French floods: a force majeure for building climate resilience?

French floods: a force majeure for building climate resilience?

Après moi, le déluge: what can the French response to further flash floods teach us about building climate resilience before it’s too late?

It wasn’t film stars that hit the headlines in Cannes this weekend but the record-breaking storms that saw a month’s worth of rain fall in two days, causing devastating floods across the French Riviera. While scientists have been cautious to conclusively attribute this extreme weather event to climate change, the gaps exposed in warning systems and local resilience teach us important lessons for managing our growing exposure to climate risk.

The intempéries, which sound suitably more dramatic than the English translation as ‘bad weather’, have already claimed 19 lives in the Alpes-Maritimes region, while initial estimations put damages to homes, business and local services at €500million. Stranded citizens turned journalists, tweeting pictures of upturned cars and destroyed property (with the emergency services’ turtle rescue recalling this summer’s Georgian floods that let zoo animals loose across the city).

Crisis management

As an immediate response, the French state have unlocked emergency measures to deal with the impacts on the ground. President Francois Hollande has already announced that ministers will discuss whether to declare a ‘state of natural disaster’ on Wednesday, which would speed up insurance payouts and cover more damages than normally fall under standard insurance policies.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted that there would be a mobilisation totale of the state’s resources, while finance minister Michel Sapin announced that France’s fund for natural disasters would be used to help cover damages.

Can we talk about climate change?

Meanwhile the mainstream media have been keen to explore the question: was this storm, which saw a tenth of the region’s annual rainfall hit in a single weekend, caused by climate change?

Although comprehensive data is not yet available on how natural climate variability in the Mediterranean is changing as global temperatures rise, the scientists interviewed in the French media have all warned that climate projections show storms like this becoming more frequent and more extreme as a result of climate change.

This warning wasn’t lost on politicians: Hollande remarked that “There have always been natural disasters, but their frequency and intensity is increasing,” while Bordeaux mayor (and contender for the French presidency in 2017) Alain Juppé said the link can’t be proved conclusively but it’s a question worth asking.

Building resilience for an uncertain future

But to uphold their responsibility to protect citizens from risk, the key question governments must ask is how to build greater resilience to this rising threat. In his visit to the affected region, Hollande issued a call to action on climate change, referring to what is at stake at the Paris climate conference this December. But even with greater political action on climate change, there will be unavoidable changes to our weather system. While it shouldn’t have to come to this, this kind of devastation on the ground has to motivate a greater focus on building resilience.

To maintain the national solidarity described by the French finance minister, governments in France and worldwide must recognise the limits of rolling out emergency measures when science tells us the number of emergencies is rising. As researchers continue to analyse data to fine-tune understanding of our future vulnerability, how can governments and public services take on a more proactive role, going beyond crisis management?

Managing climate risk

One way is through better warning systems. While weather agency Météo France issued an orange-weather warning on Saturday, double the amount of rain ending up falling than they had predicted. This should have warranted the more severe alerte rouge in order to better prepare and protect citizens for the scale of the storm heading their way. The most striking take away from this underestimation is their director’s acknowledgment our current weather monitoring systems find it “impossible” to predict the exact location of such an intense storm hitting so fast.

For the people whose lives have just been turned upside down, this is unacceptable. As one Parisian professor remarked, citizens deserve better systems to evaluate the risks different regions across France are exposed to – based on what we are experiencing now and in future. The current technology and methodologies we use to assess risks are based on past events – these are no longer fit for purpose to deal with the disruption we expect to see in the future.

Equally, the infrastructure choices governments are making are building – or hindering – our resilience to extreme weather. As well as factoring in whether new infrastructure is compatible with a zero carbon world, these decisions must also consider how these projects will help our societies adapt to climate impacts. For example, Le Monde’s interview with researcher Philippe Drobinski raised the issue that the way we currently design our cities is destroying natural systems to deal with heavy rain, suggesting this may be as much to blame for the severity of these floods as global climate change. This is not an isolated example: an environmentalist commenting this weekend described how the sprawling urbanisation around Montpellier, the vibrant tech-hub in the neighbouring Languedoc-Roussillon region, has created a “sort of hell” for coping with rainfall – this was certainly the case for Montpellier’s football fans whose stadium was left out of action for several weeks after flooding hit last autumn. National governments need to join the dots, and ensure building climate resilience becomes as much as a cross-cutting theme as the need to decarbonise.

This message is starting to break through. Speaking after the storms, former housing minister Cécile Duflot called for France to launch a major effort to improve resilience to impacts of more extreme weather to come in the future. This has to gone on long after the news cameras have left the local communities to pick up the pieces.


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