Why weren’t all residents of Germany’s flood zones warned via text?

German authorities are under fire over allegations that they did not give enough warning to residents over the fatal flooding. Now there are calls for a mass texting alert system, which is not in place yet partly due to privacy concerns.

Why weren't all residents of Germany's flood zones warned via text?
The scene in Bad Münstereifel, North Rhine-Westphalia, on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

More than 160 people have died, hundreds are injured and towns and infrastructure has been destroyed in the flooding that hit western German regions last week.

As the clean-up and search for missing people continues, more people are asking what went wrong – and if authorities could have done more to warn people of the floods. 

“In the worst flood disaster in nearly 60 years in Germany, with at least 165 deaths, disaster management failed to warn citizens,” wrote Bild newspaper in a damning report. “Barely functioning sirens, no early evacuations and data protection prevented warning text messages to all affected citizens.”

In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, British Professor of Hydrology Hannah Cloke called the German flood disaster “a monumental failure of the system” and blamed “breaks in the chain” of preparation.

Why does Germany not use text messages to warn people?

Local authorities in Germany use sirens, loudspeaker announcements or radio and TV bulletins to warn residents of acute danger or issue evacuation orders.

Warnings are also issued via apps like Nina or Katwarn on smartphones. But there appears to have been a breakdown in communication last week. 

READ ALSO: German flood disaster – what went wrong?

Some survivors told reporters on the ground that they didn’t see any official warnings, and instead were informed by family members, neighbours or friends.

Due to the flooding, however, some places were cut off from the outside world due to power failures, making it more difficult to warn people. 

On Tuesday federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer told Bild that he wanted German politicians to implement a so-called cell broadcast system. This would see SMS alerts sent out to all mobile network users, either in a country or specific area in just a few seconds, in case of emergencies.

Germany has chosen not to base its widespread emergency alerts on this system, unlike other countries such as the Netherlands, Greece, Romania, Italy, or the USA.

“I am in favour of having these push messages reach citizens via mobile phone providers as well,” the CSU politician told Bild. “But that has always failed because the political will has been lacking in some places.”

Bild reported that Germany doesn’t have this system due to data protection concerns. Germany is known for having a sensitive approach when it comes to privacy. 

Scheuer added: “Protection of the population is paramount: we have data protection, but we also need data accountability – especially for information for citizens.”

READ ALSO: Rebuilding Germany’s flood ravaged areas ‘could take years’

According to Bild, in Germany SMS warning messages can only be sent to recipients who have agreed to this beforehand.

However, there is an exception to this, reports Bild – the Covid pandemic. Mobile phone users, for instance, receive a text when they arrive in the country from abroad alerting them of the quarantine and travel rules in Germany. 

So far, the introduction of warning messages being sent directly to everyone’s phone has failed due to data protection, Scheuer said.

“This catastrophe will for once bring home the reality to many in the political discussion,” said Scheuer. “We have the data, but we must now have the legal possibilities, the tools, that our institutions also reach the citizen with this information.”

The Local has asked the Transport Ministry for more clarification on Germany’s emergency alert system and why text messaging is not used widely. 

The UK recently brought in a new emergency alert system to warn people about serious situations such as terror attacks, flooding or public health emergencies. 

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Germany set for scorching temperatures up to 30C

After days of summery weather, temperatures in Germany are set to peak at around 30C this week before a cooler spell over the weekend.

Germany set for scorching temperatures up to 30C

After a long spell of sunny weather, most parts of Germany could see summer arrive early this week with clear blue skies and sweltering temperatures – but the hot weather may not last long, according to meteorologists.

Heat and sunshine should last through the middle of the week but suddenly give way to cooler temperatures over the weekend, the German Weather Service (DWD) predicts.

On Tuesday, most regions see temperatures in the mid to high 20s and a continuation of the dry weather of the past week. In the northeast, including Berlin, the mercury could reach 28C, and temperatures are likely to be between 22C and 28C across western and central areas.

Those in higher altitude regions of the south and those along the north coast should be the only people needing their rain jackets as this part of the country could see scattered showers and clouds, according to DWD.

Wednesday is the day to plan a lake trip as this is likely to be the hottest day of the week. 

Most parts of the country will stay sunny and dry throughout the day and people can expect summery temperatures of between 24C and 30C.

For those on the north coast, it’s likely to be a little chillier, with temperatures of around 15C and partly overcast skies.

Thursday and Friday are likely to bring with them cooler temperatures, with the hot spell giving way to scattered showers and clouds in many regions over the weekend.

On Saturday, southern regions will see highs up of up to 23C while the northern regions will slip down to 18C during the day.

But anyone planning to be out and about on Saturday evening in the south should bring a warm jacket as the mercury could drop as low as 4C. 

Sunny weather Standbad Lübars

A woman enjoys the warm weather at Standbad Lübars in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

Northern regions ‘too dry’ 

Though most people have been thrilled to see a warm burst of sunshine in the middle of spring, climate experts have been voicing concern about the uneven rainfall across the country.

In an analysis published on the DWD website, the meteorologists claimed that the northern and eastern parts of Germany have been “clearly too dry” in the past weeks.

“A first glance at the current map already reveals that the regional differences of April have continued in May,” they wrote. “In almost all regions of the northern half and in some parts of the centre, hardly more than 10 and in many places not even 5 litres of rain per square-metre fell in the first days of May.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

Though experts had predicted low rainfall, the first 10 days of May have been even drier than predicted.

The lack of rainfall has caused groundwater to dry up significantly, sparking fears of forest fires and drought over summer.

Though more rainfall could come at the end of May, the Weather Channel’s Jan Schenk believes the probability of an overly dry summer is now “very high”.

Schenk believes that predictions for rainfall could have overestimated the amount of precipitation by up to 50 litres per square metre in some areas. This is a reason for households to start saving water now, he told HNA