In less than two months apart, torrential rains swept across the country and brought with it record floods that devastated properties – many homes were declared unlivable, damaged farm assets, and forced thousands of residents to evacuate from their homes.
On May 30, a state of emergency has been declared for the entire Canterbury region, east coast of the South Island, following heavy rains and flooding.
Hundreds have evacuated their homes, and many others have abandoned their homes as heavy rains raised water levels in the area. Local media called this year’s flooding a “one-in-100-year deluge”.
On June 20, another spell of torrential rain has inundated the North Island’s East Coast. Severe floods in Gisborne District have forced families to self-evacuate. At least four roads in the district have been washed out or blocked by landslips.
On July 16, hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes as the Marlborough Region of New Zealand declared a state of emergency. Some areas have recorded more than 300mm of rain within 48 hours which raised river levels. Officials say that this year’s flood has been the largest ever recorded in the region.
Simultaneously, the Buller district on the south island’s west coast declared a local state of emergency as heavy rains caused landslips and riverbanks to break, forcing two thousand residents to leave their homes.
The region had a similar experience with its neighbouring Marlborough district when 300mm of rain fell within just two days. The area suffered widespread damage prompting the government to give $600,000 in emergency aid to affected communities.
Talking to 1News, Associate Professor Asaad Shamseldin from the University of Auckland’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department says that this flooding resulted from climate change and could be a “new norm”. His basic message is the need for preparedness among communities.
Shamseldin also explained that land-use changes magnify the impacts of floods. For people to be well-prepared for such extreme events, we need to reassess risks. There should be a “very serious conversation” that will need to happen between the government and local communities to define “acceptable risk” to plan for the future.
Shamseldin says that mitigating the impacts of flooding in New Zealand could include early warning, stop banks, raising the floor level or houses and relocation.
Extreme events around the world
While extreme events are impacting several regions across New Zealand, countries worldwide are also experiencing the same thing.
The record rainfall in western Europe that started on July 15 has turned into catastrophic flooding that claimed at least 195 lives in Germany and Belgium. Burst rivers and destructive flash floods collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines.
Some blamed the German flood alert system for failing to communicate the dangers to its residents, resulting in a vast number of deaths and massive property and infrastructure damages.
But the government responded that flood warning systems sent out alerts a few days before the heavy rains, and it is up to the local communities to decide how to respond to the warning.
Several towns in the southern Netherlands suffered damage from flooding on July 16. Netherland’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte says that without a doubt, floods that swept the country and in Europe is a result of climate change.
Rutte says that to stop any future flood disasters, the first thing to do is give space to rivers, which the country is already doing. After the major flooding in 1993 and 1995, the Dutch reshaped areas around the river.
The heavy rains and flooding that hit Germany also came to Austria, causing flood alarms to sound off across Salzburg and Tyrol. The flood in Austria is described as a 50-year flood event.
BBC News published on July 5 that Edinburgh was hit with nearly half of its average July rainfall in under an hour as storms flooded the city.
On July 12, Kew, London, received a month’s worth of rain in one day, causing flash floods in the district. The average rainfall in July is 44.5mm, but 47.8mm fell in just a day on a Monday morning. Residents evacuated from their homes, train services were cancelled, while cars were submerged in water, the BBC reported.
And who could forget the landslide in Atami Japan after heavy rains hit the Shizuoka prefecture that happened on July 3?
Climate change and extreme events
Many factors contribute to flooding, but a warming atmosphere is causing more extreme rainfall to occur.
Average temperatures worldwide have already increased to 1.2C since the industrial age, and it will keep on rising until governments reduce their GHG emissions drastically, according to a BBC article.
Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist who set up and now advises the European Flood Awareness System, says that they see evidence that the storm that hit western Europe, an extreme one that brings lots of rain and is slow-moving, happen more often.
Hayley Fowler, professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University, says that climate change slows down the jet stream, leading to slower-moving storms. At the same time, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture.
She says these extreme rainfall events will become more severe and more frequent, urging countries to redesign infrastructure systems to cope with these types of events. In other words, climate adaptation and mitigation factors are need in designing and constructing infrastructure.
It is also worth noting that the flooding in Western Europe, New Zealand, and Japan happened after the Pacific Norwest’s unprecedented heatwaves.
New Zealand (2021). Floodlist. Retrieved from https://floodlist.com/tag/new-zealand
McClure, T. (2021, July 19). New Zealand west coast hit by heavy floods after months of rain falls in one weekend. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/19/new-zealand-west-coast-hit-by-heavy-floods-after-month-of-rain-falls-in-one-weekend
New Zealand flooding: state of emergency in Canterbury, with hundreds evacuated. (2021, May 31). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/31/new-zealand-flooding-canterbury-state-of-emergency-evacuations-rescues
Major floods in New Zealand could be the ‘new norm’, expert says. (2021, July 7). 1 News. Retrieved from https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/major-floods-in-new-zealand-could-norm-expert-says
Germany floods: Government rejects criticism over flood warnings. (2021, July 7). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57890650
Flooding causes chaos across Austria. (2021, July 19). The Local. Retrieved from https://www.thelocal.at/20210719/flooding-continues-to-cause-chaos-across-austria/
Edinburgh flooding: Half of July rain fell in one hour. (2021, July 5). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-57718384
Flash floods: Parts of London receive a month of rain in one day. (2021 July 14). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-57816647
At least two dead after heavy rains trigger landslide in Japan. (2021, July 3). Aljazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/3/japan-torrential-rains-unleash-landslides-20-missing-report
Cuddy, A. (2021, July 17). Germany floods: How a country was taken by surprise. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57867773
Flooding in Kordel, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany by Chz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107631825
Marlborough District Council, New Zealand
Flood and damage in Tilff, Belgium on 16 July by Régine Fabri – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107637907
2021 Atami debris flow disaster by Copyright © National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107274804