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THE VIEW FROM GERMANY

WEATHER

‘We must learn to give rivers space’

Since the last extreme floods in 2002, a total of €530 million has been invested in flood prevention. Der Tagesspiegel's Robert Ide argues that this money was wasted on containing rivers with concrete, rather than giving them vital space.

'We must learn to give rivers space'
Photo: DPA

All along the Danube, the Elbe, the Mulde and the Spree, water levels keep rising as the great rivers, which normally cleave through the country like lifelines, have suddenly turned into lay-lines of suffering.

As many people’s property sinks below the stinking slime, they take with them the hopes of an idyllic life on, and indeed with, the river. For all the spontaneous help, all the sacrifice volunteers have shown for their neighbours, the 2013 floods have made us all helpless.

Even the phrase “flood of the century,” first all-too-easily uttered along the riverbanks in 2002, does not seem able to do justice to the sheer amount of water seen in the recent floods. So now it’s the “flood of the millennium.” But then all this could reoccur again next year.

Behind the front lines of the sandbags, hurriedly stacked up and then taken down again, life goes on. Once the water has receded and the refuse has been cleared away, certain interest groups will make sure new dams are built.

And isn’t that understandable? The people in Grimma, the old town in Saxony which took millions to rebuild, did not want to have a wall built all the way around it – and now it is back under water.

The residents did not want their front gardens overshadowed by a protective wall and so the general public is expected to pick up the bill when the floods come back next time.

It will be the farmers who pay if our waterways are not given more room – it will be their fields which suddenly serve as replacement floodplains for grassland that has been concreted over.

Once again, like in 2002, politicians are enthusiastically tramping over dykes (Chancellor Angela Merkel still not sporting any wellies) and spouting repetitive warnings about how the rivers need more space.

But after the clear up operation, both local and national politicians lose their momentum in the face of local interest groups. Give the rivers space? All very well, but not in my back yard!

Since the last extreme flooding in 2002 a total of €530 million has been invested in flood prevention – yet most of the money was spent on concrete dams and infrastructure projects. But concrete does not allow water to harmlessly seep away.

Less than a tenth of the money was spent on moving the dykes back to give the river bed more space. In Brandenburg alone, since the river Oder flooded in 1997, the creation of up to 6000 hectares of flood plains has been promised.

But complaints from residents and landowners in the lowlands around the village of Neuzelle have managed to keep the flood prevention measures at bay – if not the flood waters themselves.

So, are the floods an unfortunate accident? Actually no. The water just took the space it needed, destroying many of the livelihoods which after the last flood nobody was willing to insure.

Many people have helped, where and when they could. The crisis centres have so far been doing a good job, despite the fact that even the most modern technology does not seem capable of predicting the relationship between rainfall and the rise in river water levels.

The whole of Germany is again staring transfixed at its flowing lifelines. But in time the gaze will quickly fall back onto the buildings – even if they are built too close to the water. Until the next drama at the dykes, that is.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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ENERGY

Why sunny weather in Germany can switch off solar panels

The more the sun shines in the southern German town of Aurach, the more likely it is that Jens Husemann's solar panels will be disconnected from the grid -- an exasperating paradox at a time when Germany is navigating an energy supply crisis.

Why sunny weather in Germany can switch off solar panels

“It’s being switched off every day,” Husemann told AFP during a recent sunny spell, saying there had been more than 120 days of forced shutdowns so far this year.

Husemann, who runs an energy conversion business near Munich, also owns a sprawling solar power system on the flat roof of a transport company in Aurach, Bavaria.

The energy generated flows into power lines run by grid operator N-Ergie, which then distributes it on the network.

But in sunny weather, the power lines are becoming overloaded — leading the grid operator to cut off supply from the solar panels.

“It’s a betrayal of the population,” said Husemann, pointing to soaring electricity prices and a continued push to install more solar panels across Germany.

Europe’s biggest economy is eyeing an ambitious switch to renewables making up 80 percent of its electricity from 2030 in a bid to go carbon neutral.

N-ergie thermal power station

The thermal power station of energy supplier N-Ergie in Nuremberg, southern Germany. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put a spanner in the works.

Moscow has cut gas supplies to Germany by 80 percent, in what is believed to be a bid to weaken the European powerhouse’s resolve in backing Ukraine.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take for Germany to turn off Russian gas?

As a result, Berlin has been scrambling for alternative sources across the world to replace the shortfall.

This makes it all the more frustrating for Husemann, whose solar panels normally generate enough electricity for 50 households. With the repeated shutdowns, he suspects they will only supply half of their capacity by the end
of the year.

Grid bottlenecks

Grid operator N-Ergie, which is responsible for harvesting electricity from Husemann’s panels, admits the situation is less than ideal.

There were 257 days last year when it had to cut off supply from solar panels on parts of the grid.

“We are currently witnessing — and this is a good thing — an unprecedented boom in photovoltaic parks,” Rainer Kleedoerfer, head of N-Ergie’s development department, told AFP.

An employee of energy supplier N-ERGIE working at the company's network control centre in Nuremberg, southern Germany. 

An employee of energy supplier N-Ergie working at the company’s network control centre in Nuremberg, southern Germany.  (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

But while it takes just a couple of years to commission a solar power plant, updating the necessary infrastructure takes between five and 10 years, he said.

“The number of interventions and the amount of curtailed energy have increased continuously in recent years” as a result, according to N-Ergie spokesman Michael Enderlein.

“The likelihood is that grid bottlenecks will actually increase in the coming years,” while resolving them will take several more years, Enderlein said.

According to Carsten Koenig, managing director of the German Solar Industry Association, the problem is not unique to solar power and also affects wind energy.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Solar bottlenecks tend to be regional and temporary, he said. “Occasionally, however, we hear that especially in rural areas in Bavaria, the shutdowns are more frequent.”

2.4 million households

Koenig agrees the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“This will be especially true if political measures aimed at sufficiently expanding the power grid in Germany… drag on for too long,” he said.

Some 6.1 terawatt hours of electricity from renewables had to be curtailed in 2020, according to the most recent figures available.

With an average consumption of around 2,500 kilowatt hours per year in a two-person household, this would have been enough to power around 2.4 million households.

A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Network Agency said it did not share the belief that “it will not be possible to expand the network in line with demand in the coming years”.

Only some aspects of the expansion are seeing delays, the spokesman said — mainly due to slow approval procedures and a lack of specialist companies to do the work.

According to Husemann there have also been delays to the payments he is supposed to receive in return for the solar power he supplies — or cannot supply.

He said he is already owed around 35,000 euros ($35,600) for electricity produced so far this year that has never found its way into a socket.

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