One might wonder what has provoked the Gods on Mount Olympus to rain down calamities on Hungary and its neighbors.
Three mining accidents in Romania since the beginning of February this year poured first cyanide and then heavy metals into the Tisza and Danube river systems, killing all life in the Tisza. The series of accidents have been called the worst disaster in Europe since the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant more than 15 years ago.
Scarcely had officials taken stock of the last disaster, when massive flooding caused a state of emergency in Hungary, Romania, and parts of Serbia.
By the end of last week, swelling waters on the Tisza and Danube rivers had killed eight people, left thousands homeless, and already caused tens of millions of dollars in damages. Water metering stations recorded the highest levels in over a century – and Hungarian officials noted that they expected water levels to continue rising for another ten days, or even longer.
"The situation on the Tisza and its tributaries, along with further rainfall predicted, can cause flooding until the end of May," Kálmán Katona, the Hungarian government’s flood coordinator, was quoted as saying on the BBC.
The present flooding has been preceded by several disasters of similar or even greater scale over the past couple of years in Central Europe.
Flooding in the summer of 1997 put huge swathes of Moravia and southeastern Poland under water, killing 52 people in Poland and causing an estimated CZK 63 billion (over USD 2 billion) in damage in the Czech Republic alone. A series of flash floods in Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1998 and 1999 killed dozens. This is not mention several other cases of flooding at less than a calamatous scale.
Are the Gods sated? There is little reason across the region to expect fewer such occurences in the future, and plenty to expect the present flooding to be only another sign of more to come. The reasons are much closer to home than the lofty heights of Mount Olympus.
A "natural" disaster?
Accustomed to harnessing and controlling nature, we forget that flooding is a natural and even beneficial occurence. It is important for revitalizing river ecosystems. Periodic flooding flushes nutrient rich silt into river systems and onto flood plains, providing a rich source of sustenance for life in and around the river.
In the case of the Tisza and Danube, the flooding will have the unexpected benefit of helping to dilute the cyanide and heavy metals that have been poured into the river systems over the past couple of months.
Most of the problems related to flooding are in fact man-made. By far the greatest amount of damage wreaked by floodwaters is suffered by property located in floodplains – that is, in areas destined to be in the path of floodwaters. "Our ancestors were much smarter than us - they avoided building their houses in floodplains," says Jaroslav Ungerman of the Union for the Morava River, which conducted the first independent analysis of the 1997 flooding in Moravia. As a result, Ungerman points out, not a single wine cellar and only a handful of historic buildings were among the thousands of homes and other structures damaged or destroyed by the floodwaters.
Human activity also has done much to increase the frequency and severity of flooding. A major cause of the ongoing deluge in Hungary has been deforestation. The removal of trees in water catchment areas reduces the absorptive capacity of the land and causes erosion. Water rushes down the hillsides, turning what otherwise would be swelling streams into raging torrents. Flash floods, which claimed the lives of at least two people in Romania last week, and dozens more in Slovakia and the Czech Republic in the past couple of years, are one result.
Extensive logging in Ukrainian and Romanian forests, perched along the rim of the Tisza and Danube river basins, together with melting snow and heavy rainfall have been blamed as one of the chief causes of the present flooding.
The natural ability of the land to absorb water has also been cut by the intensive, or "industrial", farming methods first introduced under Communism and now continued, though somewhat more benignly, under global capitalism. The cocktails of chemicals used in pesticides and herbicides damage the fertility of the soil, and with this reduce its absorptivity. Large fields cause runoff and erosion, and heavy machinery compacts the soil, limiting the land’s effectiveness to act as a natural sponge for excess water.
Across Central Europe, most of the natural, meandering stream and river systems over the past century have been dyked and straightened. The removal of river loops and folds has cut the length of many rivers by over a third or even half, intensifying the flow of water accordingly. The Tisza is no exception but, thanks to its location in the most underdeveloped part of Hungary, it has managed to retain relatively more natural features and habitats, including oxbows, beaches, wetlands and floodplain forests than most other European river systems.
Natural systems for flood prevention that rely on the area and absorptive capacity of floodplains, with their wetlands and forests, have been replaced by man-made ones that depend on the retaining capacity of dykes and dams. These may be effective to contain some rise in water level, but can prove counterproductive when floodwaters finally tip their banks.
One of the greatest lessons of recent flooding has been that manmade defenses are expensive, and can never provide 100 per cent security. Many of the flood defenses along the Morava river two years ago were designed to withstand 10 and even 25-year floods. In other words, the level of flooding that, on average, occurs only every decade or quarter century. They proved wholly inadequate, and even counterproductive, to cope with the "flood of the century" two years ago.
Global warming will almost certainly play some role as well, though it is difficult to put a finger on exactly how. The more localized effect of the overall rise in temperature will be more severe weather patterns, including more frequent deluges like the one that fell over Hungary and neighboring countries last week.
The growing cost and scale of flooding in Central Europe is a reflection of the greater vulnerability of societies in the region as they build into floodplains and up hillsides, and a symptom of the growing pressure they are putting on natural systems, from atmosphere, to forests, land, and river systems.
In ecological systems, adaptability is the key to survival. Amidst ever changing conditions, those species that are able to adapt to new conditions survive, while those that are too inflexible to change are doomed to extinction.
The laws of ecology govern human society as much as they do our fellow plants and animals. In this light, we can use the flooding in Central Europe as a test of the ability of societies in the region to respond to future challenges that are increasingly occurring on a global scale. Judging from Czech experience of recent years, Central Europeans should be on the red list of species heading for extinction.
The massive flooding that inundated Moravia in July 1997 has already slipped into memory, as much in the Czech Republic as in the rest of the world. The country’s emergency response system, a basket case two years ago, has been improved, but there is little sign that Czech society has drawn any more fundamental lessons from the disaster.
The flooding underlined, once again, the old adage that natural events respect no borders, and emphasized the need to adopt a broader perspective. Yet cooperation among the countries of the region today remains as limited with regard to environmental as with economic, social, and foreign policy concerns, including accession to the European Union. Visegrád is defunct, particularly in the area of environmental cooperation where it is most imperative.
The complex causes of the flooding, from deforestation and agricultural practices to flawed water and flood management systems, revealed the need for a complex and integrated approach to prevent similar disasters in future. Yet flood and water policy remains as fractured today as it was three years ago, divided between competing ministries and organs who jealously guard their turf. The various river basin authorities remain in the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture, divorced from the enviromental concerns that have been shown to be key to limiting deluges.
The size of the disaster did not give the river basin authorities pause to re-consider their approach to flood prevention and water management. On the contrary, as the floodwaters were still rising, the authorities began calling for further outlays for higher dykes and deeper reservoirs, without stopping to even examine the ongoing events. Within government, no serious effort was made to analyze the disaster and reflect on it critically. An in-depth and independent analysis of the flooding by the Union for the Morava River and an alternative (and cheaper) plan for flood management that relied on natural processes fell on deaf ears.
"The 1998 flood - and subsequent, lesser ones - have shown us that it is an illusion that the central authorities can provide us with full security," says Miroslav Kundrata, director of the Czech Environmental Partnership. The deluge that was the result of several days of exceptionally heavy rains overwhelmed and slipped around the Water Authorities’ flood defences.
Far from the state, it was individuals and communities themselves along with nonprofit groups that provided the fastest and most effective help to stricken areas. Many communities were still waiting for promised state handouts a year after the event.
"We need a fundamental reform of society," says Kundrata, "….not just a complete rethinking of our current approaches to flood prevention and environmental security, but a basic change in the way Czech society is structured and functions."
"Past centralization took responsibility from communities and individuals and put it in the hands of the state. We need to turn that around, to engage individuals and communities. We also need to develop a capacity for cooperation and critical reflection."
As a possible model Kundrata notes the French system of water and flood management, where all different stakeholders in a given river basin, including local communities and state organs, are members of the river basin corporation and involved in the basin’s management. Kundrata also notes that major flooding along rivers including the Mississippi, Missouri and the Rhine have caused the United States and many Western European countries to reassess their past, technocratic-oriented approaches to water management and flood defense.
"In the US, even the Army Corps of Engineers is starting to talk about natural processes, sustainable development, and public participation," says Kundrata. "But we are a very long way from that in the Czech Republic."
The calamities that have befallen Central Europe in the past years are less the work of irate Gods (though some heavy rains have played their part), than of our own making. Dealing with them will require our societies to become more flexible, able to reflect on, and adapt to the growing, complex challenges we increasingly face.
In this sense, the significance of the current struggle to build more open and inclusive societies in Central Europe goes beyond the need to establish a firm foundation for just, humane, and prosperous societies. The creation of a truly civil society ultimately may be the best defense against flooding – and the host of other, increasingly global challenges facing Central Europe in the future. There is clearly still a long way to go.
In one regard, at least, we do seem to be highly adaptable: within the space of a few years, we appear to have gotten used to massive flooding as a regular occurence, as mundane for us as a wholesale rise in global temperature, or the rapid extinction of species.
Andreas Beckmann, 15 April 2000