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Germany

Germans, Czechs Prevent Next Big Flood

A year after devastating floods ravaged eastern Germany and the Czech Republic, experts from both sides have hammered out a flood-prevention plan. Environmentalists however remain skeptical.

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Washing away borders between Germany and the Czech Republic.

A year after the worst floods in a century wrecked a dozen years of post-unification rebuilding in eastern Germany and ravaged the neighboring Czech Republic, hardly anything in the rivers in the region indicate the extent of the recent catastrophe.

Where once a deluge strained against the embankments, today only a few small streams are visible after a week of near-total dry river beds and record low water levels. Though the danger of new catastrophic floods can hardly be ruled out, the unexpected heat wave and accompanying drought this summer have provided a further respite for flood-prevention experts, working on an action plan to secure the river Elbe from flooding.

The International Commission for Protecting the Elbe (IKSE) comprising German and Czech flood specialists, were originally meant to present their findings on the state and health of the river Elbe last summer.

But the onslaught of the floods, the worst in more than 200 years, meant that the team had to start their work all over again from scratch. Now the group finally aims to present its action plan by autumn this year, though certain proposals have already been leaked out.

Reducing embankments and expanding flood plains

The experts have suggested 15 areas, where the present embankments for the Elbe and its tributaries can be pulled down and instead built further back in the interiors to allow for about 27 further square kilometers of flood plains. In addition to reducing embankments, which environmentalists believe contribute to uncontrolled run-off from Alpine-spawned deluges, the commission has also proposed refurbishing about 550 kilometers of embankment, which don’t correspond to current safety standards.

Further, 16 new flood plains will be designated in an effort to give back rivers their natural storage basins. The largest of these flood plains are planned in Saxony-Anhalt.

Not all of the plans have met with enthusiasm. Some of the proposals which have already been implemented, such as the spectacular tearing-down of the settlement Röderau-Süd, have been criticized. In April this year, work began on demolishing a total of 120 apartment blocks in a small district of the town of Riesa in Saxony, which had been erected on flood plain areas.

Even in Dresden, which bore the brunt of the floods last year, numerous small gardens and vegetable patches, which prevented the flow of flood waters into tributaries and streams, have been destroyed.

German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin also wants to impose a blanket ban on future residential and industrial development in designated flood plain regions as well as forbid plowing and sowing of the land starting 2013.

In future farmers will not be allowed to fertilize flood plain regions measuring up to 24 square meters, and other agricultural activity will also be limited. The minister has also stressed that in case of floods, the affected farmers will have no right to compensation.

Czechs stress expanding flood-zones

As opposed to Germany, the IKSE’s recommendations for the neighboring Czech Republic lay heavy emphasis on expanding flood-zones given that very few places in the country are hemmed in by dikes. The plans envisions raising the storage capacities of existing dams on the Moldau and other rivers.

Last August, the dams reduced the level of destruction caused by the floods in Prague, by delaying the arrival of the deluge. That allowed authorities more time for evacuations and other preventive measures. The dams also prevented uprooted trees and weekend houses from being swept into the Czech capital with the current.

In order to better protect flood-prone villages and cities, the Czech government also plans in future to install more mobile insulated walls in additional parts of the country, such as the ones that preserved downtown Prague from floods last year. Prague has already applied for funds from the European Union to finance the flood-prevention measures.

Green groups: action plan not enough

Environmental groups have in principle welcomed Germany’s efforts to prevent a repetition of last year’s disastrous floods, but accuse the government of having learned nothing from the catastrophe. Many are also skeptical of the IKSE’s action plan and its focus on relocating embankment areas.

Scientist Manfred Simon cast doubts on the reliability of the embankments, that last year managed to hold back the floods. "The embankments are a couple of hundred years old and don’t have the necessary stability," he told news agency AFP.

"Higher embankments only store the problem, instead of solving it," Emil Dister of green group World Wide Fund Germany said. "A year after the floods, it’s hardly discernible, that those responsible on a state level are prepared to draw the right lessons from the floods," he said.

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