Rain without end: nature strikes back

20 years ago, the Oder flood reached its peak. This year, Berlin is drowning in rain. What do the two have to do with each other?

House under. In Berlin or on the Oder? Photo: dpa

It rains and rains and rains. From January to Wednesday, 12 o’clock, exactly 514.2 liters per square meter have fallen in Dahlem, announced the Meteorological Institute of the FU Berlin on taz request; a third more than usual in the whole year. And this July has a good chance of going down in history as one of the wettest since weather records began: Three times as much rain as usual has fallen so far.

20 years ago, at the beginning of July 1997, the low-pressure area "Zolska" had caused heavy rain. Up to 586 liters of rain per square meter fell over the Atlas Mountains in the Czech Republic. A heavy rainfall situation that became the flood of the century on the Oder River, which killed hundreds of people in the Czech Republic and Poland.

The problem: Normally, low-pressure areas move across the region from west to east, explains Heiko Wiese, a meteorologist at the FU. The problem this summer, he says, is that several lows got stuck over Berlin in quick succession and rained themselves out. Meteorologists consider the enormous rainfall at the end of June to be an exception. Thunderstorms or continuous rain, however, are not uncommon in summer.

The outlook: The steady rain will gradually stop, but there is no real improvement in the weather in sight over the next few days. "There are temporary clearings, but rain remains with us – to a lesser extent," said Ulrike Maiwald, meteorologist at the German Weather Service, on Wednesday. (dpa, taz)

These days, this flood is remembered again. Matthias Platzeck, who at the time was transformed from environment minister to "dike count," gives interview after interview. He recounts how he and the then head of the state environmental agency, Matthias Freude, were called "little fellows" on the spot who didn’t need to tell old hands on the Oder anything. Nothing would ever happen here. Previously, Platzeck and Freude had issued a flood warning on July 8. On July 17, the crest of the flood reached the state of Brandenburg. On July 27, the level in Frankfurt (Oder) was at a record high of 6.57 meters.

The memory holds some nice anecdotes. They illustrate one thing above all: Man trusted that he had finally subdued the river, the water, nature. Like a resident of the Ziltendorf lowlands, which were flooded at the time, who is quoted in a review in the Tagesspiegel: "After all, our house stood five kilometers away from the Oder. Nothing could happen there."

She could have known better: There was an old riverbank road in Wiesenau, which was affected at the time, that was even further away from the Oder. The ancestral territory of the Oder extended as far as there. The lowlands had always been alluvial land.

Thus, the retrospective view of the century-long event alternates between horror and heroic stories. The "Miracle of Hohenwutzen" is a popular story. The gap in the dike there was closed by Bundeswehr soldiers dropping sandbags from helicopters. If the dike had broken, not only the Ziltendorf lowlands but also the much larger Oderbruch would have been flooded.

Again and again, it is also listed what has been done since the flood of the century. In Ratzdorf, at the famous tide gauge house where the Lausitzer Neibe flows into the Oder, the last gap in the dike was closed in 2005. A total of 300 million euros has been invested in dikes. In Neuzelle, a new polder is being built, albeit a very small one at 50 hectares, i.e. a catchment basin.

It’s a race between man and the river, between dike construction and global warming

In Poland, too, dikes have been strengthened and raised. Matthias Freude made it clear ten years ago that the one is connected to the other. Because of the flood protection measures in Poland, the same flood as in 1997 would now arrive 130 centimeters higher, Freude revealed to the taz. The dike at Hohenwutzen could not have been held.

Would it be able to be held today, after the renewal and reinforcement of the dikes? Another aspect of the floods is that investments were made not only in technical flood protection on other rivers, but also in natural water retention. On the Elbe, for example, the dike relocation at Lodderitzer Forst has created a polder of 600 hectares, more than ten times the size of the one on the Oder.

Unlike in Brandenburg, where nature conservation is the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, in Saxony-Anhalt not only the farmers have a voice, but also the environmentalists. For this, too, is part of the balance sheet of the Oder flood: once a model state for environmental protection, Brandenburg is now a state in which nature conservationists at best eke out a niche existence.

And in Poland, too, dikes are being built along the Oder rather than natural flood plains. The likelihood that the next flood of the century will hit the Oder River again has not been eliminated.

At least the local residents now seem to be aware of this. Matthias Platzeck, the former dike count and interim SPD state premier, says today: "There is no such thing as 100 percent protection against flooding. How could there be, when the flood of the century in 1997 was followed by the flood of the century on the Elbe in 2002, followed by floods on the Elbe in 20 and the flood on the Oder in 2010. It is a race between man and the river that is evident here, between dike construction and global warming with increasingly extreme weather conditions.

The recent cloudbursts in Berlin show: Cities located far from flood-prone rivers are also affected by this race. When subways and commuter trains stop running, when flights to Berlin have to be diverted to Rostock or Hanover, one senses that nature is also encroaching on places where man seemed to have won the race.

That is why cities like Berlin are to become "sponge cities: Green roofs and swales are to store rainwater like a sponge and release it slowly. This is nothing other than a kind of inner-city polder.

The only difference is that people on the Oder have learned to live with the danger. In Berlin, they have yet to become aware of it.

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