Europe's troubled waters
by John Sparrow
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.
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
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
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
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 is Federation regional communications unit head
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