a safer place in Aluva in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 18, 2018.

Severe flood events are becoming increasingly common as global temperatures rise. Image: REUTERS/Sivaram V

Annia Ciezadlo
Journalist, Orb Media
Preethi Nallu
Journalist, Orb Media
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Climate Change

Until now, scientists have often framed climate change in terms of the future.

But a landmark report issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on 8 October this year states that without "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” our world will exceed 1.5°C much sooner than we think - in as soon as a dozen years - which will increase the likelihood of floods, heatwaves and droughts (original research and reporting by the global journalism organization Orb Media).

As higher temperatures lead to rising sea levels and more extreme rainfall, more and more people around the globe are experiencing catastrophic floods.

“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice,” said Panmao Zhai, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group on the physical science of climate change.

Whether it’s a storm surge in São Paulo, a flash flood in Toronto or an airport underwater in India, these floods all have one thing in common: they cost a lot. Aside from the lives lost and the immediate damages, every flood has a series of ripple effects on other costs like food prices, disruptions to local businesses and long-term damage to people’s livelihoods. Often the most irreplaceable loss is also the least tangible: time. Businesses lose a tourist season; farmers lose a planting season; students lose weeks of school.

The human and financial costs of climate-related flooding are already much higher, longer-lasting and far-reaching than we thought. One study found that a single hurricane can cause a country’s national income (including GDP) to decline for the next two decades. Another found that without large-scale adaptations, river flooding could cause a 17% increase in global economic losses over the next 20 years.

Here are seven locations around the globe that have already experienced the heavy flooding that is an increasingly evident consequence of global warming.

Kerala, India

In August of 2018, heavy monsoon rains flooded most of Kerala, India, with more than 400 deaths and upwards of a million displaced citizens. The Cochin International Airport - the first airport in the world to be fully powered by solar energy - was completely flooded and had to close for two weeks, leading to a cost of US$27 million in lost revenue. Aside from the physical destruction, the tourism season from the annual Onam harvest festival was lost, causing economic ripple effects on businesses as well as the local population.

Arun Thankappan and his mother, Ambika, work at the airport. Aside from 18 days of salary, they lost nearly everything they worked their lives to build when floodwaters destroyed their home. Arun was able to hastily grab two dresses for his mother, as well as the suitcase of diplomas they hope will lead to good jobs and a better future.

“It’s our life,” he said, holding his Bachelors in Technology certificate. “Without this certificate, we are zero.”

Immokalee, Florida, US

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma dumped torrential rains on Immokalee, Florida, where most of the USA’s winter tomatoes are grown. Tomato pickers were displaced, fields were flooded for days and consequently the winter crop was delayed. Two months later, the shortage in tomatoes caused retail prices to rise by as much as double across the country.

Wilson Perez is one of the people who pick the US’ fresh-market tomato crop. That September, he and his four-year-old son, José, spent a week huddling in a local high school with hundreds of others until the floodwaters receded. In addition to the days of income lost to the hurricane - a significant loss for tomato pickers, who make minimum wage and pay high rents - José missed his first week of school and had to make it up later. Both Perez and his son got sick from the dirty water. “It’s been almost a year and we hope that another one doesn’t come,” said Perez in late August.

Makoko, Lagos waterfront, Nigeria

Aside from water, climate change is increasingly flooding Lagos with something else: garbage. The floods and the floating debris they bring is making it difficult for fisherfolk to navigate the waterways that lead to their traditional fishing waters. More than 80% of fishing families reported a loss of income as a result of the floods; the local average income dropped by as much as 50%.

As a young child, Dupe Oki, a fisherwoman in her 40s, would accompany her father on fishing expeditions in his canoe. When she married, she used her father’s canoe to make a living from fishing. But today it sits idle most of the time, because garbage now chokes the narrow waterways of her neighborhood and makes it impossible for her to get to the Lagos Lagoon. “Flooding interrupts our way of life,” she said. “It doesn’t allow us to go fishing as we have too much debris now on the waterways.”

Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo, Brazil

The stretch of Brazil’s coastline that runs between Brazil’s largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, is getting increasingly hit by torrential rains and rising sea levels. In addition to the homes and beaches lost, many of the small businesses along the seafront have to rebuild every time a storm surge wipes them out. The city of São Paulo lost an estimated $193 million following recent flooding; the ripple effects caused the entire country to lose as much as $1.4 billion.

Ana Beatriz De Fernandes owns the Mae Terra beachfront restaurant in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro. She lost about six months of revenue after the last storm surge, a phenomenon that is becoming more frequent as the sea level rises along the coast. “Every time we see clouds on the horizon we think ‘hopefully it's not another big one’,” she said. “We don't want to lose our livelihood.”

Beirut, Lebanon
Around half a million people leave Bangladesh every year in order to work abroad, mostly in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Many of them are forced to migrate as a result of flooding in their native land. They are able to support their families - and, in turn, Bangladesh’s economy, which depends heavily on remittances - but their work is difficult and often deadly. The average cost of migrating internationally is currently between $2,600 and $3,900, which amounts to three years’ worth of income for the average Bangladeshi.

Nila grew up on the banks of the Jayanthi River in Southern Bangladesh. Nine years ago, the torrential downpours that accompanied Cyclone Alia destroyed Nila’s home and killed her father. She migrated to Lebanon in order to support her family, which still struggles to survive chronic flooding. Now she works as a domestic laborer in Beirut.

“I would not have come this far to a totally strange country had these misfortunes not befallen us,” she said. “I would have completed my studies and I would have been around my family members.”

Toronto, Canada

Five years ago, a severe rainstorm dumped 126 millimeters of water on the city of Toronto in just three hours. On August 7, 2018, it happened again, with 72 mm (2.8 inches) falling on downtown Toronto in just two hours. People whose houses were flooded in 2014 lost an average seven days of work, costing them at least US$ 1,500 or up to 3 percent of their expected annual income.

Katherine Fera and her husband had to move out of their house for 12 days after flash floods inundated their basement this past August. Research shows that the psychological stress of flooding can last long after the event itself: three years after their houses were flooded, almost half the people in this study still felt anxious whenever it rained. “It is something I think about whenever it rains,” Fera said. “The rain trauma is real.”

Hamburg, Germany

In 1962, the River Elbe overflowed its banks and killed more than 300 people in Hamburg, the port city and shipping center in northern Germany. Since then, Hamburg has invested in a massive and improved system of levees around the city. In 2012, Hamburg’s municipal government began to raise the height of the riverfront promenade from 7.2 meters to between 8.6 and 8.9 meters, in order to protect against the storms of the future. At US$ 86 million, the project will be expensive—but cheaper than the destruction caused by continued floods. Public investment in reinforcing Hamburg’s flood barriers totaled US$ 766 million from 1998 and 2015.

Jan Hübener has spent the past 12 years working on Hamburg’s flood defenses, first at the Zaha Hadid Architects firm, which leads the project, and now as partner at studioH2K Architekten. “I think for a city like Hamburg, especially downtown Hamburg—for such a densely-populated area, with all the infrastructure, with subways and lots of office spaces—I think that it's not an option to accept flooding here,” he said.

The full Orb Media report can be found at

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