A German Village Rethinks Its Relationship With Peasants After Deadly Floods


RECH, Germany — Shortly before midnight, Dominik Gieler received a final WhatsApp message from his mother. He had watched a river tsunami take over one, then two, and then all the houses around it. “I’m not leaving here,” she told him.

Then the connection failed.

Mr. Gieler, mayor of a small village in the Ahr Valley, a verdant wine-growing region in West Germany that became the epicenter of devastating floods last month, was just five minutes away from his mother but couldn’t help it. He was stranded on the top floor of his own home with his wife and children after the gentle creek he played in as a child turned into a raging 33-foot river roaring on either side of the roof-bearing second-floor windows. and all caravans.

That July night, the river swallowed up not only Mr. Gieler’s entire childhood home, but also the ground on which he once stood. His mother’s body was found 10 days later, five miles down the river.

“I’ve never felt so small and powerless,” he said one afternoon recently, looking at the now empty space across the river.

But there is something else amid the confusion of mutual accusations. a sense of humility inside facing a disaster that no one thought possible. The disaster brought home the fact that climate change is already here and even a wealthy country like Germany is experiencing its effects. Decades, even centuries, of many bad decisions that have turned the Valley of the Ahr into a deathtrap have forced him to painfully accept that the flood has been worsened.

“There has always been flooding here but never like this,” said Guido Nisius, a local politician. “It is the sum of all our mistakes that has caused this to be catastrophic.”

Mr. Nisius sees evidence of this every day. He lives south of Rech, near the Nürburgring, Germany’s most famous auto racing ring. It was built in 1925 at the expense of a water retention reservoir that was planned after a devastating flood in 1910 but derailed by World War I.

At the time, troubled local politicians faced a trade-off: Build the reservoir as a flood protection measure. Or build the racing ring that will employ 2,500 unemployed locals for two years and give one of Germany’s poorest regions a nationwide appeal tied to one of the most promising innovations of the time: the automobile.

“There’s no doubt that this reservoir will help us today,” said Wolfgang Büchs, a biologist who grew up in the area and has written about the geography and vegetation in the Ahr Valley.

Mr. Büchs said the economy is a way of overshadowing other arguments.

It points to monocultures of spruce trees interspersed at the foothills of the mountains. They were first planted here in the 19th century, as they grow faster and produce more wood than native oak and birch trees. But their shallow roots don’t connect the earth either, and they don’t absorb any water these days because they’re dead or dying from a bark beetle plague caused by the hotter summers.

Sweet corn fields are planted for inexpensive animal feed, but they hold much less water than grasslands. The vineyards are planted vertically rather than horizontally as it makes work easier and more productive – but the design allows for rainwater to reach the valley clearly.

And then there are the roads and buildings that occupy the river, closing the ground that should have been natural flood plains.

“In a way, the river has taken back what we took from it,” said Mr. Büchs, who lost his job after his pharmacy was destroyed in the flood. “Our past sins are coming back to haunt us.”

“There is a bigger lesson in floods,” he said. Germans have long lived under the illusion that the devastating consequences of climate change will be felt elsewhere.

This helps explain why meteorologists’ emergency warnings in the days before the flood were not taken seriously by regional and local politicians and many residents.

“It was a mistake of our imagination,” said Andreas Solheid, a doctor and firefighter who was on duty for two weeks immediately after the flooding began. “We couldn’t even imagine that. We thought this would happen in other countries as well. We see something like this on the news every week, but then we switch channels and forget about it.”

Like most Germans, Mr. Solheid has never doubted that climate change is real and man-made. It follows the carbon footprint. His family has solar panels on their roofs. But the floods discouraged him and many others here from the idea that minor fixes rather than fundamental changes were sufficient.

“He’s here,” he said. “We have to do our best to limit it. And we have to learn how to adapt to it.”

There has always been flooding in the Ahr Valley. But the number has increased. There were high waters again in 2013 and 2016, but no one died. “We were called in more often for extreme weather conditions,” said Mr Solheid, who has served in the fire department for 18 years.

None of the historic floods has been so devastating.

In Rech alone, 13 homes were flooded, six of which were destroyed to the point of being more severely damaged. A bridge that was hundreds of years old and withstood all past floods collapsed. Train tracks running past the edge of the vineyards behind the village were torn.

For those old enough to remember World War II, collapsed buildings, torn houses and mountains of rubble evoke past traumas.

“It looks like it was in 1945,” said Günter Prybyla, 86, who was buried under rubble for five days in a bombed-out basement when she was 8 years old.

“But this is a war without bombs. Nature is backfiring.”

Adolf Schreiner, a winemaker in Rech, said there was something almost biblical about the situation. NS droughts in 2018, the epidemic and now the flood.

His family has been making wine in the valley for four generations, and the water has never before reached their home, which slopes back from the river. But this time all his barrels and wine tanks were flooded.

A third of its vines have been destroyed and may never be planted again. But Mr. Schreiner took a philosophical view.

“Maybe taking a step back wouldn’t be so bad,” he said as he washed the mud off the hundreds of wine bottles that had been flooded in his basement. “Most of us live to excess.”

The mayor of Rech, Mr. Gieler, is determined that his mother’s death and all the destruction must not be in vain.

“We need to rebuild sustainably,” he said.

It wants to connect the village to a greener district heating network; this previously seemed very expensive as it required miles’ worth of new plumbing. However, the plumbing still needs to be rebuilt, as roads and sewers have been destroyed.

He wants to electrify the dilapidated train line.

And he wants to rethink how to give the river more space. “I don’t know if we can rebuild the 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’re going to need help,” he said, with both money and expertise.

“If not now, when?” said.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *