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Germany's flood disaster management is the next tragedy

July 14, 2022

One year after the flood disaster in two German states, those affected are still struggling with the trauma and the consequences of political failure, writes Christoph Strack.

An overturned car lying among debris in a flood river
A year after the floods many of those affected are still dealing with the trauma and the authorities' inactionImage: Joerg Niebergall/Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

The images of that night have left an indelible impression. They remain traumatic for the people who experienced and survived the flood disaster in western Germany on the night of July 14-15, 2021. People who feared for their lives, who are mourning the loss of loved ones, who lost everything.

These images also made it clear to everyone in Germany and Central Europe that life from now on would probably become even more unpredictable due to extreme weather events. That's another reason why those shocking images have left their mark.

Some of the scenes we witnessed from the affected regions became iconic within days. They were like a portent, shaking people awake, unsettling them, frightening them. At least 184 people died in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia when nature unleashed its almost unimaginable forces.

The last victims are still missing to this day in the idyllic Ahr Valley, where 134 people died. The lives of tens of thousands have been affected and many have had to start over from scratch. People will have to struggle with trauma and anxiety attacks for a long time to come.

Heroic stories and a political culture of failure

In the ensuing days, there were many stories of suffering and also impressive tales of heroic acts and stories of hope. They deserve to be told and listened to.

DW editor Christoph Strack
DW editor Christoph StrackImage: DW/B. Geilert

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are stories of failure. German authorities and politicians like to portray themselves as acting in the best interests of their citizens, and to imply that this rich country is the navel of progress and digitization.

And then there are the failures inherent in systems and political decision-makers, which have so far only been insufficiently named and dealt with. Alarm chains did not work; regulations turned into obstacles; rescue helicopters lacked technical recovery equipment, and necessary communication was technically impossible. Lives were saved in many cases thanks to personal heroism. And lest we forget: Experts say the catastrophe was foreseeable days before.

Since the flood, people in Germany have donated more than €650 million ($651 million). The affected states and the federal government provided aid and set up reconstruction funds. And yet there are numerous reports from the flooded regions that people have been waiting and waiting, that there has been little progress. This is a disgrace and cannot continue.

Extreme weather events are becoming the norm

It should be clear to everyone by now that things will never be the same again — that's not really the point. You can't tell people that they should not build their house down by the river  without providing them with timely and concrete prospects.

This is all the more pertinent given that humankind will have to prepare for more extreme weather events in future. To cite just one example: Just days ago, we saw shocking photos and videos of glacier collapses of almost unimaginable proportions occurring in the high mountain regions in Italy and Kyrgyzstan. Just imagine the damage if there had been a dam somewhere along the line of such a glacier.

German viewers are used to seeing TV pictures of floods in Bangladesh or India, of drought in Australia or the Sahel, of burning forests in the Amazon — almost in passing just ahead of the sports results or the weather report, and too far away to concern us. But the images today come from even more places, from the Ahr or Italy, from the US or Greece, from Siberia or Oceania. It's serious.

A map showing extreme weather events around the globe

Taking responsible action is a priority

The floods on the Ahr and Wupper rivers also became part of Germany's federal election campaign in September 2021. All eyes were on the climate crisis and the environment. But then the coronavirus reared its ugly head again, followed by Russia's attack on Ukraine. A society fixated on breaking news and outrage is dangerously quick to forget its long-term commitments. In doing so, it jeopardizes its resilience in crisis situations.

At the same time, the consequences of climate change and global warming will never leave us neither here in Germany nor across the globe. The Ahr Valley floods have shown that there is no such thing as a safe terrain any longer.

Understanding that makes it all the more important to help and to act, and to be able to do both responsibly. The stories from the Ahr Valley recounting death and suffering, hope and help and frustration, compel us to act together. And never to simply stop listening.

This piece was originally written in German.

One year after the flood

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C