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Renewed Call for Protection After Floods

After the recent floods, cleaning-up operations are under way in Bavaria and other Alpine regions. What more can be done about the floods? Climate change outpaces politics, say environmental experts.


A village in Bavaria engulfed by the floods

Villages and towns enclosed by water, dramatic efforts to rescue people -- the pictures from Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland resemble those of what was previously dubbed "the floods of the century" in 1999 on the Oder river or 2002 at the Elbe and Danube rivers.

Politicians are flocking to the disaster area and their gestures of support and pledges of aid also resemble each other. But according to environmental experts, nature's warning signals are still not being taken seriously enough.

A n eed to act

Climate researchers are convinced the present situation is just a harbinger of much more severe floods that could be caused by climate change in the future.

Flut in der Schweiz

A woman pushes a man in a wheelchair as other persons wade through the flooded Schweizerhof Quay in Lucerne on Wednesday

"Flood protection remains an endless task, as long as nothing is being done to deal with the root causes of floods," said Georg Rast of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "A long breath is needed beyond individual legislative periods and a finance policy based on what we already know about the problem. Unfortunately, the budget boosts provided by the federal states to deal with the problem follow the flood waves -- except with a year's delay."

In the face of climate change, all flood protection concepts have to be reviewed, said Regine Günther, also of WWF. On the political level pressure has to be increased to achieve a faster reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

A failure to deliver?

"The federal government and the states have so far not delivered on their promises they made during the 2002 floods to introduce adequate flood protection measures," said Gerhard Timm, director for the German federation for the protection of the environment and nature (BUND). Through river regulation, dykes and dams rivers in Germany are left with only a fifth of their original flooding areas.

But Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber said there is no reason for renewed action.

"We have done our homework," he said, adding that Bavaria has invested more than 670 million euros ($822 million).

Hochwasser in Dresden

In Dresden, streets get regularly flooded, like in this picture taken in March

According to the state's ministry for the environment, the measures include improved prevention and warning systems as well as extended polder areas. The natural environs of rivers, streams and floodplains have been returned to their original natural state.

The ministry also urges property owners to make available more land faster to be used for conversions into polder areas. In Germany, an area totalling some 150 soccer pitches is being sealed off every day as part of construction projects for streets and buildings. These areas can no longer absorb rainfalls, according to the ministry.

Floods harbi n ger of thi n gs to come

Spells of extreme weather such as the current heat wave in Portugal or the heavy rains in Bavaria are but a first sign of global warming already affecting everyday weather patterns, said Mojib Latif of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Kiel in Northern Germany.

The air above the Mediterranean absorbs humidity and transports it northwards and past the Alps on their eastern flank. But because of global warming, more water evaporates above the Mediterranean, leading to the air moving northwards being wetter, Mojib said.

Hochwasser in Prag, 2002

Rescuers in a rubber dinghy evacuate residents from the flooded areas in downtown Prague in August 2002

And once the clouds get stuck at the mountain tops of the Alps, massive, torrential downpours are the result. Poland, the Czech Republic as well as the Eastern and Southern parts of Germany will have to expect more of these heavy rains and floods in the future, Latif said.

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