The floods in western Europe are the worst seen in a generation, and more than 100 people have already lost their lives. Germany and Belgium have been the worst affected, with the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland also afflicted. Many people are still missing, although the exact number is not yet clear due to disruptions in technical infrastructure. Thousands have been evacuated, and damage to homes, property and livelihoods has been extensive. The areas most affected are in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. Flood alerts remain in place as the water levels are still rising and as some dams start to overflow, threatening highly populated and industrialized areas.
Floods are the most common natural disaster in the WHO European Region. Flooding has widespread and significant health effects over short and long terms, ranging from drowning and injuries to infectious diseases and mental-health problems. The longer-term health effects result from displacement, physical injuries and psychosocial impact; disruption of access to health and other essential services due to infrastructure damage; and the slow recovery of flood affected areas.
The flooding of health facilities, and the loss of infrastructure (such as water supply and electrical power), disrupts health services, including the provision of routine care for patients with chronic diseases, at a time when admissions are increasing.
Public health advice during the flood
- Avoid walking or driving through flood water or entering unstable buildings or structures. There may be hidden hazards, such as holes or fast-flowing water.
- Follow authorities’ instructions on evacuation. If you are advised to evacuate your home, take your essential portable belongings with you in a strong, waterproof bag.
- If ordered not to evacuate, move to a safe location with essential items, and if possible the means to receive news, such as a radio or television.
- If you are stranded on something above the flood water, such as a tree or building, wait there for rescue, and do not enter the water.
- Do not try to rescue pets or farm animals unless it is safe to do so.
- Avoid drinking unboiled tap water as it may be contaminated, unless local authorities advise otherwise.
- Do not return to your home until you have been advised that doing so is safe.
- Keep children away from flood-contaminated grassy areas until a week after the water has gone.
- Have all home appliances, gas and electrical, checked by qualified professionals before using them again.
- Heating and good ventilation will assist drying; leave doors and windows open whenever possible and safe.
- Diligently practice personal hygiene.
Emergency preparedness for flooding
Floods are expected to become even more frequent and intense, due to heavier and more frequent rainfall as a result of the changing climate. Governments and local authorities should take measures to prepare for and respond to their impact on health and health services. WHO/Europe provides technical guidance and support for emergency preparedness plans and response-and-recovery measures.
Adequate long-term planning is vital to minimize the health effects of floods – using a wide, multisectoral, all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness in developing local plans that include public health and primary care.