Episode 37: with Jeff Da Costa discussing recent floods in Europe and climate change adaptation risks

Today’s guest is Jeff Da Costa.  He is a PhD researcher in Hydrometeorology at the University of Reading in the UK and a PhD Fellow at RSS-Hydro in Luxembourg.   Jeff’s research focuses on investigating the validity of linear solutions to complex risks.  Today, Dominic and Jeff discuss the recent flooding in Europe that killed nearly 200 people and the risks of not effectively adapting to the consequences of increasing severe weather events under climate change and what can be done to prepare for them and mitigate their impact, specifically early warning systems and adaptation to hydrometeorological hazards.   

Connect with Jeff on LinkedIn

The International Risk Podcast Transcript

Harriet Tyler  0:08 

Hi, you’re listening to the international risk podcast. This podcast is for CEOs, board members risk and compliance officers, security advisors, and anyone interested in improving operations.

On this podcast we had from the traditional to the wacky from renowned corporate risk experts to former spies and Special Forces soldiers. There is something to learn about the way we perceive, manage and mitigate risk from all of our guests.

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Dominic Bowen  1:52 

Today we’re joined by Jeff de Costa. Jeff has a degree in environmental science and physical geography from the University of Montreal in Canada, and a Master’s of Science in applied meteorology from the University of Reading. Jeff has several years of experience working in renewables and geomatics in both the public and private sector, and he’s currently a PhD Fellow at RSS, hydro. From my understanding RSS, hydro is actually a really interesting company. And I understand they work on environmental remote sensing and water risks. And this includes computer modeling, remote sensing technology, as well as drone based services for data acquisition, and plenty of research around the topics of water related risks that we’re going to unpack today. Could you perhaps explain is a good base for our conversation about the work that’s been done around computer modeling and research when it comes to water related risks?

Jeff Da Costa  3:02 

Yeah, thanks for introducing me. I’m a PhD Fellow at RSA hydro, which is a young company based in Luxembourg. The company is about two, three years old now. And we are actually an accredited Research Institute as well. So we conduct research in water risk management, remote sensing, but also provide commercial service to, as you mentioned, drones, among other things, in terms of our activities. We do do computer modeling. So we provide flood maps for local councils, sub national entities that include climate change into the modeling so that there can be adequate planning, in terms of urbanization, or future large projects. We do also work with humanitarian organizations, so the UN Food Programme, and others where we provide drone service or analytics. And of course, where I fit into this company is the research bit. So I’m a PhD fellow, but I’m a PhD researcher at the University of Reading in the UK, where I actively research on climate change adaptation strategies and how to basically better prepare in terms of policy to adapt to climate change.

Dominic Bowen  4:25 

That’s really interesting. Thanks for sharing that, Jeff. And I understand you have a lot of experience around flood risk analysis. And I’d like to ask you today about the recent flooding events in Europe. In for those listeners that are based in Europe over the summer months, he there were catastrophic floods and they killed over 196 people in both Germany and Belgium. And a lot of the scientists and to be honest, a lot of members of the public are really stunned by how much damage has occurred in some of the world’s most wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries despite significant investment in flood forecasting. Perhaps we could start Jeff with you unpacking some of your personal experiences from the floodings in July.

Jeff Da Costa  5:06 

Yeah, of course. So the floods that occurred mid July around the 14, 15 and 16/5, July of this year, they impacted mainly for countries to those more severe, namely Germany and Belgium. But Luxembourg in the southern part of the Netherlands was equally was also affected to a lesser degree, though, but still part of the same weather phenomenon that in that induce the floods. And as you said, Dominic, there have been a wide range of different responses to the same threat and the same risk level, but the very different approach to handling and managing it. So in my personal experience, my childhood tone, so in my hometown, where my parents live, was also flooded during this past events. Even though I sort of educated my parents as much as I can, due to my current occupation. They knew what to do or better say how what to not do in case of being in the middle of a flood event. But still, I drove there at around 11 o’clock in the evening. And typically this five to six access roads to to the town, it’s actually not that close to water body, it’s sort of an a hill slope. And yeah, even I was, I must say, quite surprised by how quickly it affected that specific part where my parents live, you would expected in the floodplain or, or close to a river or something else. But now actually, the water at my parents didn’t really come from the outside, then it came mostly from the inside out, quite literally. So though, everything was saturated, so the water eventually came up from the basement all the way upstairs. Because the pumps I mean, they they were saturated, they couldn’t do what they’re supposed to do anymore, which is come out as much water as they can as quickly as they can. So as soon as I arrived there, there was really not much point using buckets, or anything of that sort, there was just too much. But an interesting observation I made that night was my parents name in my parent’s neighborhood, the neighbors, they had absolutely no idea what to do, they were really completely lost. They just sort of stood outside their houses, and just watched basically, or some of them, they walked into floodwater with their electricity, Ceylon, which is really not a good thing to do. I try to help or warn them about the different risks because also floodwaters they carry a lot of contaminants in them, you don’t know what is in there. And I would say my parent’s neighborhood was moderately flooded. That was not like the pictures. Some of the listeners might have seen from Germany or from Eastern Belgium, it was not that devastating, there was no large flow of the breeze or anything of that sort. There it is especially important to not walk in floodwater, especially if it’s more than knee high. So if it comes up to your waist, because you have the sewage systems and everything and the covers of the sewage, they burst. And basically there’s a section that pulls you down, but you don’t see it if you just walk through it. So that’s one of the risks people don’t really realize you don’t see where you work quite literally. And there’s a huge amount of debris helps us our people, probably listeners as well, of the camera footage that we’ve seen on Twitter, on the news, everything where people still try to drive away or drive through a flood. Well, at some point the car, no matter how heavy your car is, it will give way and you will be stuck basically on a boat at that point that you cannot really get out of a steer in any direction. So that’s that’s sort of the observations I made myself that evening.

Dominic Bowen  9:15 

I think most of our listeners will intrinsically understand that there is a complex web of climatic and hydrological and social factors that really contributed to the catastrophe that affected Europe. But the high amount of deaths still appears to indicate that there was a significant risk management failure. Can you talk Jeff about what you see as some of the risk management failures when it comes to risk analysis in Europe?

Jeff Da Costa  9:41 

Actually, the flood forecasting was quite accurate, as was the weather report. And there were also other notifications and warnings issued out from other parties such as EFAS, which is the European flood awareness system, who issued out notifications or almost a week before the flood event happened together and coupled with National Weather Service’s water management entities, there was actually quite a good comprehensive scientific overview and risk awareness of what’s of what’s happening. And the assessment that this would be severe event with potential threat to life was established from a scientific viewpoint. So for me and my colleagues and the whole community, it is actually quite frustrating and sad to see that hundreds of people have died in this event. And as you mentioned before, in Western Europe, I don’t say this to degrade any other part of the world. But it is usually here in Western Europe, where most of those initiatives and I’m not thinking of the bigger picture in the EU, there’s plans that are being drawn policies, as you said, huge investment, we are usually the ones that go abroad and try to basically educate and make people aware elsewhere about the threats of flooding. And this was just a really sad showcase of how bad we handle it ourselves. And how there was a huge underestimation of risk, not from scientific people, but from decision makers, basically, at this point. So there was really a grid lock in the chain of command of the transmission of notifications from the scientific community to the public. Because unfortunately, things are not designed in the way that weather services or water management organizations, they cannot issue out evacuation orders to the public, or take any sort of authority over their sub national or national government level. So in that sense, it is really sad to see that all these deaths basically, could and should have been avoided – it was bad risk management. In essence, you cannot really stop the water from flowing in at such short notice. But you for sure can make people aware enough and increase the preparedness to such an event, which was close to nonexisting in all of the four countries.

Dominic Bowen  12:20 

Yeah, that certainly highlights the importance of testing our risk management processes. And I know sometimes people can find it a bit frustrating. But I really am a big advocate of actually walking through every single stage of an event. And that sometimes means pulling out the equipment making the phone calls bringing in subcontractors, because it’s only when you actually go through and you test the whole concept he tests the whole plan. Do you identify that actually, our decision making processes are going to be too slow? Maybe the scientists can give us the warning four days in advance five days in advance, like occurred in Europe with the flooding. But if the decision making processes take longer than that will then something else has to change, doesn’t it? But what about the success stories? I understand that in Netherlands, you know, they’ve had decades of preparation, and that appears to have really helped during the recent floods? What countries are effectively identifying, monitoring and mitigating flood risks?

Jeff Da Costa  13:16 

Yeah, I mean, the Netherlands is a really great example for this, because now in the media, the discussions sort of steers towards the severity of the weather event itself in specific places. And the sort of discussion that is happening is that in the Netherlands, the event was just not as strong as in Germany. But please don’t get me wrong, but this is sort of irrelevant in terms of risk mitigation. The Netherlands, historically, they have a very different relationship with water, then, let’s say Belgium, Germany, and to even a lesser extent, Luxembourg. Since we’re a landlocked country, but the Netherlands, they are aware of the force of water. Sounds very simple to say it like that. But it is true. They know how important it is to manage and to mitigate any risk related to water. So they actually gave out evacuation orders well before any of the other places, which undoubtedly also avoided any sort of major injuries or deaths in the southern bit of the Netherlands. Now, yes, it is true that the the magnitude of the event was less strong than in specific places in Germany that were pictures have gone round the world. But that doesn’t change anything. It even highlights the point even more, because they chose to take immediate, an adequate action, even though the threat was less severe than in neighboring Germany. And I think that’s really a decisive factor here in the discussion because Germany, Eastern Belgium The threat was equal or higher. And they took less measures than, let’s say, the southern part of the Netherlands and Limburg, where the threat was not as urgent, as in those places, that should be the real focus of the discussion.

Dominic Bowen  15:17 

So why do you think more countries aren’t copying the successful strategies that are being implemented in the Netherlands?

Jeff Da Costa  15:24 

I think, and this is an assumption, I think decision makers often take decisions based on experience. But in terms of climate science, and water science in general, their life experience is not very significant in terms of predicting weather or assessing a threat. It is quite scary to think that decision making comes down to this type of person, I’m not trying to give these people a bad name. They do what they are in power to do. But should it be that way? That is a question we should ask ourselves, because the thing is, the responsibility gets shuffled around. And depending on the place the same information, the responsibility trickles down to very different levels. So for instance, in Luxembourg, it’s all on a national level, there is no sub national level since we’re quite small. Now in Germany, it’s quite complex, they have different states, and in different states, this authority and responsibility to actually be the guy that says yes or no, when an evacuation comes down to very different levels, so he can be sub national, it can also just come down to town mayor. And this was quite evident this past month, because in Germany, you have some places that are literally sitting in the same riverbed. And each town has a different approach to the threat. The fact now is that nobody takes responsibility for the lives lost.

Dominic Bowen  17:03 

Most international standards for risk management, talk about having diverse teams, so bringing in scientists, breeding managers from the field, you know, that’s fine if it’s a politician or a senior public servant that makes those decisions about when to act and when to notify the public. But it’s very rare that any company should have just a single person. Usually, most companies, definitely most successful companies have a team of advisors, and having a really diverse group of people that are feeding into the decision making process. And it’s certainly concerning if that didn’t occur. But for years, scientists have been warning about climate change. And one of the things that they’ve been warning is that it will mean more flooding for Europe and certainly elsewhere, the warmer air will hold more moisture, and that can translate to heavier rainfall. And I think by some estimates, by the year 2100, flood change on Europe will cost about $50 billion dollars per year. Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on climate change 2021. And the future looks, I’ll say concerning, but I’ve heard a lot of different and perhaps more passionate and more vocal words about what the future could look like based on this report. I understand that fossil fuels continue to be a big concern of the authors, from your knowledge and from from your understanding of the report, is it as simple as replacing coal power plants and coming up with some a few more green solutions and shifting from combustion engines to electric vehicles, or things a bit more complex?

Jeff Da Costa  18:38 

Things are certainly more complex. I mean, the climate system in itself is chaotic, and nonlinear. So the latest IPCC report really states what has been said in the last two, even three decades already, it seems to be that decision makers and people in general sort of need this reminder every now and then again and again. And again. The thing is, we are currently under climate change, it’s not really something of the future anymore. The events that happened last month, the floods, they happened under current climate change. So I think people when they look at the sort of report from the IPCC, they need to realize that we are already living in this change. And even if we would go to net zero, the changes would still happen for the foreseeable future. It’s not some sort of magic switch that gets turned on or off where we are sort of safe from any future severe weather factors that severe weather will increase in magnitude and an intensity all over the globe. In Europe, specifically, if we look at it, just like you pointed out already before, there will be increased precipitation And on top of that, there will also be increased periods of drought. And this together is a big problem. Because if we look at our soils, if they can hold less moisture during drought periods, and those are coupled with heavy precipitation, there is no more time for the soil to absorb any sort of water. So this is risk in terms of flash floods, for instance. And those are quite hard to forecast because they’re fast occurring after a high intensity rain period on saturated soil or soil that cannot take up any more moisture. Now, just to make it clear, this is not what happened in Germany last month, that was a matter of two weeks of prolonged precipitation, then followed by system, a weather system that was stationary, so it stayed in place for a period of days. And that downpour on top of soil that was already completely saturated, just made it impossible for rivers to not burst their banks. But now to get back to the IPCC, of course, there should be an emission and fossil fuel consumption. But it’s not just that simple. I mean, everything is related to some degree. So if we now switch to electric vehicles, for instance, there’s still the issue of electricity production and what to do with the waste, basically, the batteries, the lithium, and but those are all discussions that seem to be never ending. I think the main takeaway of the IPCC report is that we really have to work on being climate resilient, no matter what the future holds. So adapt to climate change, and try to mitigate the effects as much as possible with the knowledge that we have now, already. And yeah, again, last month’s event was really just a showcase of how unprepared we are and how much work is to do in terms of raising awareness and educating not only decision makers, but also the public. It is up to governments to protect their citizens. So people do not or should not have to look for warnings, warnings should be given to them. And warnings should reach all of the demographics. And that is something that we failed that

Dominic Bowen  22:39 

I think that’s a really important point, you touch on there about risk communication, because the different actors and this could be a government agency, but it could also be a leader within large corporation that sometimes feel because they have communicated the message out that that same message has been heard by all people in the same way and interpreted that information in the same way. And we certainly see in crisis after crisis. That’s definitely not the case. But few of us have had the opportunity to review the IPCC report in full in all its details, but can you perhaps discuss some of the important points around hydrological risk management in light of necessary climate change adaptation?

Jeff Da Costa  23:19 

Yeah, if we look globally, so as I said, the northern latitudes, so I’m thinking, North America, Europe, Northern Asia, and also southern latitudes, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, all these places will get wetter. And while coincidentally, those places will also be at risk of increased agricultural and ecological droughts, which is a complete shift in the way that climate works worked. In these places, this will have huge repercussions on agriculture, food production, electricity production, we should really look at all of these things in terms of feedback loops, there will always be negative effects of this, but also positive ones, if we take the time to analyze the situation and try to mitigate whatever needs to be mitigated. But in terms of hydrometeorology, severe weather is really the big issue, it will really increase in magnitude. So things that had a return period, so a period of occurrence of let’s say, every 10 years or every 50 years, will now in the current rate of warming increased two or three fold in frequency. And we need to make sure that we as society are are able to cope with the sort of events and the aftermath of them. Just because it’s one severe weather event doesn’t mean that has future repercussions and other areas of eco hydrology. So for instance, the floods of last month they also brought with them undergoing an environmental disaster in terms of pollution, waste, waste management, as well as contamination of the soils where food production is happening, one single flood event that may be just last two, three hours can do damages that will span over the next 10 to 20 years.

Dominic Bowen  25:20 

Unfortunately, the world remains really distracted by a whole variety of crisis, the most obvious of these being COVID, which is distracted and distracted a lot of attention away from climate action in many countries. And it’s certainly delayed a lot of new policy announcements that we’re going to occur, instead focusing the attention of many of our leaders on the pandemic, and as well as the economic recovery, which is undoubtedly very, very important. Also, how should companies, business leaders and government actors be contributing to ensure that effective and positive climate action remains high on the international agenda?

Jeff Da Costa  25:58 

I believe that for it to remain high, it should be de politicized as much as possible. The solution is not coming from the right place. It is certainly well intended for people to do their part and their own lives to contribute to a better environment that’s more sustainable. But I think it’s quite appalling if you think of it for governments or international organizations to really put the responsibility and almost the blame on individuals, for not doing more for the climate. I mean, if change doesn’t really come from the top down, it is normal for people to feel that basically, doing something sustainable is sort of a huge sacrifice, that doesn’t really mean much, if they look around them, because things don’t really change on a larger scale. So for instance, I’m thinking now of food waste, for instance, in terms of sustainability, there’s many great initiatives, which I think are amazing. And I myself try to really reduce as much as I can my food waste, but it is so discouraging if you then drive past the supermarket once they close, and you see just how much food is put in the bin, basically. And that’s just one supermarket that I see. And if you in that one specific day, if you think of how many of those places are all around the world and in different sectors, it really makes you feel quite powerless. And that is very depressing. And I do think change should come from the top down. And the focus should really shift away from the green energy and renewables. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great initiatives. But they will not be the main drivers for us to bring down emissions to a level where in 3050 years, we sort of are in the place where we can mitigate the risks. The biggest threat right now that I see. And also the IPCC report, if you look at it from a slightly different angle, is that these changes are all happening and coming regardless of what we do, even if we would stop all production of anything, stop all flying, stop eating meat, stop doing anything. It is ongoing, there is a lag time. It’s not like a switch, you can press and there will be an instant response and the climate scale. So the threat is there. And basically, we have it on paper. And my question is why are we not talking about risk? Why are we not talking more about actual mitigation, because basically, the time is up. And it has been up for quite some time. It’s nothing. It’s not news. If you look at climate change news from 10 years ago, it’s just the recycling nowadays, of the news reports of 10 years ago, and that from a scientific point of view, since quite meaningless, in terms of making an actual change. So I know that I personally am more focused now on mitigation and adaptation. That doesn’t mean I gave up on the idea of living in a better place is just I never want to see ever again people die from an event like last month that was accurately forecasted where nowadays we don’t need better models to have predicted we don’t need more resource. I mean, of course you should invest in research. It’s just to say in terms of risk, the state of the art we have today. was more than sufficient that the risk management and the mitigation and the sort of way that the structures work currently are just not working. And I think that should be a big focus when analyzing the IPCC fifth Assessment Report. Why we are not talking about this? Why are there no pledges for unified risk management strategies? I don’t think people should die based on their geography. So I think that’s one of the biggest risks. And so my research also really focuses on the non linearity of the solutions that have to be provided to adapt to climate change, in order to achieve climate resilience and effective adaptation to now specifically hydrometeorological hazards. That is my main focus and hydrometeorological hazards really encompass virtually all severe weather events, I

Dominic Bowen  30:59 

think it’s a really important point, Jeff, and most of our listeners understand that risk is not static. And risk doesn’t exist in a vacuum risk ripples out, it’s like multiple rocks dropped at the same time into water, and each of the ripples will impact on each other ripple. And the same is really true with realize risks. Can you maybe unpack that a little bit about how hydrological risks interact within the hugely complex environment that we live today.

Jeff Da Costa  31:25 

So hydrological risks… When people think of hydrology, they immediately picture water, but it’s actually also quite the opposite. So droughts, also part of hydrology, those will really be one of the first big changes that people will observe. And they’re in the Four Seasons that we still have not, I mean, I mean, spring will come on earlier, and autumn will just extend basically, and slowly but surely, over time, this will mean more droughts, more dryness, but also increased high intensity periods of wetness. So rain, mostly in form of precipitation. And this, this will be a huge societal shift in terms of how we do things as well. Also, cost of production will be impacted by this, this is something that people don’t necessarily think about immediately when they think of the weather or climate. I mean, this, this will really change the way people do business as well. So, I mean, hydrology is one area of the climate sciences, but it certainly has a lot of overlapping risks associated with it.

Dominic Bowen  32:43 

Yeah, definitely. And when you look to the future, and even just the next six to 12 months, Jeff, what are the risks that cause you the biggest concern?

Jeff Da Costa  32:53 

Honestly, what caused me the biggest concern are a repetition of mistakes. So, I mean, unfortunately, what happened last month in Western Europe, and what also happened, let’s be honest, it happened in China as well, last month and India and now recently in Scotland as well, the floods, those events will just keep reoccurring, and I’m just wondering, How many times will the same mistakes be done in terms of crisis management and risk assessment, when when will this day come where people are actually aware of the risk and can also for themselves have a better visualization of what it actually means to be at risk. Because even if you have the best risk management or crisis management plan in place, people need to be aware of what that risk means. I like to give the analogy of a fire drill, which most people have done at some point in their life in case of an emergency. So they know not to, to close all the windows, if possible, and to leave to that designated area. But let’s say you live in the place, and all of a sudden, there’s a heatwave associated with wildfires, or an impending flood event or tornado or anything of the sorts that you have never experienced before and seems sort of abstract to you to even think about or you. You think these are things that happen in faraway places. Once it happens to you and you actually get a warning of some sort. What does that even mean if you do not know how to behave in that specific event? Those are things that I really worry about in terms of raising awareness and educating decision makers and people about the risk once an effective warning is actually given out. I did say that solutions should come from the top down, but sometimes you also have really awesome initiatives that have sort of a bottom up approach, you do have people that work in the shadows. For instance, you have tools and technologies that now enable governments or any organization of disord, even private businesses to send out warnings based on geolocation. Where, for example, government could use the tool to look how many active cell phones are in a specific area to know how many people are actually in the place where the threat is imminent, so that they can plan their crisis management. I’m just worried about the future severe weather events that will happen elsewhere, because now it’s happened in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, which are all rich countries. So the aftermath, even though terrible, there is more money. So the build up or the rebuilding will be much easier than let’s say, in a developing country where this will have a huge economical impact for the foreseeable future.

Dominic Bowen  36:07 

It’s understandable, and you’re totally correct. Removing ambiguity, building, understanding reducing vulnerabilities, and ensuring effective communication are essential components of crisis response. I really appreciate you unpacking all these topics for us today, Jeff, it’s been a good conversation. Well, thank you, Dominic. There’s pleasure. Well, that was an insightful conversation with Jeff about climate change, adaptation and risk mitigation, as well as the recent flooding across Europe and, of course, the success of countries that took early action when it came to recent flooding in Europe. Thanks for listening today’s conversation, and I look forward to speaking with you more next week.

Harriet Tyler  36:47 

You’ve been listening to the international risk podcast hosted by Dominic Bowen. Please go to wherever you download your podcasts and give this podcast a five star review. Your positive reviews on this podcast and subscribe to future downloads is critical for our success. If you enjoyed the show, tell a friend about this podcast. Consider if you know someone that would appreciate or benefit from today’s conversation and send them this podcast right now. Thank you for listening. And join us again next week for your Fix of risk related stories.

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