Photo: 2021 flood disaster in the Ahr Valley, Germany.

Ahr Valley Flood Disaster Anniversary: State Failure, Made In Germany

Climate change is causing floods to get worse but it is also giving politicians a remarkable scapegoat for their own failures. The inside story of the 2021 flood disaster in Germany is a foretaste of how climate change will be used by politicians to distract from their own blunders – many of which, entirely preventable – in responding to the effects of climate change. With state failure, climate change could well be much, much worse.

Last thursday, Germany commemorated the deadly floods that hit the Ahr valley a year ago – the worst natural disaster in recent German history. In July 2021, heavy rainfall caused devastating floods in the German federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia (NW) and Rhineland-Palatinate (RP). At least 135 people died, and damages are estimated in the billions.

The devastation of the floods is attributed to the effects of climate change. In a commemorative documentary on the floods, Deutsche Welle (DW) suggests there can be only one explanation for the magnitude of the destruction, and that is, alas, climate change. Because of climate change, extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, will become more frequent and fatal, and that is what happened in the Ahr Valley.

The European Union, which has reaped enormous budgets and regulation powers in the “fight against climate change”, has also unsurprisingly accepted climate change to be directly responsible for the floods. EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans raised the issue of an annual commemoration of the victims of climate change on the occasion of the anniversary. He wanted to propose that ministers create a day of remembrance “on which we commemorate the victims of these terrible weather conditions triggered by the climate crisis”.

But among the residents of the Ahr valley, the dictum is that “Burkina Faso would have been better prepared for such a catastrophe”. What really happened?

The answer is state failure, made in Germany. The state and politicians of the day failed in their most basic duties, and then blamed climate change. Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, did not lose time to connect the dots: “Any sensible person must get the fact that freak weather of this density and frequency is not a normal phenomenon in this part of the world.”

The 2021 flood disaster in the Ahr Valley is what happens when climate change meets state failure. It is also a stark interrogation about whether green politicians are really the right people to ‘solve the climate crisis’ as they are wont to tell people, or just yet another problem by themselves. Better climate policy may not mean more green politicians. It may simply mean better politicians.

Floods are not unexpected in the Ahr Valley, and the specialists agree, they will come again. The past is replete with warning shots: the so-called “flood of the century” in 2016, and the catastrophic floods of July 1804 and June 1910.

If flood disasters can be predicted in well in advance, it is also possible to prepare for them. The picture that is coming to light – and the official inquiry is not yet over – is one of abysmal failure by the German authorities – in preparation, leadership and moral responsibility. The true story of the Ahr Valley flood disaster is indeed stranger than the effects of climate change.

What Went Wrong?

The investigative committee of the Rhineland-Palatinate state parliament which was set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the flood has already revealed precious details. On the night of July 14th to 15th, 2021 that led to devastating destruction in the Ahr valley where at least 135 people lost their lives, the state government, it appears, was clueless. Statements by Prime Minister Malu Dreyer and Interior Minister Roger Lewentz to the inquiry committee gave the impression that the state government had for a long time no idea what happened in the affected areas along the Ahr on the day of the flood. Interior Minister Lewentz said he thought the operations center had the situation under control because the Technical Operations Center (TEL) made no scenario for a flash flood.

Environment Minister On Holiday

The actions and explanations of then Environment Minister Anne Spiegel on the events surrounding the flood are even more staggering and reveal blatant failures not just in basic political leadership but also in moral leadership. Spiegel, as a matter of fact, is a green politician.

On July 14, 2021, the then Environment Minister Anne Spiegel said to the investigative committee that she decided not to drive to the flood area herself to get an idea of the situation because her colleague advised against it. While residents fought tragedy, the minister preferred to stay in.

But there are more frightening revelations. Right in the midst of the flood disaster, it came to light that the former Rheinland-Palatinate Minister of the Environment went on a four-week vacation.

Although the European flood control center had very precisely predicted heavy rain and an acute risk of flooding in the area at the time, Spiegel’s ministry issued a press release on July 14, 2021 at 4:43 p.m. stating that there was “no extreme flood risk”.

On the flood evening while people drowned because the state authorities failed to sound the alarm even though warning reports had already clearly forecast an impending flood disaster, the minister went to a meal with party friends. She was reportedly unavailable by telephone, and did not ask to be informed of the situation. The next morning, realizing the severity of the floods, she texted a staff member about the “the blame game”, and the need to get the crisis “wording” right:

“The blame game could start immediately, we need wording that we warned in good time, we have always made all data transparent, I warned the cabinet that everything would have gotten worse without our preventive measures and precautionary measures, etc.”

The revelations eventually caused Spiegel, who by then had become the Federal Minister for Family, to resign – the first resignation in the federal coalition government barely a few months after taking office. In her resignation speech, Spiegel said, with tears in her eyes, that her family needed a holiday. Her husband suffered a stroke in 2019, her young children were unwell because of the pandemic, and she was overworked.

“It was too much. That got us over the border as a family. We needed a holiday because my husband couldn’t take it anymore.”

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Environment Minister Ursula Heinen-Esser (CDU) flew to Mallorca for her husband’s birthday after the flood disaster. She too resigned.

Preparation? What Preparation?

Details have also emerged about the complete failure of the state in preparing for the floods, even though the region is well-known to be at risk of flood disasters. Witness interviews revealed there there is no alarm and action plan (AEP) in several affected districts along the Ahr, although the districts and municipalities are legally obliged to draw up such plans. There is no AEP in the district of Ahrweiler, which was most damaged by the flood. The AEP is supposed to stipulate what the emergency services have to do when in the event of flooding.

There is also no so-called warning chain in the Ahrweiler district. Many firefighters from the district who were deployed on the night of the flood also declared in the subcommittee that they had not warned a neighboring community or had been warned themselves.

Professor of Hydrology and flood forecaster Hannah Cloke said the catastrophic flooding was “forecast well in advance” and emphasized the role that the lack of preparation played in the scale of the devastation. She wrote “looking at the data with colleagues, I could see early on just how serious the floods looked”, and the forecasts “showed that there was little doubt that a major flood was coming.”

“The floods that did happen matched the scale and distribution of those that were forecast several days before. I was very surprised, therefore, that so many people died, given that authorities knew about the event and had sufficient warnings to get people to safety before the floods began.”, she pointed out.

Cloke compared the response of the German government to the story of the Titanic.

“In the middle of an election campaign, some German leaders in national and regional government still seemed to defend the locally-devolved nature of disaster management in Germany, insisting that the warnings were adequate and agencies did their work well. It is like claiming that the maiden voyage of the Titanic was a success because 99% of its engineering worked perfectly throughout. While their arguments may be true on an individual scale, unless those in power admit that the system ultimately failed, they risk failing to learn lessons and put others at risk in the future,” she wrote.

But one year after the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley, the Prime Minister of Rhineland- Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, defended the government’s disaster management. Interviewed by the popular news program Tagesschau, Dreyer said “Nobody could have foreseen the extent of this catastrophe,” but the authorities had coped well with the severe flooding.

It is a remarkable statement on state failure, made in Germany.

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