COCHIN, INDIA — In the morning, before she left for work, Ambika Thankappan called her son Arun to tell him their world was about to drown.
“Da, it’s already flooded to the nearby villages,” she told him in a calm voice, using an affectionate Malayalam word for boy. “And it’s starting to reach our village.”
“I’ll be there in an hour,” he replied.
Arun jumped on his motorbike and set off through the rain toward their home. But the water was already a foot and a half deep. And it was rising fast. If he didn’t get there in time, it would swallow everything they’d worked their lives to build: their home and everything they loved, including Messi, their tail-wagging, face-licking yellow dog.
On a normal day, Arun would be working at a shop at the Cochin International Airport, in India’s southwestern coastal state of Kerala. Ambika would be working at the same airport, collecting trolleys and lining them up for travelers; a man named Wilson Perez would be picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida; and in Toronto, two men named Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin would be doing something that 81 million people do, every day, without expecting to fight for their lives: taking an elevator.
But August 15, 2018 — India’s Independence Day, as it happens — was not a normal day for Arun and his mother. That morning, after three days of nonstop heavy rain, the water began to rise. And rise.
“I can never forget the 15th of August,” Ambika said later. “We never expected the water to rise this high.” And then she began to sob.
It took Arun a frantic two-and-a-half-hour ride, over flooded roads, to reach home. He was relieved to find their house still dry and Messi safe in the yard. So he went to check on their neighbors in the lush, green, low-lying acres behind the Cochin airport — the first airport in the world to be fully powered by solar energy.
But inside the airport, the water was rising. It was already flooding the solar panels. At around noon, it started to surge through the wall behind the runway with the force of water exploding from a dam.
Arun climbed up on the wall to get a better view. He stood for a long time, mesmerized by the violent, muddy rush of water.
Suddenly, panic kicked in: The water would reach their house within minutes. Messi, and everything they owned, would be swept away.
Until now, scientists have often framed climate change in terms of the future: cities that will be underwater by the year 2050, the year 2100 or the next 50, 100 or 200 years. But for a growing number of people across the globe, that watery future is already here.
A landmark report issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Monday, October 8 pointed out that our world has already warmed by one degree more than pre-industrial levels. Without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the world’s top climate scientists warned, our world will exceed 1.5°C much sooner than we think—as early as a dozen years — which will increase the likelihood of floods, heatwaves and droughts.
“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice,” said Panmao Zhai, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group on the physical science of climate change.
One of the most immediate, concrete consequences of those changes is flooding. As higher temperatures lead to sea level rise and more extreme rainfall, more and more people are already learning to live with catastrophic flooding. Many find creative ways to adapt. But it comes at a cost — first and foremost to them, but in the end to all of us.
Economists are still trying to calculate the long-term effects of our drowning world on global trade chains, national GDPs, household income and inequality. Emerging research suggests that the human and financial costs of flooding are already much higher, and much longer-lasting, than ever suspected. One recent study found that without large-scale structural adaptations, the total economic losses from river flooding alone will increase by 17 percent globally, thanks to climate change, over the next 20 years.
“If we’re only adding up the direct cost of a flood on the houses that were inundated, and the price it took to bail those out, and the price it takes to repair infrastructure, and other things like that, then we’re potentially missing large hidden costs associated with those floods,” said Amir Jina, a University of Chicago professor who works with Climate Impact Lab, a collaboration between climate scientists, economists, data engineers and risk analysts that is attempting to comprehensively quantify the impacts of climate change.
Four years ago, Jina and another researcher, Solomon M. Hsiang, looked at the effects of hurricanes — of which flooding makes up a major part of the cost — on national incomes. “We found something which I think surprised a lot of people, even us,” said Jina. “Even 20 years into the future after a hurricane hits, you see a decline in their GDP.”
The people who live in the path of a flood, like Arun and Ambika, are often those who would normally be carrying out the small, everyday tasks that keep the global economy in motion. Because floods tend to hit them the hardest, it can take these families decades to recover. The damage to them will cost us all—even if we don’t live anywhere near the sea.
“It’s not just a coastal problem,” pointed out Jina. “It’s an everybody problem.”
Cascading Economic Effects
There is a saying in Malayalam about Onam, the annual harvest festival: prepare your Onam feast, even if you have to sell next year’s seeds to do it. The meal marks the end of the monsoon season — characterized by scarcity — and the return to a good life.
In a normal year, the Onam feast would be dozens of Kerala’s famous dishes, served on a banana leaf with a pappadam and payasam, a ceremonial sweet pudding with nuts. Kerala suffered catastrophic damages during the flood. But one of the most significant losses was something intangible: Onam.
Aside from the immediate damage, each flood has a series of long-lasting and far-reaching effects — what risk analysts refer to as “cascading costs” — that ripple outward through geographies, economies and lives. Some costs are tangible, and may be recovered in time; but the less tangible costs are often irretrievable.
“It’s not difficult to replace a building or dry it out or do what you have to do,” said Tania Caceres, a Toronto-based risk analyst who consults with large institutional real estate owners, investors and developers. “But the downtime and the loss of productivity that the operation in that facility generates could have global impact.”
The Cochin airport is one such example. When Ambika found out her house was flooded and everything in it destroyed, she handled the overwhelming pain by going back to work.
For six days, starting on August 18, Ambika and hundreds of others — about 800 regular airport workers, she estimates, and 400 from other parts of India — worked continuously to clean the Cochin airport. It took 200,000 man-hours — about 833 people working around the clock for ten days — to fix it all.
By August 22, a week after the flood, the Cochin airport was mostly ready to go. But all the people who keep an airport running, like support staff, were not. With people’s lives still in chaos — living in camps because their houses were uninhabitable, roads washed out, diseases like rat fever (leptospirosis) beginning to spread — the airport estimated that 90 percent of the airline and ground handling staff wouldn’t be able to make it to work. After meeting with airline and ground handling agencies, the airport announced that it would remain closed for another week.
The Cochin airport estimated the cost of closing for two weeks at 2 billion rupees, or $27 million. But it will probably take months or years to calculate the impact of the lost Onam holiday season on the local economy. Normally, thousands of Keralites fly home from all over the world for Onam. But with the airport closed for two weeks, the entire tourist season was gone.
“Onam is the trademark celebration of Kerala,” said Prasanth Nair, Deputy Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy. “It’s also the biggest shopping season. All the shopkeepers take advances and they buy more stock. Most of them would have stocked up in anticipation of a huge business, and you have this flood taking out everything. And unlike huge business concerns, these people wouldn’t have insured.”
Even a relatively small flood can have unexpected costs months later. In the United States, the heavy rainfall from Hurricane Irma in September 2017 caused severe flooding in Immokalee, Florida. That happens to be where much of the country’s winter fresh-market tomato crop is grown — and where Wilson Perez, one of the farmworkers who pick those tomatoes, happens to live.
Perez and his four-year-old son, José, spent a week huddling in a local high school with hundreds of others until the floodwaters went down. Afterwards, they faced the kind of devastation that is becoming more and more familiar across the globe: wreckage and muddy, garbage-laden waters that left the whole area smelling foul for weeks. Perez and his neighbors all got sick — especially the children. After being cooped up inside a shelter for what would normally have been their first week of school, the kids wanted to play outside. When Immokalee’s tomato pickers finally returned to the ramshackle, overpriced trailers where they live, it was impossible to stop their children from jumping in the dirty water. “They thought of it as the sea, a lake, or a swimming pool,” said Perez. “I told them it could make them sick. But they played; it’s part of being a child.”
Most of the physical damage to fields and farmworkers was eventually repaired. But the disruption to fields and to farmworkers’ lives delayed the winter planting season. Two months later, that resulted in a shortage of tomatoes—and that, in turn, led prices to go up as high as double across the country, from California to Illinois. “All of a sudden by mid-November the market spikes up real high, because there’s not as many tomatoes as the market was expecting,” said Michael Schadler, Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Exchange, whose membership represents about 95 percent of the tomatoes grown in Florida. “Pretty soon you go from a market that was maybe $10 a box, to $15, then $20, and then by mid-December, late December, it was up above $30 a box.”
As Jina, the economist, points out, the biggest loss from any catastrophic flood even to both businesses and people is simply what never happened—what economists call opportunity cost, and the rest of us might call the future: degrees never earned, savings never invested, small businesses that lost their chance to grow and thrive.
Ten days after the Kerala flood, on August 25, Arun and Ambika celebrated their Onam feast with two bottles of water and a packet of bread from a relief camp. “I felt like crying,” said Ambika.
Their house was full of mud. At least 483 people were dead. Rat fever was beginning to spread. Arun and his brother Abin spent days rescuing people from the water on homemade boats, then came home to find three blue kraits, a poisonous snake whose bite can be fatal, in their yard. Arun’s brother lost his engineering textbooks — and his chance to study for his upcoming exams. When he saw the books destroyed, he burst into tears.
Collectively, Ambika and her sons had lost 18 days of work and $1,500 worth of goods: beds, printer, computer, washing machine, sewing machine, stove, motorbike, food processor, soda maker, radio and television.
Worst of all, their beloved dog Messi was gone. Since he never left the yard, he had to have drowned. “We all were sad that he left us,” said Ambika.
“Our hearts were broken,” said Arun. “Everything is gone.”
Why Do We Get More Severe Flooding?
In Toronto, on August 7, Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin were working late at the office when they did something that is normally perfectly safe: they took the elevator to the basement parking garage to check on Freire’s car.
But this was not a normal day. A sudden, violent rainstorm had dumped up to 72 mm (2.8 inches) of water on downtown Toronto in just two hours. The elevator sank into the water with a whoosh and stopped responding. The emergency phone shorted out. The ceiling hatch wouldn’t open. No matter how much the men pounded, the doors stayed sealed shut — ironically enough, a safety measure in cases of fire.
They couldn’t get out; but the water could get in. It gushed into the elevator and started to rise. When it reached the top, they would drown.
A flood is nothing new; it is one of the oldest human stories. But in recent years, flooding has become more severe and catastrophic than ever before. Worldwide, floods are the most frequent form of natural disaster. And natural disasters have increased dramatically in our lifetime, thanks to changing weather patterns.
Nobody knows this better than reinsurers, the companies that underwrite risks—like earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and other natural disasters—that are too big for individual insurance companies to absorb on their own. According to analysis by Munich Reinsurance Group (Munich Re), the frequency of “relevant loss events” — events that caused loss of life or a certain threshold of property damage, adjusted to the country’s income level — has increased by a factor of three to four since 1980. Last year, 2017, was the second most expensive on record.
“We clearly see an increase in the number of natural disasters worldwide,” said Ernst Rauch, Chief Climate and Geo Scientist at Munich Re. “And almost all of this increase is coming from weather-related disasters.”
As the earth’s temperature increases, its atmosphere can hold more water vapor. More moisture in the air means more sudden, violent rainfalls — and, paradoxically, more droughts. “When you do have a rainfall, it’s more intense, because there’s more moisture in the air,” said Andrea Dutton, an Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Florida and expert on sea level rise.
Warmer temperatures are also causing sea levels to rise. One main driver is thermal expansion—warmer water expands and takes up more space — especially since the ocean absorbs most of the earth’s increasing heat. The other main factor is the increasing rate at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting into the sea. A recent study, conducted by 80 scientists from around the world, found that ice is being lost to the ocean at a much faster rate than ever thought before. By modeling data from satellite surveys over the region, they discovered that the rate of ice-shelf collapse had tripled between 1992 and 2017, setting off a kind of feedback loop that is expected to raise sea levels even faster than previously thought.
In cities by the sea, both of these changes — sea level rise, and more extreme precipitation — can combine to create even greater floods. Higher sea levels mean higher water tables; when heavy rains come, the rain falling from the sky cannot soak into the ground, because soil already saturated with seawater cannot absorb more water. “In coastal zones where you’ve had sea level rise, the water table is higher,” said Dutton. “And so the water, instead of being able to percolate into the ground, is now being forced to sit on the surface or try to run off the surface.”
Today, 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers (63 miles) of a coastline. And that number is increasing — also, in part, thanks to climate change. Increasingly, droughts are driving people in the countryside to migrate to the outskirts of the world’s major cities, many of which — eight out of the world’s top ten — are located on or near coastlines. The people who migrate to coastal cities often end up living on the outskirts, like the area behind the Cochin airport where the Thankappan family and other airport workers live. These areas tend to be more vulnerable to flooding.
Increased urbanization, combined with climate change and outdated infrastructure, all compound each other to make floods more intense and damaging. Much of the globe’s infrastructure was designed for a world before climate change. Kerala’s Idduki Dam was built in 1976. Parts of Toronto’s storm water removal system was built as long as a century ago. But even the systems built in the past half-century didn’t account for how much, or how quickly, the water would rise.
“They assumed that the storms of 2018 would look like the storms of 1970,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, director for Program in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia, and an expert on weather and climate. “And they don’t.”
In Toronto, Freire and Otrin watched as the water in their office elevator reached their waists and kept rising. They stood on the railings. The railings broke. They treaded water and prayed and shouted for help.
Finally, they managed to pry a tiny opening in the metal sheets of the ceiling. It was enough to stick a cellphone through and get a signal to call for help. The two officers who responded swam through the flooded basement and pried open the elevator door with a crowbar just as the two men inside had a foot of air left to breathe. Luckily, the two men were healthy enough to swim back out through the flooded garage. But Freire was so drained that despite his lifeguard training, he couldn’t make it out without help.
Freire and Otrin survived. But the image of two men almost drowning inside an elevator upended everything we think we know about safety. Building owners and municipal governments prepare us with safety protocols for fire, or acts of terrorism; but not, until now, for a more watery world.
“We teach them how to exit a building when it’s on fire, but we don’t talk to people about what to do when the building is flooded,” said Caceres, the Toronto-based risk analyst. “If there was a bomb threat, they would know what to do. And we’re less likely to have a bomb threat than we are a flood these days.”
Some cities do plan for flooding. As waters rise, one way to prepare is simply to accept that they can’t be stopped — perhaps even to embrace them. Since King Canute, Northern Europe’s port cities have had a long history of accepting the inevitability of water.
In Hamburg, the port city and shipping center in northern Germany, the River Elbe overflowed its banks and broke its levees in 1962, killing more than 300 people and destroying 6,000 homes. Since then, Hamburg built a massive, improved system of levees around the city. It also invested € 3 billion in HafenCity, a mixed-use redevelopment of the old harbor areas right along the riverfront.
By the end of this century, according to current projections, climate change could expose as many as 5 million Europeans to so-called hundred-year floods every year. In 2012, Hamburg’s municipal government began to raise the height of the riverfront promenade from 7.2 meters to 8.6–8.9 meters, in order to protect against the storms of the future. At $86 million, the project will be expensive—but cheaper than the destruction caused by a flood.
“Compared to the cost of a city flooding, definitely,” said Jan Hübener, an architect who has been working on the flood wall for 12 years, first at the world-famous Zaha Hadid Architects firm, which leads the project, and now as partner at studioH2K Architekten. “I think for a city like Hamburg, especially downtown Hamburg — for such a densely-populated area, with all the infrastructure, with subways and lots of office spaces — I think that it’s not an option to accept flooding here.”
Of course, it shouldn’t be an option anywhere. Three weeks after the Kerala flood, on Friday, September 7, Ambika was still scrubbing mud out of her family’s clothes by hand. Books on science and engineering basked in the sun on a woven straw mat. “We’re hoping that we can save them,” said Arun.
But there was one small, good thing: Messi the dog. He lay stretched out, luxuriating in the shade underneath a table, wagging his whole body and scratching in the dirt.
Ten days after the flood, a nephew found Messi, half-starved and traumatized, and brought him home. He didn’t recognize his family at first. But then Ambika called out his name, and he bounded over and jumped up on his hind legs to greet them. “After he came back, everyone was happy,” said Ambika. At first, he was so emaciated that he couldn’t eat without whimpering. So, they fed him biscuits until he could eat solid food.
“Now he’s fine,” she said, smiling, setting a plate of rice and fish on the ground for him to eat. “He needs a share of everything we cook. A slight hint of smell and he’ll start barking.”
They found out later that the neighborhood children rescued Messi when the water came. The children carried the dog on their shoulders to higher ground. They brought him food until the water covered that area too, and then he disappeared.
If a flood can be said to do one good thing, it was this: everyone helped each other. Hundreds of Kerala’s coastal fisherfolk turned their boats into rescue vessels and saved thousands of people from drowning. They tied ropes between electrical poles for the elderly and children to hang on to so they wouldn’t get washed away in floods. In Immokalee, Florida, people from all over the state cooked hot food and brought it to those trapped in shelters.
Meanwhile, 6,000 volunteers all over the world, many of them diasporan Keralites, were working around the clock to coordinate rescue operations remotely. From call centers in Cochin, Bangalore, Chennai and elsewhere, they identified and geo-tagged locations where people were trapped on rooftops or inside their homes, and dispatched rescue workers on the ground.
In disasters, people invent informal, temporary networks for helping each other. These outpourings of generosity are extraordinary, but they are not unique. Social scientists who study disasters find that people are actually more likely to help each other when disaster strikes than to look out for themselves. Social distinctions become, for a moment, unimportant. “Flood has no caste,” pointed out Prema Kumari, a handloom weaver from Kerala.
When the crisis is over, most people go back to their everyday lives, and these fleeting experiments disappear. But maybe they don’t have to. Nair, of India’s Ministry of New & Renewable Energy, is hoping to harness the momentum of those thousands of volunteers to build a more sustainable, compassionate version of his hometown.
“You had the tendency to go and fill up a bit of the river, even encroach upon a bit of the river, build your huge mansion there, and you thought that you did a smart job,” said Nair. “That’s not the way we should be rebuilding here. You had even major projects being announced without giving much thought for the environmental impact. Let’s not do that again.”
Orb Media is a global journalism organization based in Washington DC. The full report can be read at Orbmedia.org.