Germany Trains Floodmasters to Deal With Future Crises | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.08.2007
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Germany Trains Floodmasters to Deal With Future Crises

In August 2002, Germany saw some of the worst floods in its history. From the devastation, a new hope in the form of a university degree course in dealing with floods arose from the murky waters.

An outdoor swimming pool under water in Dresden

Huge swathes of Dresden and Saxony were engulfed by the waters of the Elbe

For many Germans, especially those from Saxony, any mention of August 2002 will bring back terrible memories. It rained so hard that month that the river Elbe rose to an unprecedented level, leading to catastrophic floods. Now, there is a new program of study on offer that that may help people deal with such disasters in the future: the floodmaster.

The damage caused by 2002's rising waters was immense, with scientists claiming that such a flood could only happen once every 500 years. Those same scientists were some of the few people who actually benefited from the disaster. An increase in funding for research and development into flood causes and prevention in the wake of the disaster have led to the creation of a new professional study course.

The Semper Oper in Dresden surrounded by flood waters

The floods of 2002 were unprecedented in Germany

The pictures of the Elbe breaching its banks, wiping out villages, drowning Dresden's central train station and drenching the catacombs of museums filled with priceless art treasures were beamed around the world.

The images even reached Wisnu Wibowo on the Indonesian island of Java.

“I heard about this disastrous flood from the television and asked myself: How can such a thing happen in Europe with its advanced technology?” Wibowo said. “Is there some kind of mismanagement in their emergency services?"

Wibowo resolved to investigate this and in 2006 he began a master’s degree at the Technological University (TU) in Dresden. On top of that, he signed up for an additional course in floodmastery, a qualification that has been taking on students since 2003.

More than walls and dikes

One of these students is Andre Walzer, a German who works with the coast guard and is interested in development aid.

Fire and emergency staff work on a flood barrier in Dresden

“I always thought: flood control? You just build a wall or a dyke and that was that,” he said. “But there's a lot more to it. For me, the most important factor is the communication among people."

The floodmastery course takes a varied look at the many different aspects of flood management, such as how precipitation originates, how it is concentrated and how buildings and people are affected.

“These are important. Also we deal with the socioeconomic aspect. It's more than a matter of minimizing the risk and damage if it really comes to a big flood,” said project manager Christian Bernhofer.

International course

The course, as part of a European program based in Dresden called Floodsite, also caters to foreign students who can participate in English-language lectures on the Internet. In the coming years, the qualification should become recognized as a European master’s degree. Its international reach is already being felt through joint programs with Italian and British scientists.

Another reason for English-language lectures is the need for quick international action with floods, because often rivers flow through more than one country. In 2005, students on the program followed the river Theiss, which flows primarily through Hungary, but it also runs through Romania and Ukraine and often causes heavy floods in all these countries. The Elbe floods of 2002 were fed by surges from the neighboring Czech Republic.

Inhabitants of Dresden lay sandbags in the city center

Dresdeners battle to save the city center from the Elbe

It is hoped the cooperation and camaraderie will in the future lead to the students working together to find solutions, Floodmaster Jens Seifert said.

The students have already learned some important things, such as the fact that there is very little time to sleep during a disaster, that there are few easy solutions and that there must be time to sit and talk with the scientists and engineers.

"One shouldn't proceed with haste, but you have to sit down and consider what you can do," Seifert said.

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