Learning from the catastrophe in the German Ahr Valley
© picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress / Christoph Hardt / Geisler-Fotopress
The village of Dernau in the Ahr Valley in Germany was almost completely flooded in July 2021.
On 14 and 15 July 2021, extreme rainfall caused catastrophic flooding in parts of Western Europe. In Germany, over 180 people died and over 800 were wounded, some seriously. Material damages are in the neighbourhood of tens of billions. The German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North-Rhine-Westphalia were especially impacted. One hundred thirty-four people died just along the Ahr, a tributary of the Rhine. In the Ahr Valley, the terrible consequences of the natural disaster were unfortunately exacerbated by another disaster: the inability to learn.
First of all, authorities could have learned from general history: rivers have always played a central role in the context of settlement. However, population growth, industrialisation and the sectoral division of labour have reduced watercourses to serving one-sided interests. That is true of many regions of the world, including Germany. Increasingly acrimonious conflicts of interest have caused rivers to be straightened and channelled, soil to be sealed and buildings to be erected in the highest-risk areas. Above all, retention areas, where water can spread out during floods, have been lost. All of these factors increase the potential for serious health and material damages due to flooding.
Germany’s experience with flooding
Second, authorities could have learned from Germany’s recent history. Germany has had plenty of experience with flooding, for instance of the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Elbe, Danube and Neckar. In particular, the German Committee for Disaster Reduction (DKKV – Deutsches Komitee für Katastrophenvorsorge), a national platform made up of agencies, research institutes and civil-society organisations, has made important contributions in this area. There are various field reports, including the flooding and reservoir-management plan that the state of Saxony developed in the wake of the disastrous flooding of the Elbe in 2002. It can be considered exemplary.
Another example is the study “Riverscapes: designing urban embankments”. As early as 2008, it proposed different scenarios to develop solutions for a variety of uses of the Rhine’s resources, including work, housing, traffic, leisure, ecology and flood protection. It also created, among other things, risk mapping with simulations of flooding and a unified water management system that takes into account adjacent catchment areas.
Therefore there is no lack of information – but authorities have to take note of it and act accordingly. One of the most important lessons from the past is that rivers are only one element among many in the “water system”. They should be understood as components of branching catchment areas and as dynamic systems, from source to mouth.
A look at other countries
Third, it would be worthwhile for Germany to look at what other countries have achieved with regard to civil protection. Generally speaking, it is true that the more prosperous the society, the larger the property damage. Conversely, the smaller a society’s income is, the more people will lose their health or their lives.
The latter also applies to countries like Bangladesh and China, which for decades have put great effort into regulating water through targeted measures, both on national and international level. Both countries have achieved great progress when it comes to flood protection, for instance by employing systems of dykes and locks, canals, expansion areas, suitable architecture and an effective information, warning and evacuation system (for more on Bangladesh, see Saleemul Huq at www.dandc.eu). Germany could learn from this work, too.
Japan in particular can serve as an example when looking for ways to improve. The country has a nationwide, electronically accessible risk map that allows users to simulate specific risks, including flood paths, landslides, earthquakes or tsunamis. Japan also operates a unified, comprehensive information and warning system.
From as early as kindergarten all the way up to old age, Japanese people are trained to respond to risks – particularly earthquakes – through regular exercises conducted at the neighbourhood level. Evacuation routes are labelled and meeting points with food and medical care are kept available. Every municipality has crisis centres whose personnel are regularly trained and tested. All of these things would also be desirable for Germany’s hazards.
Fourth, finally, authorities could have learned from the specific history of the Ahr Valley region. For the Ahr River, in addition to regular seasonal flooding, historical sources also record 64 above-average water levels, including particularly serious summer flooding in the years 1601, 1804 and 1910. People understood that the combination of storms, precipitation and the steep gradient of the Ahr create both extreme crests and high flow rates. The former are very destructive and the latter reduce the amount of time authorities have to warn the public and react.
Shortcomings and failures
Unfortunately, no one seemed to take any notice of all this knowledge in the Ahr Valley. Even though relevant warning data was available, it was ineffectively communicated and did not reach the public.
The municipalities’ crisis and disaster task forces were alerted and activated much too late. In many areas, there were serious technical shortcomings with regard to the survey and mapping of the location. The knowledge of the emergency personnel had drained away. A cross-regional coordination of emergency efforts also took an extremely long time to materialise, meaning that the necessary cooperation between organisations was lacking. Instead, in many places unorganised volunteers spontaneously took over all the tasks that regular civil protection is expected to perform.
In light of the many significant failures and shortcomings, the question arises whether the loss of life, health and property could have been avoided. Without a doubt, no one would have had to die if an effective and timely warning system had been in place. Preventive and organised civil protection could have considerably reduced outages and subsequent damage.
In general, German civil protection lacks realistic training exercises, competent leadership and above all well-rehearsed cooperation that transcends the egotism of individual organisations. On the other hand, the damage to infrastructure and development in the Ahr Valley has structural causes, which can only be remedied with fundamental changes that would also alter, or even destroy, some of the iconic character of this wine-growing region. This issue must be considered.
Rebuilding in a high-risk area
Other aspects deserve attention too. Authorities should consider carefully where future construction can take place. In the entire Ahr Valley, there is no space available for retention areas or structures that would divert water. Almost inevitably, therefore, people are rebuilding in the old, high-risk locations. Politicians tend to tolerate this, and the state, insurers and donors provide financial help. Exemptions are allowing people to continue on “like before” and are thereby literally laying the foundation for the next catastrophe. Insurers are exacerbating the problem by giving preference to the reconstruction of the old rather than to renovations that would help avoid a repeat of the same damage.
It is obvious, therefore, that authorities in the Ahr Valley have not succeeded in overcoming the forces of inertia to implement higher-level, reason-based civil protection. Their reactions are also telling: they gloss over problems and play the blame game. Supposedly it was impossible to predict this amount of rain and this velocity. They maintain that, generally speaking, the region is “well prepared” and they did what they could. This pattern is familiar in the literature on natural disasters. All too often, other people or uncontrollable circumstances are to blame, whereas the person him- or herself did everything right.
The responsible authorities have to change their attitude and confront the consequences of this catastrophe openly and honestly in order to avoid future suffering. You can only learn from experience if you actually want to learn.
German Committee for Disaster Reduction:
Montag Stiftung Urbane Räume (Hg.), 2008: Riverscapes: Designing Urban Embankments. Bonn, Basel, Boston, Berlin, Birkhäuser Verlag.
Wolf R. Dombrowsky is a professor of disaster management at Steinbeis University Berlin. He advises organisations, agencies, ministries, police and military on how to respond to disasters.