German flood region: Can people still live close to a river? | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.09.2021

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Germany

German flood region: Can people still live close to a river?

Eight weeks after the devastating floods, the first plans for reconstruction have been presented. One thing is becoming clear: Nothing can ever be the same again.

 People tearing off the insulation of their house in the Ahr Valley

Many residents of the Ahr Valley lost their homes or had them badly damaged in the recent floods

A huge cloud of dust lies over the Ahr Valley. You can see it from the vineyards on the slopes when you look down at the towns of Ahrweiler, Dernau, Altenahr. Heavy trucks drive away debris, making their way over roads provisionally patched with gravel; excavators and tractors clear away debris, whirling up dust and pebbles that fly through the air.

Almost eight weeks after the flood disaster, the cleanup work has progressed to the point where the full extent of the damage is revealed. The Ahr Valley has been destroyed along a length of 40 kilometers (25 miles). Almost the entire infrastructure has been affected. Roads have been torn up and washed out, railroad tracks, water and power lines have been destroyed, and telecommunications have broken down. Only 35 of the 112 bridges in the flood zone withstood the floodwaters.

In the Ahr Valley, 134 people lost their lives. Around 40,000 people —  a third of the inhabitants —were directly affected by the floods. More than 500 buildings were swept away by the water, and another 3,000 were damaged, some severely. Many of them have to be demolished. Private homes, businesses, stores, schools, kindergartens and hospitals were destroyed. Nicole Steingass, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate's commissioner for reconstruction, put the financial damage in this state alone at around €18 billion ($2.1 billion).

Road with rubble and houses

Six houses on this road in Altenburg had to be demolished already

At the first of several planned "Future Conferences" on the reconstruction of the Ahr Valley, Steingass gave further figures that clearly show the dimension of the catastrophe: The flood left behind 240,000 metric tons (265,000 US tons) of destroyed household goods. That is 30 times the amount of garbage that normally accumulates in the Ahr Valley in one year. Add to that the rubble and debris of the buildings.

Not rebuilding one-to-one

"We are rebuilding the Ahr Valley," promises Horst Gies, the deputy district administrator of the Ahrweiler district, who belongs to the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). However, he says, this will take five to 10 years. "Now it is necessary to develop clever ideas and clear visions for the future together," says Gies. Together, he says, it is necessary to find out what will be possible again at all in the Ahr Valley with a view to climate change and flood protection.

"Many things will not be able to be rebuilt one-to-one," cautioned Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU), who attended the conference as a representative of the federal government. She stressed that there would be sufficient financial assistance. The federal parliament, the Bundestag has launched a flood relief fund worth €30 billion for the affected states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as Bavaria in the south and Saxony in the southeast of the country.

Aerial view of flooded region in Dernau

Dernau is one of the towns on the Ahr where houses may have been too close to the river

Learning from abroad

A recurring theme in the over 200 suggestions that have been put forward by citizens and experts was that water must be given more space in planning for the future. But how can this be implemented in the narrow valley through which the Ahr flows? Could drains perhaps be cut into the mountains and hills, or canals and channels built between the houses?

The region needs visionary ideas because the Ahr Valley is to become a model region to show how people can live with the consequences of climate change in the future. Six working groups have been set up for the coming weeks and months that will deal with the topics of flood protection and construction, infrastructure, economy, tourism and viticulture, but also health, work and social issues. In doing so, they will also look beyond Germany and take into account how, for example, the Netherlands and parts of Austria deal with the risk of flooding.

The latest technology for the Ahr Valley

Seeing destruction as an opportunity: Planners are set to think outside the box. For example, there are plans to bundle supply lines for water, wastewater, electricity, internet and telecommunications that could be included in one channel that is flood-proofed. A wide bicycle path could then be built on top to make the region, which is popular with tourists, even more attractive for visitors.

Watch video 01:56

Angela Merkel and Armin Laschet visit flood-hit German state with election on the horizon

Some citizens propose to rebuild town centers car-free — that is, accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists. The completely destroyed railroad line next to the river could be replaced by an aerial tramway and heating systems could be confined to renewables like wood pellets, replacing oil tanks on the Ahr, emphasizes Gies. He refers to the immense environmental damage caused because the flood swept away oil heaters that contaminated the soil in the region.

Rethinking the Ahr Valley also includes the reconstruction of kindergartens, retirement homes and office space. "We can't keep building the way we have been; we have to give space to the water," was the statement made in the Building Working Group.

But what does that mean for the many people whose homes stood along the river? For those who lost everything, whose houses have been washed away or are damaged to an extent that they have to be demolished. Many want to stay right there and rebuild their houses. But that is precisely what will have to be prevented in many cases.

Experts are in the process of redefining and designating floodplains in the Ahr Valley. In areas where the risk of another flood is too great, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate wants to help municipalities find replacement areas where those affected could be relocated. But this is exactly what many people in the Ahr Valley are afraid of.

Watch video 03:41

Rebuilding in the Ahr valley

Winter quarters urgently sought

The municipal mayor of Altenahr, Cornelia Weigand, is committed to ensuring that as many people as possible can remain in their homes. "There may be no-building zones, but there is also a need for new forms of construction so that you have houses where you can continue to live safely on the top floor, even if the ground floor is flooded," she said recently after a visit by the German chancellor to the town of Altenburg, which has been almost completely destroyed.

The first "Future Conference" on reconstruction is to be followed by a second one later this month. In view of the onset of fall and the impending winter, the short-term focus will also be on how to get the energy supply back on track as quickly as possible. In many homes that are damaged but habitable, it will not be possible to repair the heating systems in time. Winter quarters must now be found for many people as quickly as possible.

This article has been translated from German.

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