Many of us certainly still have images in our heads. Torn-out houses, water everywhere. The flooding in the Ahr River Valley has cost lives of many people, caused tens of billions of damage, and has stolen their homes. What conclusions have been drawn from this, what changes have already been made and what is the state of the construction works?
Already on July 11, 2021, the German Weather Service (DWD) announced that exceptionally heavy rainfall is expected in the Ahr Valley region. Reports continued to escalate over the next three days. And then, on July 14, came a predicted heavy rain. It came out on a scale that was difficult to understand. The summit was reached on the night of July 15: water masses tore entire houses, and people fled to the rooftops. The rescuers came in helicopters. The next morning it became clear what drama had happened in the valley the night before. The rescue operation was hampered not only by the fact that access to the region was almost impossible, but also by a completely broken mobile network.
A careless homicide? Preparatory proceedings against the staroste after the flood disaster
Only three weeks later, the prosecutor’s office investigated the staroste, it was about the negligence of the murder and negligent bodily harm by omission. In October 2021, a state parliamentary committee of inquiry was set up, the district governor retired that same month, and green politician Anne Spiegel also resigned as federal family minister due to misconduct. At the same time, a state parliament committee was established, which has, inter alia, develop recommendations for better protection against disasters, but also for the region’s adaptation to climate change.
Flooding in the Ahr Valley: Nothing changes in the geometry of the region
Anyone who looks at the Ahr Valley today, one year after the disaster, can still see bits of destruction. While all towns and villages are once again connected to the road network and can be reached, in some cases they are still temporary. Out of over 100 damaged or completely destroyed bridges, none can be reused. Instead, there are five makeshift bridges. Completely normal operation of the railway lines is not expected until the end of 2023. Insurance companies purchased almost three-quarters of all insurance claims and paid out five billion euros. According to the General Association of the German Insurance Industry, the damage amounts to EUR 8.5 billion.
Criticism is currently coming from scientists and experts in the insurance industry. The fact that, apart from a few houses, they all want to be rebuilt in the same place does not change anything. Because the conditions in the Ahr Valley remain the same: it is a V-shaped valley surrounded by steep slopes. If Ahr had risen sharply again, the consequences would probably be very similar. The houses are close to the river and the river definitely reaches them at high tide. Overall, the Ahr valley is very densely built-up and has hardly any room for dams or other forms of flood protection. “Ahr has shown us where it flows naturally. But instead of retaining the newly formed riverbed, the body of water was pushed back into the old riverbed, ”says Sabine Yacoub, president of the BUND state in Rhineland-Pflanz. This means that further flooding is practically inevitable.
Ahr Valley Flood: Ten Reconstruction Recommendations
The Federal Ministry of Research and Education (BMBF) funded the KAHR (Climate, Adaptation, Floods, Resilience) project to provide scientific support for the reconstruction of the affected regions and to develop recommendations. They came up with ten recommendations:
- Flooding should also be used as an opportunity for a strategic transformation process. For example, say goodbye to oil heating and create new structures for heating buildings in the spirit of climate change.
- If you incorporate science into its new flood modeling methods that develop more detailed risk analyzes, people will be better warned and protected.
- More space for the river, and thus also terrain adaptation: parks and sports fields could serve as floodplains without causing too much damage.
- More attention to bridges. They need to be hydraulically stronger to better withstand flooding.
- The early warning system needs to work more effectively. Therefore, alert systems should be reviewed and further developed.
- Driving rain hazard and risk maps should be publicly available. It also means homeowners automatically receive the necessary information about the risk of flooding and heavy rain when issuing building or remodeling permits.
- Municipal and municipal authorities must consider all aspects of climate change and its effects. Therefore, it is crucial to strengthen the green and blue infrastructure. They serve as a preventive measure in case of heat, floods and heavy rains.
- Closer cooperation is also part of the reconstruction. The entire region benefits from structures that are not limited to individual cities. In this way, the restoration solutions could also be transferred to other locations.
- Closer cooperation between water management and civil protection makes sense. If they analyze model scenarios together, the warning time of such events may be longer.
- Objects belonging to the so-called critical and sensitive infrastructure, such as hospitals, kindergartens, and retirement homes, require higher standards of protection and targets.
More post-flood measures in the Ahr valley
The flooding in the Ahr Valley with all its devastation prompted politicians, planners and the people who live there to think. The State Office of Geology and Mining (LGB) is working with the Institute of Geosciences at the Jan Gutenberg University (JGU) to record the dangers of mass movements and erosion. The results should complement flood prevention efforts. This also applies to bridges in the area. Statics becomes more and more important, it has to withstand comparable flood events in the future. Reconstruction should be generally more climate friendly. It also means that new heating solutions are emerging. Sewerage is to be flood-proof and treatment plant locations re-examined. So the beginning has been made. We will see how many will actually be implemented.
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