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How do storms and floods affect culture?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Yora, Mar 21, 2020.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I got an idea to spice up the world I created and provide more potential for conflicts and adventures by taking it from a stable middle Bronze Age culture to a collapsing late Bronze Age culture. I always find the scavenger worlds of many post-apocalyptic settings very compelling and maybe this will make it easier to apply things from my favorite stories when working on my own plots.

    There are plenty of fantasy worlds that have turned into barren deserts and I actually feel kind of bored with those. I find giant forests much more interesting, and so the environment of the setting is based roughly on Northern India and Southern China, with more remote areas that have conditions like the Philippines, and the American Pacific Northwest region.
    To make this world more inhospitable to people, I have decided to go with a period of increased storms, that are more frequent, with stronger winds and a lot more rain. Here in Europe we experience environmental change mostly as droughts and somewhat of an increase in winter storms, which don't tend to bring too huge amounts of rains and come at a time where they don't hurt agriculture very much. But in other parts of the world, tropical storms often bring unbelievable amounts of rains and much stronger winds that damage and destroy the less sturdy made buildings. Increased storms are very destructive, but I personally know very little about how that affects the societies in those regions in the long term. Here I could really use some help from people who know more about it, but also just interesting ideas what I could do with this premise in a fantasy world.

    Something that I am familiar with from living near the sea in Germany is coastal erosion and river flooding. I think we have the world's largest mudflats here, which were created in their current state when an apocalyptic storm caused a flood so bad that it swept all the topsoil out to sea in a huge area. What used to be the few major hills are now islands. Hundreds of thousands of people dead, whole towns wiped from the face of the Earth in one night. At low tide, you can now walk between many of the islands across the muddy sea bed. And since the whole area is very flat with very little tree, the mud seems to stretch almost from horizon to horizon. I grew up with it, so I never thought it was strange. But thinking about it now, it's actually really creepy.
    Over at the Baltic Sea the ground is more hilly and we have some places where the ground just drops 10 to 20 meters straight into the water. And every winter another meter or so goes down into the sea. Since it's a busy tourist area they usually demolish houses before they topple down for safety reasons. But you get huge fallen trees on the narrow beach all the times, and occasionally forgotten foundations from long removed houses are exposed and crash down as well.
    Where I grew up some 20 kilometers inland, any time there is a moderate wind from the east for a prolonged time, the wind blowing on the water surface is enough to make the river slow down a little bit and increase in volume significantly, always completely flooding the same couple of streets that are too low to the normal water level. I think it's basically the same thing that happens in Venice, but fortunately it only affects the same 50 or so houses every time.

    Now my first idea is to simply dial up these things a bit. My plan had already been to put all the major cities very close to the coast, or at least on the largest rivers not very far inland. The result is that many cities are getting literally swallowed by the sea. In some cases there are almost intact cities that permanently stand in a meter or two of water and have been abandoned because of it. In other places, the sea facing parts of cities have been eaten away by encroaching cliffs, and with the harbors being destroyed there is very little reason for people to stay in the remaining parts. Those cities are severely underpopulated with just farmers living on the inland facing edges.

    Another impact I think at least sounds plausible is that rivers are flooding with such a frequency that the ground becomes permanently soggy and make it unusable for the crops that farmers used to grow. In severe cases, areas with flat ground and very large rivers turn into permanent wetlands like marshes or swamps. Close to the coast, they can become enormous river deltas.

    With ports being destroyed and a lot of farmland being lost, all the kingdoms become poorer and have less surplus to trade with other kingdoms, and without trade things get even worse. Overland roads are no longer maintained and grow over, bridges that are damaged or destroyed by floods don't get repaired, and mountain paths that are buried in landslides don't get cleared. And you're already in a pretty post-apocalyptic situation.

    In what ways would the remaining population adapt to their new conditions? With no roads and fewer fields, rivers become even more important for fishing and transportation. People living close to rivers that tend to flood regularly would build their houses on stilts. Though that probably only works in places with not too much exposure to wind.
    In more northerly regions that don't have good tree cover, I would see people building houses that are build very low and partially into the ground, to protect them from getting blown away and help with heating when there's severe wind chill.
    Can sheep and goats graze in wetlands? I know they are popular livestock in many areas where soil is almost non-existing, like the rocky islands of the North Sea. But would wet feet damage their health?
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Your last paragraphs brought to mind a book, The Marsh Arabs, by Walter Thesiger. It's an extraordinary account of an Englishman who lived with the Arabs of the lower Tigris (or was it the Euphrates?) in the 1950s. As the title indicates, they pretty much lived in flood plain. IIRC, the primary animal was the pig. They also relied heavily on fish, water fowl, and other marsh creatures. Their homes were built on stilts. Reliably solid land went to the tribal chief. All that world is gone now, because Saddam Hussein drained the marshlands and the tribes are largely gone. We humans adapt to environmental change more readily than to human-caused change. <shakes head>

    Also, it's nice to hear from someone in that corner of the world. I did my thesis on the conversion of the Wends, so Mecklenburg and Pomerania feel familiar, though I've only ever seen Rostock and Warnemunde.
  3. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Troubadour

    Thinking of the bronze age, flooding is not just a bad thing. Egypt became rich and powerful because the Nile flooded each year.

    Other then that, people tend to adapt. Irrigation works and dams can solve part of the issue. Putting your house on stilts is another. In the Netherlands in the past houses and villages were placed on (artificial) mounds to keep dry. Lots of options and people are pretty ingenious
  4. Yora

    Yora Maester

    The Nile is flooding predictably. It's expected to do that and people know it's supposed to do that. Everything is fine. But I think in Mesopotamia and on the Indus, and famously in China as well, very destructive irregular floods were also a somewhat common thing. Not so common that people would properly prepare for it and limit settlement to safe areas, but it happened often enough for people to fear it happening again during their life time.

    The idea that I want to follow is that people can adapt when necessary, but that people are also really stubborn about changing anything until the disaster has already happened. Especially when the big decisions are being made by people who don't have the water already in their living rooms.
    I remember quite well how in the late 90s or early 2000s the Elbe had a huge flood that destroyed a large number of houses. With much time, money, and work the people got new houses, which where then destroyed in the next flood a few years later because they had been rebuild in the same spots. And that was in Germany, the country of pedantic engineering nerds.
    I mostly believe in the interpretation that there are no "natural disasters". What happens are extreme weather events that cause massive death and damage because people have decided to build unsafe houses in dangerous places. The perfect example is Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The whole country is hit by the same hurricanes, but every time you hear of the huge disasters in Haiti while you rarely hear much about the Dominican Republic. Same event, half of the island gets destroyed, the other half copes quite well.

    What I want to feel the world like is a society that is just starting to adapt to new conditions, long after the horse has already left the barn, and all the people in power still don't really understand what's wrong. The old empires fall apart because people are too stubborn and too stupid to do what is needed to prevent it.
  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Something I had not been thinking about before is that with agricultural land turning into swamps, diseases like malaria would become a huge issue. I often hear that malaria is one of the biggest killers in tropical regions and has a huge impact on the local societies. And unlike many other epidemics, it doesn't go away after a while but is constantly around, basically forever.
    Does anyone know how exactly widespread malaria affects society?
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    what you are describing sounds similar to the conditions that decimated the ancient central american civilizations, who enacted massive human sacrifice to appease various malevolent deities deemed to have control over the local climate.
  7. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

    In Samoa and other Pacific Islands satellite imagery is revealing sunken cities that may have been ancient maritime civilisations. Because they are underwater very little, if anything, has survived of these possible civilisations. Most of them are likely to have been destroyed by storms, earthquakes or tsunamis.

    Pacific Islands often have very powerful storms. To handle these traditional structures were constructed in a way that could resist such storms but if they did collapse their light construction ensured their occupants wouldn't suffer serious injuries. These structures were able to be rebuilt very quickly.

    Because the sea was the main source of food and nearby land provided the various materials to grow root crops, harvest fruits, build homes etc they continued to build their villages on or near the coast despite the risks.

    This is a paradox of civilisation: the most fertile and productive land is often located in the most dangerous areas where logic dictates they should not stick around.
  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I assume you meant to quote a different paragraph?

    But good point. I have ideas for a Storm God cult and a Fire cult. Those could have elaborate sacrifices to attempt to save themselves.

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