After Deadly Floods, a German Village Rethinks Its Relationship to Nature
RECH, Germany – Shortly before midnight Dominik Gieler received a final WhatsApp message from his mother. She had seen a river tsunami take first one, then two, then all the houses around her. “I’m not going to make it,” she told him.
Then the connection failed.
Mr Gieler, the mayor of a small village in the Ahr Valley, a lush wine-growing region in western Germany that became the epicenter of devastating flooding last month, was just a a five-minute drive from his mother, but he couldn’t help her. He was trapped on the top floor of his own home with his wife and children after the gentle stream he had played in as a child turned into a 33-foot raging river roaring past his second-story windows of the two sides carrying whole roofs and motorhomes.
The river engulfed not only Mr. Gieler’s childhood home that July night, but also the ground it once stood on. Her mother’s body was found five miles downstream 10 days later.
“I have never felt so small and helpless,” he said one recent afternoon as he gazed into the now empty space on the opposite bank of the river.
But in the midst of the cacophony of recriminations, there is also something else. A feeling of humility in the face of a calamity that no one had believed possible. The disaster made it clear that climate change is already here, and even a wealthy country like Germany is experiencing the effects. And it forced a painful recognition that the flooding was compounded by many bad decisions over the decades, if not centuries, that turned the Ahr Valley into a death trap.
“There has always been flooding here, but never like this,” said Guido Nisius, a local politician. “It was the sum of all our mistakes that caused the catastrophic dimension of this.”
Mr. Nisius sees proof of this every day. He lives south of Rech, near the Nürburgring, Germany’s most famous racing ring. It was built in 1925 at the expense of a water holding tank, which had been planned after a devastating flood in 1910 but derailed by WWI.
At the time, energy-strapped local politicians were faced with a compromise: to build the reservoir as a flood protection measure. Or build the racing ring, which would put 2,500 unemployed people to work for two years and give one of Germany’s poorest regions a national attraction linked to one of the most promising innovations of the time: l automobile.
“There is no doubt that this water reservoir would have helped us today,” said Wolfgang Büchs, a biologist who grew up in the area and wrote about the geography and vegetation of the Ahr Valley.
The economy has a way to trump other arguments, Büchs said.
It indicates the monocultures of spruces scattered on the sides of the mountains. They were first planted here in the 19th century because they grow faster and produce more wood than native oaks and birches. But their shallow roots do not bind the earth either, and nowadays they do not absorb water at all because they are dead or dying from bark beetle plague caused by over summers. hot.
Sweet corn fields are grown for cheap animal feed, but they retain much less water than grasslands. The vineyards were planted vertically rather than horizontally, as this makes them easier to work with and more productive – but the design gives rainwater a clear path down the valley.
And then there are the roads and buildings that encroached on the river, sealing the ground on what should be natural floodplains.
“In a way, the river took back what we took from it,” said Mr Büchs, whose sister lost her job after the pharmacy she worked for during the floods was destroyed. “Our past sins come back to haunt us.”
Extreme weather conditions
There is a bigger lesson in flooding, he said. The Germans have long lived under the illusion that the catastrophic consequences of climate change would be felt elsewhere.
This helps explain why the urgent warnings from meteorologists in the days leading up to the floods were not taken seriously by regional and local politicians and many locals.
“It was a failure of our imagination,” said Andreas Solheid, a doctor and firefighter who was on duty for two weeks immediately after the floods. “We just couldn’t imagine it. We thought it was happening to other countries. We see something like that on the news every week, but then we switch channels and forget about it. “
Like most Germans, Mr. Solheid never doubted that climate change was real and man-made. It tracks its carbon footprint. Her parents have solar panels on their roof. But the floods have disillusioned him, and many others here, with the idea that small fixes, rather than fundamental changes, are enough.
“It’s here,” he said. “We have to do what we can to limit it. And we have to learn to adapt to it.
There has always been flooding in the Ahr Valley. But the number has increased. There were floods in 2013 and again in 2016, although no one died. “We were called more frequently for extreme weather conditions,” said Solheid, who served in the fire department for 18 years.
None of the historic floods has been as destructive as this one.
In Rech alone, 13 houses were washed away, six others were so badly damaged that they are being demolished. A bridge that is several hundred years old and has withstood all past flooding has been destroyed. The railway tracks along the edge of the vineyards behind the village have been torn up.
For those old enough to remember World War II, the collapsed buildings, houses with torn facades and mountains of rubble evoke traumas of the past.
“It looks like 1945,” said Günter Prybyla, 86, who spent five days buried under the rubble of a bombed basement when he was eight.
“But this is a war without bombs. Nature retaliates. “
There is something almost biblical about the situation, said Adolf Schreiner, winemaker at Rech. Droughts in 2018, the pandemic and now the floods.
His family has been making wine in the valley for four generations, and never before has water reached their house, which is set back from the river on the slope. But this time, all of his wine barrels and vats were submerged.
A third of its vines have been destroyed and may never be replanted. But Mr. Schreiner took a philosophical point of view.
“Maybe a step back wouldn’t be so bad,” he said, washing the mud off hundreds of wine bottles that had been submerged in his flooded basement. “Most of us live in excess.”
Mr. Gieler, the mayor of Rech, is determined that his mother’s death and all the destruction will not be in vain.
“We have to rebuild in a sustainable way,” he said.
He wants to connect the village to a more environmentally friendly district heating network, which previously seemed prohibitively expensive because it required many kilometers of new plumbing. But with the roads and sewers destroyed, the plumbing needs to be rebuilt anyway.
He wants to electrify the train line, which is in ruins.
And he wants to rethink how to give more space to the river. “I don’t know if we can or should rebuild houses and vineyards where they were destroyed,” he said.
It won’t be easy, he admitted. Eighty percent of the village lives on wine.
“We will need help,” he said, both money and expertise.
“If not now when?” he said.
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