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May 18 2012

Gideon Mendel's photographs of a Drowning World – in pictures

Since 2007 photographer Gideon Mendel has visited scenes of devastating flooding around the world including the UK, Haiti, India, Pakistan, Australia and Thailand. Here are some of his images

Flash floods are on the rise, while the budget to tackle them sinks | Bob Ward

The Environment Agency has warned the UK to expect more floods but its advice seems to be falling on deaf ears

A moving new exhibition of photographs at Somerset House shows the human impact of flooding around the world over the past five years and provides an insight into how climate change may already be disrupting lives and livelihoods.

The images from major flooding events in the UK, Pakistan, Australia and Thailand feature victims and survivors as they cope with the inundation of their homes and the aftermath. The photographer, Gideon Mendel, says his intention is "to depict them as individuals, not as nameless statistics". He adds: "Coming from disparate parts of the world, their faces show us their linked vulnerability despite the vast differences in their lives and circumstances."

One of the most striking exhibits shows Margaret Clegg standing knee-deep in water in the living room of her house in Toll Bar, Doncaster, which was flooded when the River Don overtopped its banks in June 2007, following a record downpour.

It is not clear to what extent, if any, climate change contributed to the occurrence or intensity of the summer 2007 floods in England and Northern Ireland, which cost the UK economy more than £3bn. A single extreme weather event cannot be definitely attributed to climate change, the influence of which can only be detected and measured through the analysis of statistical trends looking back over many decades. That means we will not be certain for many years to come about how flood risk is being affected.

We know from basic physics that a warmer atmosphere can become more humid and holds more water vapour, theoretically increasing by about 7% for every extra centigrade degree. As a result climate change is expected to increase the intensity of the water cycle in many parts of the world, causing both more droughts and more floods.

An analysis of UK weather trends between 1961 and 2006, during which the average temperature increased by about one centigrade degree, indicated that although our winters have not become significantly wetter, the number and severity of heavy rainfall events has increased. Meanwhile, summers have become drier and heavy summer downpours have decreased in all parts of the UK, except in north-east England, where some of the 2007 flooding occurred, and north Scotland.

Climate change is expected to increase the risk of flooding in many parts of the UK. Projections published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2009 suggested that, under a "medium emissions scenario", overall winter precipitation should be higher in the 2080s, while summer rainfall should generally be lower, particularly in the south.

The UK climate change risk assessment, published by Defra earlier this year, calculated that these potential trends mean the annual damage from coastal and river flooding in England and Wales could increase from about £1.2bn today to as much as £12bn in the worst case scenario over the next 80 years.

Such an increase in the risk of damage would have major consequences, not least in terms of the affordability and availability of flood insurance for homes and businesses. Indeed, a crisis is already approaching, with insurers warning that from next year they may not continue to offer cover for 200,000 high-risk properties, exposed to a greater than 1 in 75 annual risk of flooding.

Under an arrangement dating from 2000, insurance companies have subsidised flood cover for those in high-risk properties in return for greater government investment in coastal and river defences.

At present, the Environment Agency is responsible for building and maintaining these defences. The agency has told the government it needs to increase its annual flood risk management budget by 9% by 2014-15. However, the House of Commons public accounts committee has highlighted government plans to reduce the agency's flood risk funding by 10% over this period, and to shift more responsibility on to local authorities, even though their overall budgets are shrinking.

Perhaps even more worrying is the neglect of the risk of flash flooding, caused by heavy downpours from often very localised storms that can inundate poorly drained areas, particularly in cities. Of the six million properties in the UK that are currently exposed to some degree of flood risk, four million are threatened by surface water flooding.

Yet when the climate change risk assessment, upon which the government is basing its national adaptation plan, was published earlier this year, scientists warned that it was flawed because it had neglected possible future changes in flash flooding and other important threats.

The assessment stated: "Whilst the number of properties at risk from surface water flooding is similar to the number at risk from tidal and river flooding, suitable information for analysis were not available at the time of writing this report."

In his official review of the assessment, Prof Martin Parry of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College expressed "concern that the risks identified do not necessarily represent the full range of potential risks, and the metrics were selected not on the basis of importance but on the availability of evidence". However, Defra ignored his advice, surprisingly admitting that "the risks provided in this report are not intended to be a full range of risks".

This lack of attention to flash flooding could make it much more difficult to implement an important part of the government's national planning policy framework, which states that local plans "should apply a sequential, risk-based approach to the location of development to avoid where possible flood risk to people and property and manage any residual risk, taking account of the impacts of climate change".

The likely increase in the risk of flooding is just one of the many ways in which unmitigated climate change will significantly affect homes and businesses, and will create larger societal and economic costs for the UK. These serious long-term impacts are often overlooked by those who complain about the cost of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to limit the future impacts of climate change, yet they are just as important.

• Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The Drowning World exhibition is showing at Somerset House until 5 June. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 06 2011

Remains of the day

'Martha's home was washed out by Hurricane Katrina. Her gardener was collecting the remains as mementos'

Click on the picture for a larger version of this image

I was working on a project called American Power and wanted to take some pictures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My theme was energy; scientists were making it clear that deadly weather had some relationship to our consumer society. I'm not a photographer who follows the trail of disasters, so I found a way to make work that wouldn't feel voyeuristic or exploitative, through meeting people.

A friend told me about Martha Murphy, who was from Pass Christian, Mississippi. Her ancestral home sat on the Gulf of Mexico and was washed out in its entirety. But she wanted to do something for her community, setting up a big tent and offering free food. I spent a day with her and Charlie Biggs, the family gardener, who was collecting the remains of her home as mementos.

Although it's a situation, the picture was directed. They are positioned on a remaining porch. Like a proscenium theatre, it was a way to have them above ground but sitting among all the articles they were clearly moved by.

There are a lot of references to the burden of very different American histories they carry. He is an African American living in the south, with its history of slavery; she is landed gentry. She is looking up towards him with tremendous affection and reverence; the word love is tattooed on his arm. They both wear jeans, but his are soiled from work, hers are pristine. Sitting at his knee is a golliwog doll; by her a glass art piece.

There is a tension between beauty and terror. Here they are with all the evidence of Katrina, and yet it's a beautiful day by the sea. Nature has no memory of its wrath.

These pictures were taken during the era of George W Bush and Dick Cheney, and a lot of my project was coloured by their ill-thought-through environmental policy. Yet, despite the pervasive sadness of Katrina, we were at this moment of new possibility. As I finished the project we had an African American president. I think this picture ties into that: they were harbingers of change to come.


Born: 1952, Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Education: Cooper Union, NYC.

Influences: "My most pivotal was Garry Winogrand, who I studied with 1972-3."

Top tip: "To have a well-rounded education. Don't think photography on its own is enough."

High point: "Winning the Prix Pictet this spring and being handed the prize by Kofi Annan."

Low point: "There's no low in being an artist." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 31 2011

Back in the frame

Photographs washed away by Japan's tsunami are restored by an army of volunteers across Japan and returned to their owners

April 17 2010

Bunker mentality: the ultimate underground shelter

Come the end of the world, you might like to sit it out in style. All you need is money and a few DIY skills…

Abandon any notion of surviving the apocalypse by doing anything as boringly obvious as running for the highest hill, or eating cockroaches. The American firm Vivos is now offering you the chance to meet global catastrophe (caused by terrorism, tsunami, earthquake, volcano, pole shift, Iran, "social anarchy", solar flare – a staggering list of potential world-murderers are considered) in style.

Vivos is building 20 underground "assurance of life" resorts across the US, capable of sustaining up to 4,000 people for a year when the earth no longer can. The cost? A little over £32,000 a head, plus a demeaning-sounding screening test that determines whether you are able to offer meaningful contribution to the continuation of the human race. Company literature posits, gently, that "Vivos may prove to be the next Genesis", and they are understandably reluctant to flub the responsibility.

Should you have the credentials and the cash, the rewards of a berth in a Vivos shelter seem high. Each staffed complex has a decontamination shower and a jogging machine; a refrigerated vault for human DNA and a conference room with wheely chairs. There are TVs and radios, flat-screen computers, a hospital ward, even a dentist's surgery ready to serve those who forgot to pack a toothbrush in the hurry. "Virtually any meal" can be cooked from a stockpile of ingredients that includes "baked potato soup" but, strangely, no fish, tinned or otherwise. Framed pictures of mountain ranges should help ease the loss of a world left behind.

Vivos says it has already received 1,000 applications.

How long do the rest of us have to decide? "Nobody knows" when disaster will strike but Vivos takes a shot at guessing, sourcing clues from Nostradamus, the Bible and Native American lore to suggest 2019, 2029 and 2036 as danger years. But the real fear is for 21 December 2012, a date forecast for doom by the Mayans and towards which a countdown clock on Vivos's website ticks.

We ought not to get too comfy over the next couple of years either: President Obama's recent warnings about nuclear terrorism proved "timely", a Vivos spokesperson told the Observer. "Doomsday may be closer than many would otherwise like to believe..."

It's warning enough. £32,000? Check. Carpentry skills? Check. Jogging bottoms? Check. Good luck in the hills. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 09 2010

Art of disaster

Jane Bown and Tom Hunter are among a host of celebrated photographers auctioning their works in London in aid of Oxfam's Samoan tsunami appeal

March 01 2010

How Chile's architecture saved it from a worse fate

Chile is one of South America's richest, best-organised countries and many of its homes and offices were built to be earthquake resistant

Chile's earthquake was many times more powerful than the one that devastated Haiti earlier this year but caused only a small fraction of the casualties, thanks to geological luck and the country's preparation for such a disaster.

Saturday's 8.8-magnitude quake was a "megathrust" which unleashed about 50 gigatons of energy, but it was centered offshore and about 21 miles underground, dissipating its force by the time it reached towns and cities.

In contrast, the 7-magnitude quake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12 was much shallower – about eight miles deep – and right on the edge of a city where 3 million people lived.

Eight Haitian towns and cities suffered "violent" to "extreme" shaking, whereas Chilean urban areas did not suffer more than "severe" shaking: still horrible, but a let-off.

The other reason Chile was counting its dead in the hundreds rather than hundreds of thousand was that this is one of South America's richest, best-organised countries. It has long experience of dealing with earthquakes.

Seismic activity is common along its Andean ridge. In 1960 it suffered one of the strongest quakes on record. Saturday's was the third with a magnitude greater than 8.7.

Homes and offices are built to sway with seismic waves rather than resist them. "When you look at the architecture in Chile, you see buildings that have damage, but not the complete pancaking that you've got in Haiti," said Cameron Sinclair, executive director of Architecture for Humanity.

Sinclair said Chilean architects have built thousands of low-income houses to be earthquake resistant. It is required by blueprints and building codes.

Chileans may still ask themselves if they did enough to prepare. In Concepcion, one of the hardest hit places, many houses made of adobe crumbled, as did a recent 15-storey apartment block. The university caught fire and gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble and, just as in Port-au-Prince, inmates escaped from a damaged prison.

In Santiago, the capital, large sections of the renovated airport's roof caved in. About 1.5 million Chileans were affected and 500,000 homes severely damaged. In some places rescuers complained of lack of fuel for equipment.

Even with damage estimated at $15bn-$30bn (£9.8-19.6bn), and airports, motorways and bridges shut, the state responded swiftly. "The fact that the president [Michelle Bachelet] was out giving minute-to-minute reports a few hours after the quake in the middle of the night gives you an indication of their disaster response," said Sinclair. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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