Once its strength, water now threatens Germany

  • Heavy rains cause destruction in Germany
  • The backbone of Germany’s industrial success on inland waterways
  • Floods threaten Germany more than its neighbors

BAD MUENSTEREIFEL, Germany, July 23 (Reuters) – Bad Muenstereifel’s transformation from a quaint but sleepy German tourist town into a factory outlet mall has put it on the map for millions of visitors.

Then floods devastated its medieval streets and half-timbered buildings, underlining the vulnerability of Europe’s first economy to an increasingly unpredictable climate.

Beyond the city, the flooding spread from an area near the western city of Cologne to southern Bavaria, hitting the historic centers of Aachen and Trier and leaving a trail of destruction behind it.

In recent years, further heavy flooding has hit other parts of Germany, overflowing the banks of the rivers that have played such a key role in its prosperity.

The floods caused tens of billions of euros in damage – an economic blow far greater than any neighbor of Germany has suffered from flooding, according to a study by Swiss Re, which assures insurers.

In Bad Muenstereifel, the focus was on immediate damage. As dozens of soldiers walked past orange buckets of debris and sludge, Marita Hochguertel recalled the city’s renovation after 2014, when an investor brought in dozens of factory outlets to fill empty storefronts.

Visitors more than doubled to 2.5 million a year, triggering a renovation boom, said Hochguertel, who worked for the city government for 42 years.

“It brought the city to life,” she said outside the council building as muddy crews worked with bulldozers to clean up wreckage, from broken chairs to the models’ stray legs.

The piles of garbage grew larger as the day wore on. The odors of diesel-powered water pumps and dust polluted the air. A crashed car lay stuck sideways in the narrow river.

The footage shocked Germany, sparking a debate ahead of national elections that could loosen Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hold on Christian Democrats power and strengthen the Green Party.


Much of German industry, including metals giant Thyssen Krupp and chemical giants Bayer and BASF, has developed in centers close to waterways such as the Rhine – which has also been affected by the recent floods.

The network of rivers and canals remains the most extensive in Europe, carrying around 200 million tonnes of freight each year, from grain to coal to oil. But it quickly becomes a threat.

It was the third major flood to hit Germany since the turn of the century.

In 2002, the Elbe was flooded, affecting Dresden and other cities. In 2013, floods hit Bavaria hard along the Danube and Inn rivers.

The damages for the two years totaled 42 billion euros, and less than a quarter of them were insured, according to Swiss Re.

The July floods are expected to be the costliest in German history, according to the German Insurance Association, which estimated claims alone at up to 5 billion euros.

The total cost, with torn roads, railroads and telephone lines, already seen in the billions, will far exceed that.

ICEYE, which monitors flood-prone areas for insurers using satellite imagery, estimates that more than 37,000 German buildings were affected in July, compared to less than 1,700 in neighboring Netherlands.

Even before this most recent disaster, Swiss Re estimated the economic cost of flooding in Germany over the past decades to be more than twice that of France or Britain.

But public debate, in a heavily industrialized country that depends on diesel cars, machinery and other goods to thrive, had been stifled among much of the population.

This may be about to change.

Anders Levermann, who has advised the German government on climate change, said he was concerned that flooding could upend the economy and political order if they became much more common events.

“What will happen if extreme weather conditions become so frequent that we don’t have time to recover in between?” ” he said. Germany’s role as an exporter means supply chains across the world could also be at risk, Levermann added.


In the Netherlands, where about half the country is below sea level and where they have spent centuries holding water, planning has been going on for decades. It has fared better in the recent floods.

“We have been anticipating this for a long time,” said Marjolijn Haasnoot, a Dutch climatologist.

“This amount of flooding will happen much more frequently… due to climate change.”

The Dutch are also slowly getting into a debate that may need to take place in Germany – over whether they should simply cede land to the advance of water.

“A lot of people think they can protect everything with dikes. What they don’t realize is that seawater is seeping inland under dikes,” said Maarten Kleinhans from the University of Utrecht.

“In the long run, half the country is at risk,” he said of Hollande. “We have seen this in the past – that villages and towns have been washed away or disappeared into the ground. You can build dikes to defend towns, but you cannot do it everywhere.”

In Bad Muenstereifel, Michael Starkel, a hotel owner and head of the local trade association, worries people will pack their bags and come back.

“I have spoken to many people in the old town who really have thoughts of leaving,” he said during a break after helping cleanup crews clean the river beds of tree trunks. ‘trees and other rubbish.

If history is any indicator, the residents of the disaster area are in for a long chore.

Deggendorf, a town of 37,000 inhabitants in Bavaria hit by floods and a dam failure in 2013, is still recovering, said Viola Muehlbauer, head of the mayor’s office.

“It will surely be a very, very long process until everything is back to normal.”

Writing by John O’Donnell; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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