Have lessons been learnt from central Europe's floods?

16-08-2003

Austria last suffered catastrophic floods in 1959. As a result flood barriers and dams were built to keep the waters out of built up areas. And it can be argued that in the case of Vienna - it worked. But why was there such havoc elsewhere? The World Wildlife Fund's water expert Ulrich Eichelmann says many of the problems are manmade

Floods in 2002Floods in 2002 "In history we've definitely worked against nature - you know building dams, re-structuring schemes and so on. And the result is that the floods are higher than what they usually are, and they're quicker, and come very fast. And that was one of the major results of last year's floods. Nobody expected them to be so fast."

Why does this man made intervention - changing the course of rivers, dams and so on - make flooding so much worse?

"Normally if there is a natural flood plain area the water has a wide area to flood, so that means it doesn't get very high. And what we've done is we've regulated and canalized the rivers. We've straightened them. Normally they flow in meanders or have gravel banks but we've got rid of them and made canals and now it's like a highway, like a motorway. The water can race downstream enormously quickly and this altogether means that the floods are higher and very, very, quick."

But if you compare Austria to other countries in the region like the Czech Republic which was also badly affected by the floods - in the Czech Republic was it also because of the regulation of the rivers, or other causes?

"Last year's flood was an extraordinary flood. Even with a normal situation along the river, there would have been a big flood. But even in the Czech Republic, the Molda and the Elbe are also full of dams. Even there the total amount of land that has been dammed over the last 50 years is enormous. So the Czech Republic is not a paradise for rivers - but the opposite."

Having seen how the man-made regulation of rivers makes flooding worse, do you think we've learnt anything in the past year?

"There is a good example on the Tisza River. The Hungarian government is going to have created 70,000 hectares of new flood plain area along the rover. But in Austria we haven't learnt a thing. We've regulated rivers more than before, there is more hydro powered dams planned than ever before. They've cut down trees on flood plains long the rivers."

In Poland we hear almost every summer of flooding but not to the extent that was seen in Austria and the Czech Republic last year. Why is this?

"Poland has a lot of rivers in a very natural state. But Poland is also a country of low land rivers. Poland is more or less a flood pain area. So these huge floods are natural there and the floods can spread on a large area. I've heard that there are also tendencies towards technical solutions. But that is always the problem. Why make the same mistakes again, why not learn from our mistakes?"

So if we don't give rivers the space they need, can we see a future facing the same catastrophic flooding as we saw last year?

"Yes. If we don't have an extreme change in water management, these floods will come up more often than we think and the price and damage will increase."

16-08-2003