Quarter of world's population at risk from severe flooding, study says

Most of those at risk live in middle or low-income countries

Millions of people living in the world's poorest countries are most at risk from flooding. EPA
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Almost a quarter of the world's population is exposed to significant flood risks, with those in poorer countries more vulnerable, research has shown.

Flooding from heavy rainfall and storm surges affect millions of people every year and cause billions of dollars of damage to homes, infrastructure and economies.

And the risks are rising as climate change causes more extreme precipitation and sea-level rise, and as exposed populations swell.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, looked at global data on flood risks from the sea, rivers and rainfall, as well as population distribution and poverty estimates from the World Bank.

It found about 1.81 billion people, or 23 per cent of the people on the planet, are directly exposed to floods of more than 15 centimetres in once-in-a-hundred-year flooding.

“This would pose significant risks to lives and livelihoods, especially of vulnerable population groups,” the study said.

Overall, about 90 per cent of those exposed to flooding live in low- or middle-income countries, the study said.

It also concluded that the number of people living in poverty and under severe flood risk is “substantially higher than previously thought”.

Researchers found that about $9.8 trillion of economic activity globally — roughly 12 per cent of the global gross domestic product in 2020 — takes place in areas exposed to severe flooding.

China and India have the most amount of people most at risk of flooding. AFP

But they said concentrating simply on economics could cause a bias of attention towards higher-income countries and economic hubs.

“By accounting for the poverty levels of exposed populations, we show that low-income countries are disproportionately exposed to flood risks, while being more vulnerable to disastrous long-term impacts,” said the study by Jun Rentschler and other World Bank economists.

Overall, the study estimated most people exposed to flooding — 1.24 billion — are in South and East Asia, with China and India accounting for more than a third of the global total.

About 780 million people living on less than $5.50 a day are at risk from once-in-a-hundred-year floods, it found.

The research provides “the first global estimates of the interaction between exposure to flood risk, and poverty”, said Thomas McDermott of the National University of Ireland Galway in a linked commentary published in Nature Communications on Thursday.

The authors said previous studies were often limited by geography or the type of flood risk assessed and had underestimated how many people around the world are exposed.

“Climate change and risky urbanisation patterns are expected to further aggravate these risks in coming years,” they added.

World Weather Attribution, a network of scientists tracing the impacts of climate change, said that global warming has made extreme rainfall more common and more intense across most of the world.

This has likely made flooding more severe in these areas, although scientists stress that other human factors also play a part, such as decisions about where homes and infrastructure are built.

This month, record floods in southern China displaced more than half a million people.

In Bangladesh, the Red Cross said Tuesday seven million people are still in “desperate” need of shelter and aid after some of the heaviest rains in a century swelled rivers to record levels and inundated rural villages.

Updated: June 28, 2022, 8:16 PM