Climate Action

Flood risk is rising. Here's where - and what can be done

Volunteer Ole Oberlaender and Romina Mueller work to clean an ice cream parlor affected by floods caused by heavy rainfalls in the center of Bad Muenstereifel, Germany, July 18, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen - RC20NO9OUGW7

Volunteers clean an ice cream parlor affected by floods in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany, July 18, 2021. Image: REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen - RC20NO9OUGW7

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Andrew Berkley
Lead, Immersive Technology and Content, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: Forum COP26 Live

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  • Floods linked to climate change disproportionately devastate poor areas.
  • Efforts are underway to use technology to address this disparity.
  • The World Economic Forum has created a visualization of flood impacts around the world.

In the days leading up to the COP26 climate summit, Shanxi province was hit with the worst flooding it’s ever recorded.

The inundation of this landlocked area of China followed the first-ever flash flood emergency issued for New York City, when its streets started resembling Venetian canals last month – which followed the return of “once-in-a-century” flooding to Europe for at least the second time in less than 20 years.

As much as climate change is denying us more of the water we need, it’s clearly also giving us more than we can handle. The potency of sea level rise combined with increasingly-violent storms is only beginning to be fully understood; one study published in August found the proportion of the global population exposed to floods during the first part of this century increased 10 times more than previously estimated.

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Efforts to fortify against floods

Some places are fortifying in response, like the Japanese village that’s opted to encase a UNESCO World Heritage Site beach in a concrete barrier.

But that’s a luxury, albeit a potentially controversial one, that most locales can’t afford. While the wealthy build infrastructure protecting them from the increasingly devastating elements, the poor will likely be pushed further into desperate circumstances.

Efforts are underway to use technology to address this. The August study on population exposure to floods, for example, was based on the Global Flood Database, which was built to aid mitigation attempts. And the recently-released World Flood Mapping Tool is designed to bolster flood forecasting centres in the Global South.

Where in the world the flood risk is highest

The Forum has created a visualization of some of the most flood-impacted parts of the world. The image below is an overview of areas most prone to flooding as of last year.

Image: World Economic Forum/EarthTime

The places of most concern are heavily populated and least able to build a resilience to flooding. In 2015, for the first time in recorded history, two strong tropical cyclones hit Mozambique in the same season; flooding there and in Malawi displaced tens of thousands of people. Below we see locations of flood-related displacements over the years indicated by an orange colour, and deaths indicated by blue.

Image: World Economic Forum/EarthTime

The August study on the global population exposed to flood risk in the first part of this century found that most flood events occurred in South and Southeast Asia. In 2011, severe flooding in Thailand killed more than 800 people and affected millions. Again, displacements are indicated below by an orange colour, and deaths by blue.

Image: World Economic Forum/EarthTime

In the US, record tidal flooding hit the coasts in 2018, as violent storms combined with rising seas. Places like Boston have the wherewithal to rebuild and invest in infrastructure like flood walls to help them endure. Others, like Fair Bluff, North Carolina, have been less fortunate.

Image: World Economic Forum/EarthTime

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The Trans-Alaska Pipeline carries an average of 20 million gallons of crude oil a day and was designed to endure severe environmental conditions. But according to this piece, efforts to protect it from raging flood waters “may be too little, too late.” (Inside Climate News)
  • These images of the flooding in China’s Shanxi province illustrate what can happen when an area abruptly receives a significant multiple of its normal seasonal rainfall. (YiCai Global)
  • The frequency of flooding increased tenfold in sub-Saharan Africa between 2010 and 2019, according to this analysis, and 75% of the region’s floods and storms are concentrated in just three countries: Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa. (Brookings)
  • It may have taken a series of ecological disasters including flooding in its Black Sea region, according to this report, but Turkey has finally opted to ratify the Paris Agreement. (Al Monitor)
  • If life did exist there, it needed serious flood barriers – according to this piece, Mars’s dramatic landscape may have been formed by tremendous flooding on the now-dry-and-dusty planet that was triggered by climate change. (Smithsonian Magazine)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, Water and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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