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.

I can never forget the 15th of August. We never expected the water to rise this high
Ambika Thankappan

Arun jumped on his motorbike and set off through the rain towards their home. But the water was already a foot and a half deep. And it was rising, fast.

On a normal day, Arun would be working in a shop at Cochin International Airport, which serves the city of Kochi, in India’s southwestern coastal state of Kerala. Thankappan would be working at the same airport, collecting trolleys and lining them up for travellers. On a normal day, a man named Wilson Perez would be picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida, in the United States, rather than seeking sanctuary in a high school; and in Toronto, Canada, Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin would be doing something that 81 million people do, every day, without expecting to fight for their lives: riding in a lift.

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 non-stop heavy rain, the water began to rise. And rise.

“I can never forget the 15th of August,” Thankappan says. “We never expected the water to rise this high.” And then she begins to sob.

It took a frantic 2½-hour ride, along flooded roads, for Arun to reach home. He was relieved to find their house still dry and their dog, Messi, safe in the garden. So he went to check on the neighbours in the lush green, low-lying acres behind the airport – the first in the world to be fully powered by solar energy.

Inside the airport buildings, the water was rising. At around noon, it started to surge through the wall behind the runway with the force of water exploding from a dam.

Arun climbed onto the wall to get a better view. He stood there for a long time, mesmerised 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 tended to frame climate change in terms of the future: cities that will be under water by the year 2050, the year 2100 or in 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 United Nations’ Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on October 8 points out that our world has already warmed by one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. Without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, climate scientists warn, the temperature rise will exceed 1.5 degrees sooner than expected – as early as in a dozen years from now – 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 one degree Celsius of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice,” said Zhai Panmao, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group.

One of the most immediate consequences of those changes is flooding. As higher temperatures lead to a rise in sea level and extreme rainfall, more people are learning to live with catastrophic flooding. Many find ways to adapt, but doing so comes at a cost – and it is a cost that, in the end, we will all have to bear.

Economists are still trying to calculate the effects the drowning of our world will have on trade, gross domestic products, household income and inequality. Emerging research suggests that the human and financial costs of flooding are already much higher, and much longer-lasting, than previously believed. One recent study found that without large-scale structural adaptations, the economic losses from river flooding alone will increase by 17 per cent globally, thanks to climate change, over the next two decades.

“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,” says 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 quantify the effects of climate change.

Four years ago, Jina and another researcher, Solomon Hsiang, looked at the effect of hurricanes – of which attendant flooding accounts for a substantial part of the cost – on national incomes.

“We found something which I think surprised a lot of people, even us,” says Jina. “Even 20 years into the future after a hurricane hits, you see a decline in GDP.”

The people who live in the path of a flood, such as the Thankappans, are often those who would normally be carrying out the small, everyday tasks that keep the economy in motion. Because floods tend to hit them hard, it can take such families decades to recover. The damage to them will cost us all.

“It’s not just a coastal problem,” Jina says. “It’s an every­body problem.”

Besides the immediate damage, floods can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects – what risk analysts refer to as “cascading costs” – that ripple through geographies, econo­mies and lives. Some costs are tangible and may be recovered in time. The intangible costs are often irretrievable.

“It’s not difficult to replace a building or dry it out,” says Tania Caceres, a Toronto-based risk analyst who consults institutional real estate owners, investors and developers. “But the downtime and loss of productivity that the operation in that facility generates could have global impact.”

Kochi’s airport is one such example. When Thankappan found out her house was flooded and everything in it destroyed, going back to work helped take her mind off the pain. For six days, starting on August 18, Thankappan and hundreds of others laboured ceaselessly to clean up the airport. It took 200,000 man-hours – more than 800 people working around the clock for 10 days – to repair the damage.

We clearly see an increase in the number of natural disasters worldwide. And almost all of this increase is coming from weather-related disasters
Ernst Rauch, chief climate and geoscientist at Munich Re

The airport was ready to go. The staff who keep the place running, however, were not. With people’s lives still in chaos – many were living in camps because their houses had become uninhabitable, roads had been washed out and diseases such as leptospirosis (known locally as “rat fever”) were beginning to spread – it was estimated that 90 per cent of the air­line and ground handling staff wouldn’t be able to make it to work and announced that the airport would remain closed for a few more days. It eventually reopened on August 29.

The estimated cost of the two-week closure was 2 billion rupees (HK$210 million) but it may take months or years to calculate the impact of the lost Onam holiday season on the local economy. Thousands fly home for Onam – the annual 10-day harvest festival celebrated by Keralites – but many were unable to do so this year due to the closure of Cochin Airport, one of three international airports in Kerala. Onam began on August 15, at the height of the flooding that claimed at least 483 lives across the state.

“Onam is also the biggest shopping season,” says Prasanth Nair, a deputy secretary at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. “Most shopkeepers would have taken advances and stocked up in anticipation of huge business, and you have this flood taking out everything. Unlike huge business concerns, these people wouldn’t have been insured.”

Even a small flood can mean unexpected costs months later. In the US, heavy rainfall during Hurricane Irma, in September last year, caused severe flooding in Immokalee. That happens to be where much of the country’s winter tomatoes are grown – and where Perez, a farmworker, lives.

Perez and his four-year-old son, José, spent a week huddling in a high school with hundreds of others until the floodwaters subsided. Afterwards, they faced the kind of devastation that is becoming familiar across the globe: muddy, debris-laden waters that left the area smelling foul for weeks. Perez and his neigh­bours all became sick – especially the children.

“They thought of it as the sea, lake or swimming pool,” says Perez. “I told them it could make them sick, but they played.”

Most of the damage to the fields was eventually repaired but the disruption delayed the winter planting season, which meant a shortage of tomatoes two months later, and that in turn led to price jumps across the country.

“In mid-November, all of a sudden, the market spiked up real high, because there were not as many tomatoes as the market was expecting,” says Michael Schadler, executive vice-president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, whose member­ship represents about 95 per cent of the tomatoes grown in the southeastern US state. “Pretty soon you go from a market that was maybe US$10 a box, to US$15, then US$20, and then by mid-December, late December, it was up above US$30 a box.”

As Jina points out, the biggest loss from any catastrophic flood to both businesses and people is what didn’t happen as a result – what economists call “opportunity cost”: degrees not earned, savings not invested, small businesses that lost their chance to grow and thrive.

On August 25, the main day of the Onam festival, Thankappan and Arun celebrated with two bottles of water and a packet of bread from a relief camp.

“I felt like crying,” Thankappan says.

Their house was full of mud. Arun and his brother, Abin, spent days rescuing people using home-made boats, then came home to find three blue kraits, a highly venomous species of snake, in their garden. Abin lost his engineering textbooks – and his chance to study for his upcoming exams. When he saw the books destroyed, he burst into tears.

Collectively, Thankappan and her sons had lost 18 days of work and US$1,500 worth of goods, including their beds, computer, washing machine, television and motorbike. Worst of all, Messi was gone. He had to have drowned.

In downtown Toronto, on August 7, Freire, the chief executive of drone maker DreamQii, and Otrin, an industrial designer at the tech start-up, were working late at the office, located in a commercial building near Jane Street and St Clair Avenue, when they took the lift to the basement car park to check on the former’s car.

A sudden rainstorm had dumped up to 72mm of water on downtown Toronto in just two hours. The lift sank into the water with a whoosh and stopped responding. The emer­gency phone cut out. The ceiling hatch wouldn’t open. No matter how much the men pounded, the doors stayed sealed shut – a safety measure in cases of fire.

They couldn’t get out; but the water could get in. It gushed into the lift and started to rise.

Floods are nothing new but, in recent years, they have become more severe and more catastrophic. Worldwide, floods are the most frequent form of natural disaster. And the frequency of natural disasters has risen drama­tically in our lifetime, thanks to changing weather patterns.

Nobody knows this better than reinsurers, the companies that underwrite risks – such as 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 (Munich Re), the frequency of “relevant loss events” – events that caused loss of life or reached 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 was the second most expensive on record.

“We clearly see an increase in the number of natural disasters worldwide,” says Ernst Rauch, chief climate and geoscientist at Munich Re. “And almost all of this increase is coming from weather-related disasters.”

As the Earth’s temperature rises, its atmosphere can hold more water vapour. More moisture in the air means more sudden, violent rainfall – and, paradoxically, more droughts.

“When you do have a rainfall, it’s more intense, because there’s more moisture in the air,” says Andrea Dutton, an associate professor of geology at the University of Florida and an 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 rate at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting into the sea.

A recent international study, conducted by 80 scientists, found that ice is being lost to the ocean at a much faster rate than previously thought. By modelling data from satellite surveys over the Antarctic, they discovered that the rate of ice-shelf collapse had tripled between 1992 and 2017, setting up a feedback loop that is expected to raise sea levels even faster.

In cities by the sea, both of these changes – sea-level rise and more extreme precipitation – can combine to create even more serious floods. Higher sea levels mean higher water tables; when heavy rains come, the rain cannot soak into the ground, because soil already saturated with seawater cannot absorb it. “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,” Dutton says.

Forty per cent of the world’s population lives within 100km of a coastline. And that figure is rising – also, in part, thanks to climate change. Droughts are driving people in the countryside to migrate to the edges of the world’s major cities, many of which are located on or near coastlines. Those who migrate to coastal cities often end up living on the outskirts – for instance, the area behind Kochi’s airport where the Thankappan family and other airport workers dwell. These areas tend to be more vulnerable to flooding.

They assumed that the storms of 2018 would look like the storms of 1970, and they don’t
J. Marshall Shepherd, director Pro­gram in Atmospheric Sciences, University of Georgia

Increased urbanisation, combined with climate change and outdated infrastructure, all make floods more intense and damaging. Much of the globe’s infrastructure was designed before climate change was a factor. Kerala’s Idukki Dam was built in the 1970s. Parts of Toronto’s storm water removal system were built as far back as a century ago.

“They assumed that the storms of 2018 would look like the storms of 1970,” says J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the 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 could only watch as the water in the lift reached their waists and kept rising. They stood on the railings. The railings broke. They trod water, prayed and shouted for help.

Finally, they managed to make a tiny opening in the metal sheets of the ceiling. It was enough to stick a mobile phone through and get a signal to call for help. The two officers who responded swam through the flooded basement and pried open the lift door with a crowbar to find the men inside had a foot of air left to breathe. Freire and Otrin swam back out through the flooded garage.

They survived but the image of two men almost drowning in a lift upends 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.

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.

In Hamburg, a port city in northern Germany, the Elbe River overflowed its banks in 1962, killing 347 people and destroying 6,000 homes. Since then, a massive system of levees has been built around the city. Hamburg also did two things that made flood protection more necessary: it invested billions of euros in HafenCity, a mixed-use redevelopment of the old harbour areas along the riverfront expected to be completed by 2030; and to accommodate the container ships that make the city prosper, it dug the Elbe deeper, which can exacerbate the storm surges that sweep in from the sea. Hamburg chose to flirt with the possibility of flooding – and pay to prevent it.

By the end of this century, according to current projec­tions, climate change will expose 5 million Europeans to so-called 100-year floods every year. In 2012, Hamburg’s municipal government decided to raise the height of the riverfront promenade from 7.2 metres to 8 metres, and then to 8.9 metres, to protect against the storms of the future. At US$86 million, the project will be expensive – but cheaper than the destruction caused by a flood.

“For a city like Hamburg, especially downtown Hamburg – for such a densely populated area, with all the infrastructure, subways and lots of office spaces – I think it’s not an option to accept flooding,” says Jan Hübener, an architect who has been working on the flood wall for 12 years.

Of course, it shouldn’t be an option anywhere. On September 7, three weeks after the Kerala flood, Thankappan 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.

But there was one small, positive development: Messi the dog 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 traumatised, and brought him home. He didn’t recognise his family at first. But then Thankappan called out his name and he bounded over and jumped up on his hind legs to greet them. He was so emaciated he couldn’t eat without whimpering.

The family found out later that the neighbour­hood children rescued Messi when the water rose. The youngsters 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 floods have a silver lining, it is this: people help one another. Hundreds of Kerala’s coastal fisherfolk turned their boats into rescue vessels and saved thousands of people. They tied ropes between electrical poles for the elderly and children to hang on to so they wouldn’t be washed away.

Meanwhile, 6,000 volunteers across the world, many of them diasporan Keralites, were working around the clock to coordinate rescue operations. From call centres in Kochi, Bangalore, Chennai and elsewhere, they identified and geo-tagged locations where people were trapped on rooftops or inside their homes, and dispatched rescue workers.

During a disaster, people create informal, temporary networks to help each other. Social scientists who study disasters find that people are actually more likely to help one another when disaster strikes than to look out for themselves. Social distinctions become, for a moment, unimportant.

“Flood has no caste,” points out Prema Kumari, a hand­loom weaver in 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.

“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 you did a smart job,” Nair says of Kochi. “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.”

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