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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Austrian anger grows over floods
A flooded restaurant in the Austrian city of Linz
Businesses in Linz have been devastated by the floods

The top of the street sign is still just visible above the brown, vengeful flood.

"Upper Danube Street," it reads. One trembles to think what has become of "Lower Danube Street."

At first light on Wednesday, the former inhabitants and shop owners on the left bank of the River Danube were already out in force.

They were washing the mud off the outside of their houses or pouring water, by the bucketful, out of their front doors - as though bailing out a sinking ship.

An aerial photograph flooded houses in Linz
Could this flooding have been prevented?
While the floods begin to fall in upper Austria, they are still rising in lower Austria, with the city of Krems particularly hard hit.

But while the most dramatic pictures focus on the historic towns along the Danube, questions are beginning to be asked about the causes of the flooding and the human errors which may have made the loss of life and damage worse that it should have been.

Finger of blame

In particular, scientists and environmentalists are pointing the finger of blame at the mayors of towns and villages in mountain valleys who have allowed major deforestation for holiday homes, industrial zones and business parks to be built on what were until recently, the forested shores of mountain rivers.

They argue that the heavy downpours of recent weeks could once have been safely absorbed in the forests of the Austrian Alps, only slowly discharging the water into the bigger rivers.

What caused the big floods this time is both the quantity of the rain and the speed at which it has thundered down the tributaries of the Danube, causing the main river to burst its banks.

Two girls try to clear muddy flood debris
Residents in affected areas are trying to clear up the damage
"People have been so busy regulating, they've forgotten about what high water actually is," Klement Tockner, a wetland ecologist, told the newspaper Die Presse. "They trusted too much in technical measures."

The measures he is referring to are the dredging and bulldozing riverbeds to make them deeper to carry the water away more quickly, and the building of dykes to concentrate the rivers in narrower channels.

"Greedy mayors"

Die Presse carries a photograph of a stream near Innsbruck in 1993 - completely overgrown with forest. At the same spot five years later, a new road runs beside it and there is not a tree in sight.

Other Austrian newspaper take up the same theme, blaming "greedy mayors" for throwing local knowledge, based on centuries of experience, to the wind to woo businessmen and property developers in their hurry to be re-elected.

Emergency services bring water to a stranded family
Some people are still stranded in their homes
A lead article on the front page of Der Standard, a leading daily newspaper dealing with economic issues, makes the same point.

"Planning permission is given against (people's) better judgement," reads the article. "But whether the lessons will be learned is open to question."

Back in Linz, the sun came out for a few minutes on Wednesday morning, drying the mud on the streets above the lapping brown waters.

And there's a happy story in the local newspapers too about how Police Major Johannes Prager saved the lives of four people trapped in their cars in riding floodwaters in the outskirts of the city.

European havoc

Germany ravaged

Prague drama

Freak phenomenon?


See also:

12 Aug 02 | Europe
09 Aug 02 | Europe
10 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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