Flooding could cost Europe $32 billion a year by 2050—four times as much as it does now

Huge floods like the ones that hit the UK last month will happen more often and become more destructive.
Huge floods like the ones that hit the UK last month will happen more often and become more destructive.
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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2013 was a waterlogged year for Europe—and so far, 2014 isn’t looking much better. That worsening is something to get used to, if new research is anything to go by. Economic losses in the European Union from flooding will surge from their current estimated €4.9 billion ($6.8 billion) annually to €23.5 billion by 2050 (paywall), according to a report this week in Nature Climate Change.

In addition to the fourfold increase in the average annual economic losses caused by flooding, the report also found that colossal flooding disasters would happen way more frequently. By 2050, what are today once-in-50-years floods will hit every 30 years. Incidents of extreme damage—such as the floods that caused an estimated €12 billion in central Europe in Jun. 2013—will occur every decade, instead of happening every 16 or so years.

​Big floods of the past.
​Big floods of the past.
Image: Zurich

How’d the researchers arrive at such astronomical figures? In the past, countries typically conducted their own risk assessments using their own models and methodologies. This new report looked at flood risk based on whole river systems, many spanning multiple countries. These adjustments reveal that, for example, a high flood risk in the UK means similar risk levels in northern France, the Netherlands and some parts of Germany. The research therefore accounts for something that gets missed when simply adding up the losses of country-by-country studies—namely, that since flooding in river basins often occurs at the same time, damage is compounded where the flood waters overlap and intersect.

Previous research suggests that rising temperatures are likely to cause more frequent and heavier rains. However, climate change is only partly to blame, said the new report; about two-thirds of the estimated losses are caused simply by the growing economic value located in flood-prone areas. ”More people are living in flood-prone areas, [and] the income per capita is increasing in the dangerous areas around Europe,” Brenden Jongman, one of the lead authors, told the BBC.

The good news is that, by investing around €1.8 billion a year in flood protection measures—things like movable flood walls—the EU could slash its annual flood losses by around 30% by 2050, said the report.

However, right now, some countries are even cutting spending on these things. As The Guardian reports, the UK government reduced flood defense investment in 2010, leaving the areas of the Thames valley that flooded in February all the more vulnerable.

On top of that, at present only around 30% of flood losses are insured. Countries like Portugal and Bulgaria offer no flood insurance at all (pdf, p.9), says the report. If this doesn’t change, say the researchers, it will place much more strain on disaster recovery financing mechanisms, such as the European Solidarity Fund (EUSF).

Image: "Increasing stress on disaster-risk finance due to large floods," Jongman et al.