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Europe's troubled waters


by John Sparrow
The summer floods in central Europe should have surprised no one. With the flood seasons in this region now annual and occurring with increasing severity, can more be done to reduce their impact? And how can the Red Cross help turn the tide?
 

Josef Baloun, 73, defied the Czech authorities and went home. The waters had receded but his village in flood-stricken North Bohemia remained in an exclusion zone. Officials warned of collapsing buildings and health hazards but nothing could deter some villagers.

For a while much of the district had almost vanished from the face of the earth. Rooftops and chimneys had been all that could be seen of some communities, lost beneath a torrent of water as the Labe and its tributaries had burst their banks and swept across the countryside. Now as the waters retreated the scale of the devastation was evident.

The old man's shock at having to flee the flood turned to despair. Returning to Pocaply u Terezina, he fought to control his emotion as he searched his home. Almost all he owned lay ruined and overturned beneath a layer of mud and in stagnant water. "What do we do?" he stammered. "I have no money to repair this. I am too old to start over again."


Along the village's main street others wept, and soon the clean-up began. Furniture was piled on pavements, floor covering ripped out, cookers and refrigerators dumped. Nearer the river Petr Madera sorted through some possessions from his grandmother's house. "Everything is lost," he said. The flood line high on the outside wall, and cracks in the structure, said it all.

But at least the house was still standing. Many mud-brick buildings in Pocaply had collapsed, or were so structurally damaged the authorities would have to demolish them. Other villages resembled war zones. To the south, in Zalezlice near Melnik, the army was camped on the outskirts, and grim-faced conscripts marched through the streets with shovels in their hands. Of the 120 houses there, a third lay in ruins and another third, cracked and leaning, would have to be broken down.

Sadly familiar

Such scenarios are sadly familiar in central Europe, and the summer floods which swept the region, leaving dozens of people dead and damage likely to cost 20 billion euros, should have surprised no one. The flood seasons are now annual, and have been occurring with increasing severity.

Last year, winter brought huge distress to Hungary, Romania and Ukraine. Summer inundations overwhelmed 50,000 Poles in a country where thousands more had still to recover from a 1997 deluge. Storms and floods were so widespread this summer that many went almost unnoticed. While the world focused on the Czech, German and Austrian tragedy unprecedented in living memory, and deadly floods in southern Russia, Red Cross National Societies also mobilized in Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia. Across a devastated Europe, tens of thousands of Red Cross workers and volunteers battled to maintain relief services and shelter victims.

But relief isn't enough. The events were predictable, even if the scale and the locations were not and, as the costs of the latest inundations were counted, an inevitable question surfaced. Is enough being done to prevent disaster, and the crippling social, economic and personal losses that each year brings to the region?

The floods are anything but natural disasters. Climatic change, a degraded environment, deforestation and the disrepair of infrastructure - some river banks have not been maintained for more than a decade - all involve a human factor. Construction to ease the
passage of river traf?c, divert natural flow, or shorten meandering streams, has consequences. Flood defences that constrict rivers, and deny them access to flood plains, create dangerous pressures downstream. In the European Union particularly, the development of flood plains for housing and industry has contributed to this situation.

 

 

 

 

The enormity of this summer's disaster has prompted debate. The loss of life and property, the threat to Europe's historic cities rightly gained global concern. But there is much more to the ?ooding than that. In central and eastern Europe it is eating away at the social fabric, exacerbating poverty, hampering human development in countries burdened with social and economic transition.

North Bohemia shows how. There, towns and villages were caught between the flood waters of merging streams, the Vltava and the Ohre ?owing into the Labe. Around the confluence of the Labe and the Ohre a lake formed. Eight kilometres wide and 20 kilometres long, it inundated 38 villages, Josef Baloun's once picturesque Pocaply among them. Proud of its traditional mud-brick houses, it once clustered around its 18th-century church from renowned architect Kilian Ignac Diezenhofer. An 1890 flood persuaded the inhabitants to move their homes back to higher ground but nothing was beyond this August's tide.

Farmer Jan Hornicek told of a mass evacuation within a two-hour period. "It came so fast most people left with only a couple of bags and what they were wearing." Wife Milena, coordinating the distribution of Czech Red Cross aid in the village, said their 15 hectares and the crops ripening in them, had all been devastated. "We will have no income this year," she said. "In 2003 we will start again."

While farmers faced ruin, farm workers were suddenly jobless, and most of the villagers were wondering how they would make ends meet. Many had low-paid jobs in town, and a field they cropped to get by. None of the crops could be saved. Some people had even lost their town jobs because businesses had closed down.

It wasn't simply the major river systems. Flash floods caused by heavy rains hit 28 of Romania's 41 counties. For the past 12 years ?ash floods have been a recurring, localized springtime problem. This year for the first time they occurred in July and August, accompanied by unprecedented, tornado-like storms. In the Carpathian mountains, rains caused floods in Harghita county, inundating homes, fields awaiting harvest and food stocks. Wells were contaminated.

All this came hard on the heels of a drought which had significantly decreased crop yields in some of the poorest counties, and the combined impact left an already impoverished population extremely vulnerable. Almost 45 per cent of Romanians live below the poverty line, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, and most of the families hit by floods and storms were those of subsistence farmers. The Romanian Red Cross was helping 15,000 people, and some had lost all possible sources of income. It will be years before they fully recover. Governments caught in the belt tightening of economic transition can ill afford the bills for damaged infrastructure. But infrastructure can be replaced. Livelihoods are harder to come by.

Summer of solidarity For the Red Cross, the floods brought regional solidarity. Offers of help crossed borders with the moving crises. Even as they mounted operations in their own countries, National Societies looked to support their neighbours. Ever-closer Red Cross cooperation in relief, and in disaster prevention and preparedness, can help turn the tide, says Sune Follin, the Federation's central Europe disaster preparedness delegate.

The premise is being shared with states. Advocacy is part of the Red Cross equation, and calls are being made for greater inter-governmental cooperation to reduce the risk of disaster. Solutions can only be regional, Follin argues. Countries share river systems and drainage areas, and one state's infrastructure affects that of others. Germany's flooding Elbe was the Czech Republic's flooding Labe. Hungary's borders are crossed by 24 rivers ?owing in from seven nations. "The management of water flow, flood control procedures and the shared risks of changing weather require a regional strategy," says Follin. "Without that Europe will remain out of its depth."

John Sparrow
John Sparrow is Federation regional communications unit head in Budapest.


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