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German know-it-all attitude after the floods helps no one

Deutsche Welle Fabian Schmidt App NEU
Fabian Schmidt
July 19, 2021

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But accusing politicians and disaster management officials of "system failure" underestimates the forces of nature, DW's Fabian Schmidt writes.

Two men walking through the destroyed center of the town of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate
Nobody could have predicted that heavy flooding would entirely wipe out the centers of century old towns like Schuld. Image: Wolfgang Rattay/REUTERS

It's all too human to look for someone to blame after a huge natural disaster, but that doesn't help anyone — certainly not the victims, the survivors or the people whose livelihoods were washed away by the masses of water within minutes.

This know-it-all attitude gets on my nerves: Just like Germany has 80 million football coaches after the national team loses a game, now everyone seems to be a disaster relief expert.

And not just in Germany.

The British hydrologist Hannah Cloke argued in the British newspaper The Sunday Times  and later on German public broadcaster ZDF  that the warnings of the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS),  had not reached the people in Germany in time. This, she said, was a "monumental system failure." Michael Theurer, deputy parliamentary group chairman of the pro-market Free Democrats, joined in and said that Interior Minister Horst Seehofer bore "direct personal responsibility" for this. Granted, we are in the midst of election campaigning, but the claim is simply not true. 

German public broadcaster WDR 5, for example, had aired the following message at 8 a.m. last Tuesday, more than 24 hours before the disaster struck: "The German Weather Service warns of severe thunderstorms with heavy rain, in some areas extremely heavy rain. ... Locally, hail, high water and flooding must be expected."

Anyone who had been following the weather report could guess what was coming. Those who had also followed the precipitation radar, or simply looked out the window, knew it all the more.

Warning systems only go so far 

What no one could have known, and what no one could have prepared for, were the flash floods in places such as Schuld on the Ahr river in Rhineland-Palatinate. There are, quite simply, forces of nature that are so unpredictable that we cannot forecast their devastating power, even with all the advanced engineering and technology at our disposal. And neither can EFAS.

Portrait of Fabian Schmidt
DW science editor Fabian Schmidt

Early warning systems can alert us to relatively slowly rising floodwaters, but not to the rapid torrents we saw last week. Our centuries of experience with floods are, by human standards, the yardstick for flood protection and for where housing construction is allowed in the first place.

In Schuld, on the other hand, centuries-old timber-framed houses that had survived many previous floods were washed away. Bridges were destroyed that had been built and renewed in recent decades to the best of our knowledge and belief, taking into account possible floods. 

Even the best flood protection reaches its limits

The argument that river straightening, canalization and soil sealing are responsible for the catastrophe is not true in the case of the Ahr. The Ahr is a river with few obstructions that largely follows its natural course.

Likewise, the extent of the disaster in the town of Erftstadt in North-Rhine Westphalia could not have been predicted, neither by the disaster control experts nor by the inhabitants. There, a river had first flooded a gravel pit in short time and then softened it to such an extent that parts of an adjacent village were literally swallowed up by it — the legacy of the former lignite surface mining area in the Rhineland region, where Erftstadt is located, which has been heavily dug up over thousands of years. I expect this won't be the last disaster of its kind there. 

Don't rely solely on electronic gadgets

There is also criticism of the sometimes late and contradictory warnings from public warning apps such as KATWARN or NINA. Detractors argue that these apps prompted people to stay at home rather than flee the floods. And they say that the recommended evacuation area was too narrow. In addition, the apps failed when the power failed.

Were flood fatalities preventable?

But an app can't know where exactly a house will be destroyed by the floods. Perhaps those responsible can even learn from this crisis and improve the apps even further. But the most important lesson we can take away from this is that we shouldn't rely primarily on flashy new digital toys in severe weather situations. Instead we should use all of our senses and our common sense.

And sometimes it might not be a bad idea to stick with proven analog technology, such as the former telephone network, which would have continued to function even in the event of a power outage — in contrast to Voice over IP.

Who will be hit by the next disaster?

Following reconstruction, the people on the Ahr river will certainly also benefit form a much-improved early warning system. But the next deadly floods may hit a completely different river and village, which is not as well prepared, for example somewhere in the Thuringian Forest, the Harz Mountains or the Alps. It's unpredictable and that is in the nature of things.

The bitter truth remains: There are simply forces of nature that are stronger than us and that strike so quickly that not even the best early warning system in the world can predict them. 

So what can we do? In terms of architecture and urban planning, we have to learn from past experience in the hope of being to mitigate the damage next time — and simply accept that playing the blame game won't help.

Deutsche Welle Fabian Schmidt App NEU
Fabian Schmidt Science editor focusing on technologies and inventions