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Germany’s New Climate Reality: A Country Races to Prepare for the Unavoidable

  • July 29, 2021

But sometimes warning people, planning and changing the ways things are built doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes the only thing that remains is a realization that nature is untamable, and that there comes a point where we have to yield to it. The village of Weesenstein, in the eastern German state of Saxony, is a case in point.

Weesenstein is a village of 200 people located in a valley 30 meters deep through which the tranquil Müglitz River flows. In normal times, the water ripples through the pretty village, with its Gothic-Classical castle, at a rate of 0.66 cubic meters per second. If there’s anywhere in Saxony that can be compared to Schuld in the Ahr Valley, where this month’s devastating flooding happened, it’s probably Weesenstein.

The village became famous in the night between August 12 and 13 in 2002. After days of heavy rain, the Müglitz River plowed through the riverbed at a rate, now known, of 89.4 cubic meters per second. Ten homes in the village were completely destroyed. The pictures of the Jäpel family went around the world. They first took refuge on the roof of their house, but when that also collapsed in the flood, they spent hours sitting on their home’s only remaining wall in the raging river until a helicopter finally arrived to help them.

If you didn’t know the place before then, you probably wouldn’t notice the gaps that now exist. The parking lot in front of the castle is full and tourists walk through the village. The Müglitz flows lazily along the wide riverbed. The only trace can be found at the village bridge, which also fell victim to the flood in 2002, where there is a plaque commemorating the families that no longer live there: the Jäpels, the Sobczinskis, the Jahns, the Fritzsches and others. Where their houses once stood there is now a meadow that gives the river space to flood if necessary.

Birgit Lange organized the village’s protection. She’s the operations manager at the state dam administration and is responsible for the Upper Elbe Valley. Lange says the region was flagged as a problem long before the 2002 flood. According to Lange, rapidly draining masses of water shoot down into the valley from the surrounding forests, meaning that the warning period for floods is only two to three hours.

But little was done to prepare Weesenstein before the catastrophe. As early as 1901, the Royal Saxon Ministry of Finance had suggested building a dam above the Müglitz Valley. Then nothing happened. When the Oder River in Brandenburg overflowed its banks in 1997, the Saxony state government decided to build a flood retention basin in Lauenstein. The cornerstone was laid on August 5, 2002, seven days before the flood.

The dam in Lauenstein has since been completed. It is 8.8 meters higher than had been planned in 2002, and the storage volume has been more than doubled to 5.19 million cubic meters. Two more retention basins have also gone into operation in the eastern Ore Mountains and three are in the approval process.

Those responsible have learned from the flood catastrophe of 2002, not just in Weesenstein, but throughout Saxony. There have been 749 projects since the flood, and according to the Environment Ministry, the state has invested 3.6 billion euros ($4.3 billion) in flood protection.

Upstream and downstream of Weesenstein there are now bedload retention areas. Flotsam, debris and tree trunks are to be deposited there during floods to prevent them from impeding the flow of water at bridges. Weirds were removed, embankments secured, floor-protection walls raised and the bridges now have a larger clearance. All of this cost about 6.2 million euros – for a village of 200 people.

The centerpiece of the protection concept in the village is the flood basin, which was created precisely where the people once lived. “It is reasonable that houses have not been rebuilt in this area,” Lange says. In the future, he says, there needs to be more long-term legislation to ensure that nothing is built on natural drainageways.

Climate expert Karsten Smid of Greenpeace, the environmental protection organization, is also calling for more legal regulations. The current flooding shows that we are dealing with “a completely new quality of disaster as a result of climate change,” he says. He argues that similar things could happen anywhere and that any region in Germany could be affected. “We will have to give up some valley locations – we have to completely rethink things now,” Smid says. He argues that homes will have to be moved out of the way, bridges will have to be redesigned and river landscapes will have to be renaturalized to allow water to drain and seep away.

In Weesenstein, there was little resistance to the resettlement after the flood The shock ran deep. Saxony bought up the land and compensated the people affected, most of whom moved to the safety of higher ground.

Birgit Lange has a new, as-yet-unpublished map in her hand. In yellow and red, it shows floods that occur statistically every 100 or 200 years in Weesenstein. It shows that in a record, 100-year flood, some houses would still be underwater, despite all of the measures taken. In case of a 200-year flood, many of the homes would be. When that happens, there’s only one option: fleeing.

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