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Monday, 19 August, 2002, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Europe's flood lessons
Wrecked home in Wittenberg, Germany
Poor planning is partly to blame, say engineers
The floodwaters across Europe have not receded before the questions begin.

Side-stepping the debate on climate change, is there a simple lack of common sense on the ground?


We have got to be more prepared and plan for extreme events, which are doing so much damage

Professor Donald Knight
Poor planning, fragmented warning and defence systems and deforestation may have all worsened the current situation, say experts.

"Floods are fairly common in rivers," says Donald Knight, professor of water engineering at the University of Birmingham.

"This current situation may follow exceptional rainstorms and exceptional events, but we should be planning for the more bizarre events.

"We need to look at the 'what-if' scenarios. Airline pilots are trained for all sorts of scenarios. Hydraulic engineers should be doing the same."

The high-tech end of flood forecasting involves a complicated blend of meteorology, hydrology and hydraulics, creating computer models where probabilities can be worked out with reasonable accuracy.

Flood plains

Large-scale engineering projects can sometimes be the answer. Vienna, for example, is thought to have been spared the worst effects of the current havoc because of far-sighted engineering projects which began in the late 1800s.

Flood scene in Hungary
Europe's rivers are reclaiming some of their original territory

But some solutions are low-tech.

Not building on flood plains, for example, is a simple matter of common sense.

"The toll was made worse due to the sprawl of homes and industry over areas that ecologically have always been flood plains," says the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe (REC).

Keeping flood plains clear of debris is also vital. Fallen trees can turn into deadly battering rams if left on flood plains to be swept away in times of storm.

Deforestation is also widely seen as part of the problem.

In Austria, badly hit by the current crisis, the finger of blame has been directed by some at local mayors who have approved forest clearances to make way for lucrative holiday homes and business parks.

"The more trees and plants that an area loses, the faster the run-off and more water that ends up in the river," says the REC.

"Throughout the 20th Century, in the industrial north and mid-latitudes in the northern hemisphere, forest area and vegetation coverage in general shrunk more rapidly every year due to acid rain and developments in industry, transport and nature."

River changes

Campaigners like the environmental group WWF point to changes within the rivers themselves as a flood factor.

Village near Danube in Hungary
Homes near rivers could witness massive insurance rises
Turning rivers like the Danube into major waterways has been a recipe for disaster, says WWF director general in Vienna, Doctor Claude Martin.

"Many of these big river systems have been severely modified through the last century and once you have a flood, dams break or the water flows over the dams and then reclaims the land that was previously part of the river," he told the BBC.

Improvements

On the ground, the day-to-day management of the current crisis has attracted little criticism. The mass evacuations from Prague, Dresden and other towns and cities were all organised ahead of time, after accurate forecasting of the flood waters peaking.

"In this case, particularly in relation to Prague, we seem to have seen a fairly rational analysis of the kinds of evacuation strategy that needs to be adopted, to process people in an orderly way," says Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, head of the UK's Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University.

Warning procedures have been dramatically improved since 1997, he says, when eastern Germany, the Czech Republic suffered serious flooding.

But if Europe's warning system is shaping up, its planning policies still betray a startling lack of common sense, say academics.

Most experts agree that the climate change debate should run parallel to better planning on the ground.

But even the best policies cannot prevent tragedy striking, Professor Penning-Rowsell argues.

"You could afforest the whole area and you have 20 centimetres of rain in a week - you're still going to have massive flooding," he says.

"The land use doesn't have such an influence when you have such major events as we are experiencing in Europe now."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Anderson
"The line of sandbags has been built up by a small army of volunteers and fire service workers"
The BBC's James Coomarasamy
"Dams burst today in several towns along the swollen river Elbe"

European havoc

Germany ravaged

Prague drama

Freak phenomenon?

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19 Aug 02 | Business
18 Aug 02 | Europe
17 Aug 02 | Europe
15 Aug 02 | Europe
13 Aug 02 | Entertainment
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