ThinkProgress

Deadly flooding around the world is a warning of the cascading impacts of climate change

Iranian emergency services were bracing for widespread flooding on April 3 with mass evacuations planned as extensive rainfalls in regions neighbouring Khuzestan converge on the oil-rich southwestern province. (Credit: AZIZ BABANEJAD/AFP/Getty Images)

The cascading effects of deadly floods currently impacting millions of people around the world is a sign, experts say, of just how much work needs to be done to prepare for what climate change has in store.

Decimated crops will lead to increased food insecurity, stagnant waters will spread diseases, and as homes, schools, and businesses are swept away by the floodwaters, many will flee — if they’re able to. And all of this is taking place right now, not just in the United States, but across Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Iran.

At the same time flash floods from torrential downpours hit 25 of Iran’s 35 provinces, and Cyclone Idai made landfall in southeastern Africa, the Midwestern United States was submerged by a combination of melting snow and a “bomb cyclone” that brought the worst flooding in half a century to Nebraska.

The damages to homes and farms in the Midwest are expected to total at least $3 billion. Cyclone Idai, the worst disaster to hit the region in 20 years, was said to have destroyed 90% of Beira, Mozambique, the country’s fourth largest city and home to 1.5 million people. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by floods in Iran amid fresh warnings that some dams could overflow.

Collectively, more than a 1,000 people have died as a result of these floods, and thousands of others are likely still missing.

“The floods should be a serious wake up call for all of us,” said Yassamin Ansari, principal adviser at climate group Mission 2020. Ansari was on the climate team that helped advise United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the landmark Paris climate agreement.

“Just like the devastating recent fires in California, the floods show that climate change is here now and none of us are immune to it,” she said. “And this is just the beginning.”

While studies evaluating the degree to which climate change influenced any one of these particular events have yet to be done, what science has confirmed is that a warming atmosphere and hotter oceans means more intense storms.

“At the very basic level, what we can say is that the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so we are expecting to see events that are more severe,” Deepti Singh, assistant professor at Washington State University Vancouver’s School of the Environment, explained to ThinkProgress.

Singh, an expert in human-caused extreme weather, pointed to the fact that data already shows the intensity of precipitation events in the Midwest has increased by 42% compared to earlier in the 20th century. And as the congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment warned last fall, climate change is only going to make flooding in the region worse. That’s not a distant threat; more unprecedented flooding is expected this spring, according to a recent government forecast.

Warmer waters also fuel cyclones and hurricanes, making the storms wetter and stronger as climate change intensifies. And as seas rise, so do storm surges, bringing more water onto the land.

People wade through flood waters in a rural neighborhood affected by Cyclone Idai on March 24, 2019 in Buzi, Mozambique. (Credit: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

But it’s not just the immediate impact of vast swaths of land suddenly becoming muddy lakes that matters. It’s what comes next that will have an even longer impact — weeks, months, or even years after the waters recede.

“Climate change is a reality and the extent of devastation and toll upon lives and livelihoods is a clear sign that we are unprepared,” Gautam Narasimhan, UNICEF’s senior climate adviser, and Antony Spalton, resilience specialist, told ThinkProgress via email.

First came the cholera

Treating disease is one of the most pressing “secondary impacts” that come after the initial impacts associated with simply surviving the storm.

In what health officials have called a second disaster, more than 1,700 people are thought to have been infected with cholera in Mozambique since an outbreak was declared at the end of March.

Other health risks include diarrhea along with diseases spread by mosquitoes — such as dengue, malaria, or West Nile fever — which make breeding grounds of standing water.

According to Narasimhan and Spalton, medical experts estimate that 90% of the “disease burden from climate change” will be borne by children under the age of five. In Mozambique alone, UNICEF estimates there are 900,000 children that need urgent disaster assistance.

The impact from these disease outbreaks can last a long time. In 2005, for instance, India experienced one of its worst flooding events in Mumbai. Several months later people were still dealing with persistent health impacts from waterborne diseases.

So, while the initial flood event might be short-lived, “we see the impacts of that for several months or even years following these events,” said Singh. “We’re not prepared for that, and that’s kind of affecting the impact that this disaster [in southeastern Africa] is having right now.”

Food supply shock

In the case of all three floods, each came after a period of intense drought. This “whiplash” between very dry periods, followed by very wet periods, is exactly what we can expect from climate change, said Singh. And with dry soil comes greater risk of erosion and more flooding since the ground doesn’t absorb water as well.

All of this puts the food supply at risk. After a difficult dry period impacting crops, now suddenly the water is washing out a lot of farmland right when the crops that did grow are supposed to be harvested. “This is just going to aggravate food insecurity,” said Singh, particularly in southeastern Africa and Iran.

Farmers in Zimbabwe’s worst-hit areas said the cyclone hit on the eve of harvest, after what had already been a poor crop year due to an El Nino-induced drought. And early estimates put the losses to Iran’s agriculture sector at $350 million.

In the Midwest, farmers are also bracing for a serious financial hit. Earlier this week, it was reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t be compensating farmers in Nebraska and Iowa for losses to crops that had already been harvested and stored in now water-logged grain bins, silos, or other storage areas.

Corn burst from a grain bin which was soaked with floodwater on March 23, 2019 near Union, Nebraska. Damage estimates from flooding in Nebraska top $1 billion. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

So, when it comes to questions about how best to prepare, they key is not only better early warning systems and weather predictions, it’s also about safeguards like crop insurance and mechanisms to support economic losses, said Singh.

Impacts to agricultural productivity can also drive migration away from farmlands toward urban areas, said Narasimhan and Spalton of longer-term systemic impacts from floods. In addition, these various climate-induced changes to agricultural productivity can weaken or reduce the nutritional value of the food.

Roads, schools, and levees

It’s estimated that more than 32,000 classrooms have been damaged in Mozambique, along with 54 health facilities. “Beyond the immediate loss of access to education and health services, the knock-on impacts of, for example, not completing a quality education are significant in terms of livelihoods and job opportunities for this generation of young people,” explained Narasimhan and Spalton.

To better mitigate this in the future, they recommend that schools be built above flood levels, preparedness drills be put in place, and that school curricula include climate adaptation lessons.

Floodwater covers Highway 2 on March 23, 2019 near Sidney. Iowa. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Beyond homes, businesses, and schools, much of the damage currently incurred is to infrastructure directly related to protecting people from flooding. In the Midwest, dozens of levees have been destroyed; if not immediately repaired, a broken levee system will spell trouble for the rest of the spring flooding season. (It typically takes about six months to repair a levee.)

Meanwhile, in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, it was reported this week that dams were just two feet from cresting. Electricity and telecommunications had been cut in affected areas, local media reported this week, while roads washed away and people took to their rooftops, waiting to be rescued. More rainfall is expected over the weekend.

‘It’s on us’ to act

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s North America, Africa, or the Middle East, there is no escape from climate change.

“Even if you’re living in the developed world, we’re already seeing some of the consequences of climate change… [we’re] still vulnerable to these kinds of disasters,” said Singh.

“The other aspect of it is the injustice of climate change,” she continued. “There are people in places who have contributed the least to the issue that are being affected the most severely, that are the most vulnerable.”

An Iranian family walks through a flooded street in a village around the city of Ahvaz, in Iran's Khuzestan province, on March 31, 2019 (Credit: MEHDI PEDRAMKHOO/AFP/Getty Images)

Poverty alleviation, she said, is therefore “probably one of the most important things we can do” to help better-prepare and protect vulnerable populations. Many people impacted by these floods won’t have additional resources to immediately recover, especially if their livelihoods were primarily dependent on agriculture. And while some may want to relocate, that might not always be an option. “Do they have the ability to go relocate somewhere else?” asked Singh.

“As somebody once said, disasters seek out the most vulnerable and ensure they remain so,” Narasimhan and Spalton said.

And it isn’t just a question of reducing emissions, Ansari said. While curbing greenhouse gases is certainly important, and necessary, so too is adaptation and resilience. “The longer we delay adaptation, the more expensive it will be both in terms of money and lives cost,” she said. “We have to radically accelerate actions on both fronts.”

“This isn’t a problem to be left for future generations to solve,” she added. “It’s on us.”