We Really Can’t Stop Natural Disasters, We Can Only Hope to Contain Them

The medieval Dutch solution to flooding

This July, gorged by days of rain, the Meuse River broke its banks, and the Belgian town of Liège was its victim. Waters the colour of old gravy raced through town, leaving residents floating in canoes as their homes vanished about them. In the city and its province, over 20 died, one man drowning in his basement.

The headquarters of the Dutch "gemeenlandshuis" are more than 500 years old (Credit: Alamy)
gemeenlandshuis, translated as the headquarters of the local water board, is centuries old system providing protection against flooding in the Netherlands

Nor was this corner of Eastern Belgium alone. In nearby Germany, around 200 perished, with journalists describing the flooding as a once-in-a-century event. The financial impact of the disaster was shocking too. Near Liège, a single chocolate factory sustained damages worth around €12m (£10m/$13.5m).

Yet as the mayhem unfolded, one corner of Northern Europe suffered far less. In the Netherlands, the summer flooding was also described as the worst in a century and property damage was severe, but the country survived the floods without a single fatality. There are many reasons for this: quick evacuations, strong dikes and robust communication among them. But what underpins these varied forms of flood defence is an institution: the so-called “water boards” that have protected this waterlogged land for nearly a millennium…READ ON

We Really Can’t Stop Natural Disasters, We Can Only Hope to Contain Them

When it comes down to it, there is no such thing as a natural “disaster”. There are massive events that can fundamentally change human society locally and/or globally or even threaten life on Earth. Yet, really, they are only disasters because they change the status quo. Just think about how the Chicxulub asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous opened the door for the rise of mammals.

Every time a large hurricane in barreling towards the eastern seaboard, somebody mentions the idea of nuking a hurricane to stop it

Of course, humans have a vested interest in not going extinct. We might have the tendency to do things that might hasten our extinction: see also, climate change, pandemics, nuclear weapons. Yet, when it comes to singular “disastrous” events, humans are pretty keen on thinking we can prevent them from happening…READ ON

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