Germany’s interior, economics ministries give go-ahead to emergency SMS warnings

In the wake of the worst flood disaster in Germany in nearly 60 years, German Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer has ordered the introduction of a text-message-warning system for emergencies.

Germany's interior, economics ministries give go-ahead to emergency SMS warnings
A destroyed house is pictured in Insul near Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, western Germany, on July 17th, 2021. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

Seehofer told broadcaster ARD-Hauptstadtstudio on Friday that he had ordered the introduction of the so-called cell broadcast system.

This warning system would make it possible to send out SMS alerts to all mobile network users with no need to know phone numbers, in case of emergencies.

It could also be used to warn residents in flood-risk areas about heavy rain and flooding. 

However, Seehofer emphasised that he only saw the cell broadcast system as an addition to the warning systems already in place.

“Warning the population has to work on all channels. If you’re woken up at night, you need to know what has happened and what you should do,” he said.

The text alerts could supplement other methods of issuing warnings, such as sirens, smartphone apps and radio bulletins. 

Although the Ministry of the Interior was leading the initiative, the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy also welcomed the text-warning system, which would make it possible to “send warnings simply, quickly and in line with data protection to a large number of people”.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands, Greece, Romania, Italy, or the USA, already use this system to send widespread emergency alerts.

The Ministry of the Interior said there was still no timeline for the introduction of the system, but according to experts, a timeframe of 12 to 18 months was conceivable.

READ ALSO: German flood disaster – what went wrong?

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

Seehofer’s statement came as Germany faces widespread criticism over its emergency warning systems after 180 people died and hundreds were injured in the worst flood disaster in nearly 60 years in the country.

“…Disaster management failed to warn citizens,” wrote Bild newspaper in a recent damning report. “Barely functioning sirens, no early evacuations and data protection prevented warning text messages to all affected citizens.”

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Damaged freighter blocks traffic at drought-hit Rhine

A stranded cargo ship caused traffic to be halted Wednesday at the Rhine river in western Germany after suffering a technical fault, authorities said, at a time when water transport was already ailing from a drought.

Damaged freighter blocks traffic at drought-hit Rhine

The vessel is stuck at St. Goar and Oberwesel, in between the cities of Mainz and Koblenz, water police said, adding that they were expecting to clear the stricken ship within the day.

The machine damage came as water levels in the Rhine had dropped to critical points at several locations, including at nearby Kaub — a known bottleneck for shipping where the river runs narrow and shallow.

The gauge at Kaub stood at 34 cm (13 inches) on Wednesday, well below the 40-cm reference point.

While vessels are still able to navigate at low water levels, they are forced to reduce their loads to avoid the risk of running aground.

About four percent of freight is transported on waterways in Germany, including on the Rhine, which originates in Switzerland and runs through several countries including France and Germany before flowing into the sea in the Netherlands.

READ ALSO: How the Rhine’s low water levels are impacting Germany

Transport on the Rhine has gained significance in recent months because among cargo moved on the river is coal, now all the more necessary as Germany seeks to wean itself off Russian gas.

Germany’s biggest companies have already warned that major disruptions to river traffic could deal another blow to an economy already beset by logistical difficulties.

The 2018 drought, which saw the benchmark depth of the Rhine in Kaub drop to 25 cm in October, shrank German GDP by 0.2 percent that year, according to Deutsche Bank Research.