Deadly Floods in Belgium — A Monumental Intelligence Failure?

“The fact that people didn’t evacuate or get the warnings suggests that something is going wrong. If you’ve got some information about what risk you’re at and you can understand it, you can take action to protect yourself. These floods were huge. Probably they were like a fantasy or a kind of science-fiction movie for people.”

Hannah Cloke — Professor of hydrology at Reading University

July 20 2021 — Belgium and Germany knew that huge floods were coming. Yet, the early warnings were not passed to the population. Scientists believe that this ‘monumental failure of the system’ is directly to blame for the death of at least 200 people in Germany and Belgium. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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Developed in the context of the Cold War, the concept of ‘Intelligence Failure’ is nowadays applied to topics such as human rights, drug trafficking, international crime and the environment.

Explanations for intelligence failure generally include one or more of the following causal factors: organizational obstacles, psychological and analytical challenges, problems with warning information, and failures of political leadership. [Intelligence Failure Theory — Thomas E. Copeland]

“Extreme flooding killed more than 100 people in Germany and Belgium on Thursday and Friday, with hundreds missing, despite clear advance warnings, in what one expert described as a catastrophic failure of Europe’s early alert system.” POLITICO

Intelligence Failures may occur at any of these stages:

Error in the collection of information

Failure to process and analyse the information correctly.

Failure to disseminate and share information.

Failure to act on intelligence.

In Europe, intense flooding is not uncommon. For instance, one of the worst affected towns this year is Schuld, a picturesque town in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Schuld has experienced two previous events of intense flooding, in 1790 and in 1910.

Today, Europe has a world-leading warning system.  After the cataclysmic floods across central and eastern Europe in 2002, the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) was set up.

Observations from the European Union’s Copernicus satellites combined with hydro-graphical records and readings of river levels allow weather scientists to make accurate predictions up to 10 days in advance.

On July 10 2021 — four days before the first floods — EFAS issued the first warnings to the German and Belgian governments about the high risk of flooding in the Rhine and Meuse basins.

Over the following days, the EFAS scientists produced minutely detailed charts correctly predicting the areas that would suffer the heaviest damage. 

There is not doubt that there was plenty of time to prepare at least the larger towns and cities with warnings or evacuations.

It is abundantly clear that this ‘Intelligence Failure’ is once again a failure of the political leadership.

The reader probably wonders how many lives might have been saved if the danger zones had been evacuated? Here is a clue.

The two rivers that caused the damages in Belgium and Germany– the Rhine, and Meuse — have their deltas in the Netherlands.

The Dutch authorities properly relayed the warnings to the population. Red alerts were issued timely, evacuations were ordered promptly and military were deployed to help.

The Netherlands has so far only reported property damage from the flooding and no dead or missing people.

In Belgium, warnings came late and underestimated the gravity of the situation. The mayor of Chaudfontaine — a town in the province of Liège — received an “orange alert” (warning him of rising waters) when the situation was already out of control.

Obviously, a red alert should have been issued much earlier. The death toll in the Kingdom has climbed to 31 and 70 people are still missing.

The Belgian prime minister and other members of the government are blaming Global Warming for this disaster. This may, or may not be true. Time will tell.

However, it is already very clear that the death toll was not caused by nature but by the failure of the political leadership. Why did it fail? That is the question.

One should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but, as Einstein argued, don’t rule out malice! 

For the Green Party politicians, whose popularity in opinion polls had recently dropped both in Belgium and Germany (although for different reasons) the catastrophic flooding could be a chance to get back on track and focus voters’ minds on the party’s environmental campaign goals.

“The EFAS issued a warning in the ‘extreme category’ which means there’s danger to life. It doesn’t say you should evacuate, that’s up to the national authorities. But typically, if you have a danger to life warning, and you know where that’s going to happen, you make sure that you’re in place for evacuation. That’s how disaster risk management works.” Hannah Cloke

REFERENCES

Deadly floods inundated parts of Europe, but the Netherlands avoided fatalities. Here’s why — CNN

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Deadly Floods in Belgium — A Monumental Intelligence Failure?

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