Friday, October 22, 2021   |   Public Safety

Flooding – A Growing Threat to Society

Written by Dr. Jack Hayes


Severe weather has a growing impact on our lives.  Over the past 40 years, occurrences have tripled worldwide, and costs have increased five-fold.  Between 1970 and 2019, flooding was a major contributor to the deaths and losses suffered due to natural disasters.  According to the World Meteorological Organization, floods are the deadliest of natural hazards, striking numerous regions in the world each year.

The devastating impact of floods was felt in the summer of 1931 in central China when a series of seven tropical cyclones struck the area. These storms caused intense rainfall and prolonged flooding in the region surrounding the Yangtze, Yellow, and Haui Rivers, an area larger than the size of England.  Within weeks of the first flooding, more than 150,000 people drowned. It has been estimated that 3.7 million people lost their lives due to the floods – either directly or indirectly due to starvation and disease that occurred during and in the following months.

Flooding in China in 1931

Over the last few decades, the impact of flooding has increased by over 400%, as illustrated in the chart below. This is a consequence of the increasing frequency of heavy precipitation, changes in upstream land use, and a continuously expanding concentration of population and assets in flood-prone areas. Sea level rise has increased vulnerability to storm surges and related coastal flooding.  In the period from 1970 to 2019, storms and floods caused over one million deaths.  Flash floods account for approximately 85% of the flooding cases and have the highest mortality rate (defined as the number of deaths per number of people affected). They are among the world’s deadliest disasters with more than 5,000 lives lost annually.

What a Country or Community can do to Address the Growing Flood Threat

Early warning is a major element of flood disaster risk reduction. Long before such hazards arise, early warning goes a long way in preparing the community and minimizing adverse impacts. The World Meteorological Organization encourages countries and communities to become weather-ready so they are prepared when floods and other severe weather threatens.

Weather readiness requires the development and use of early warning systems that actively involve the people and communities at risk. These warning systems incorporate communities, political leadership, weather forecasters, disseminators of warnings, media, emergency response authorities, health facilities, and recovery plans. By ensuring strong coordination, they have greater response and impact. Key elements include an active national meteorological and hydrological service, strong communications systems that quickly deliver understandable weather forecasts and warnings, and programs that educate and prepare the public.

Around the globe, flooding and extreme weather are wreaking havoc on increasingly vulnerable communities. Coastal populations are growing, and development is expanding into higher-risk areas such as floodplains. Weather readiness is an essential and growing need to protect life and property.

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Dr. Jack Hayes

Dr. Jack Hayes’s distinguished meteorology career has spanned more than 40 years. He spent 28 years in the United States Air Force and was the director of the National Weather Service from 2007 to 2012. Dr. Hayes currently serves in Baron’s Global Business Development department.