Heavy rain has caused severe flooding in several regions of Central Europe. Scores of people have died, many have been injured, and even more have lost their belongings. It will take years to repair the damage. Climate change has made extreme weather events like this more likely, which in turn expose the mismanagement of society. The bosses and bourgeois politicians – who failed to prepare for this disaster, despite the warnings; and who undermined emergency services through austerity – are squarely to blame.
On 14 July, the cold, low-pressure system (nicknamed "Bernd" by scientists) dumped huge amounts of water over parts of western Germany. In Rhineland-Palatinate (RLP), the areas around the Ahr valley, the Eifel mountain range and the city of Trier were particularly hard hit.
In North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the cities of Hagen and Wuppertal, as well as the district of Euskirchen, the Rhine-Sieg district, the Rhine-Erft district, the Rhine-Bergisch district and parts of Bergisches Land were also flooded.
On 17 July, heavy rain caused flooding in eastern Bavaria, from Berchtesgadener Land to Passau and Saxon Switzerland. Rivers also burst their banks in the Benelux countries, as well as in Austria, carving a destructive swathe through urban districts.
Wherever the brown masses of water made their way, they left behind mud, uprooted trees, damaged house facades, collapsed houses, swept away bridges, overturned cars and even worn-down roads.
In Erftstadt-Blessem, the flood washed out a huge crater at a gravel pit. The sandy earth slid down several metres, exposing the sewage system. On the nearby B265 trunk road, water stood up to 12 metres high at a low point on the road, covering many cars. The village of Schuld in the Ahr valley faced destruction that might take years to repair.
Flooding in Germany right now.— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) July 16, 2021
Unreal. And devastating. pic.twitter.com/rDE350fN0b
In several places, dams overflowed or were damaged. Additionally, over 100,000 people were left with no drinking water, no electricity, no telephones or mobile phone networks for days. For some, these are only now being restored.
Many are mourning the loss of their relatives, friends and colleagues. At the time of writing, more than 160 people have died. There were at least 117 victims in the Ahrweiler district alone, where more than 740 people were also injured. It is not yet clear how many of the reported missing have perished.
Many had to be evacuated. Those affected by this flood disaster are in a state of shock, left stunned by the damage to their homes and flats. Since Wednesday, tens of thousands of emergency personnel from the fire brigade, technical relief service, rescue services, police and other forces have been in constant operation. In addition, the Ministry of Defence issued a military disaster alert for western Germany. Bundeswehr forces are deployed with clearing tanks and other heavy equipment for rescue and evacuation operations. On the ground, those affected, and helpers have begun the clean-up work: shovelling away mud before it hardens; pumping out basements; and disposing of debris and broken household goods.
It is unclear how extensive the damage is and what costs and efforts the reconstruction will entail. The austerity and privatisation policies of the last decades have led to a lack of engineers, structural engineers, building craftsmen and other important professions for the maintenance and construction of the infrastructure in the state institutions.
How could this happen?
British newspaper The Times reported on 18 July that the European Flood Alert System (EFAS) had issued warnings to the German authorities four days (on 10 July) before the devastating storm. The researchers of this EU initiative had very accurately determined that the Rhineland, especially along the rivers Erft and Ahr and in towns like Hagen and Altena, would be hit by "extreme" flooding.
Hannah Cloke, who co-developed EFAS, spoke to the Times of a " monumental failure of the system". On 16 July, ZDF reported that the German Meteorological Service (DWD) had warned municipalities in advance of rainfall amounts of up to 200 litres per square metre. In Germany's federal system, responsibility for disaster control lies with the districts, independent cities and municipalities. Apparently, in many cases there was too little and too weak a warning of the extreme weather, and even evacuation efforts were too late.
Part of the responsibility is being shifted to those affected. Some people "completely lack the understanding that such persistent rainfall inevitably leads to flooding", Cloke is quoted as saying by ZDF. Moreover, according to Cloke, people should have informed themselves independently via the weather warning apps and got to safety.
This deflection is an insult to the victims of this disaster. While personal responsibility is important, the main culprits for this sequence of failures are the authorities for their failure to adequately heed the warnings. Meanwhile, the governments' austerity policies resulted in ill-preparedness and a lack of coordination by the emergency services involved in relief efforts. All this in the wealthiest and most-powerful country in Europe.
It is also not enough for the leader of DIE LINKE (left party), Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, to call for largely symbolic gestures like the resignation of Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU). While Seehofer should certainly go, this tragedy was the result of decades of appalling political decisions by the bourgeois state. Such decisions will continue to be made by whoever is in charge, unless there is a fundamental, systemic change.
What happens next?
For those affected, the question remains of who will bear the cost of dealing with all this destruction. Many profiteering insurance companies do not accept insurance in risk areas, or do so only at unaffordable prices. Many affected people are not adequately insured for the damage caused. At the same time, these companies are placing advertisements for new offers in all the newspapers in the aftermath of the flooding, in a cynical attempt to exploit people's shock and worry to conclude thousands of new contracts nationwide.
For many people, the state will have to step in as a substitute insurer. The two candidates for chancellor, Armin Laschet (CDU) and Olaf Scholz (SPD), as well as the outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), have promised swift assistance. Whether, how quickly and to what extent this aid will actually reach those affected remains to be seen - and there is reason to be doubtful after their experiences with promised Corona-aid.
While it is right that those affected are helped quickly, the state should not be put into debt for this. Appeals for money from the population are also absurd. The government should siphon off the money from the big corporations through special levies. After all, among these fatcats are the big polluters who are mainly responsible for the climate change that increases the likelihood of this and future extreme weather conditions in the first place. Make them pay for the consequences!
Favour of the hour
Politicians from the CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens and other mainstream parties are using the catastrophe for their Federal election campaigns. Wearing rubber boots, candidates visited villages in NRW, RLP and Bavaria. Scholz and Laschet each presented themselves as crisis managers, with promises of help.
My brain can’t even compute this image from the flooding in Germany pic.twitter.com/nOT7fDTznB— Read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (@JoshuaPotash) July 16, 2021
Annalena Baerbock (Greens) will be counting on the focus on climate change giving the Greens a further boost, as they have already done through the Fridays for Future movement. The Greens sank back below 20 percent in the polls after their candidate for chancellor released an uninspiring and poorly researched book. They are desperate for a boost.
This extreme weather event and the systemic failures it exposed will influence the already wildly fluctuating polls for the federal election and the opinion polls on the election-critical issues. Citizens will follow and evaluate the actions and statements of the parties and their candidates more closely. The volatility of public opinion is a new element in German politics. It indicates an increasing politicisation and polarisation of society.
Insufficient climate protection
The Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, put his foot in his mouth on WDR-Aktuell, when he replied excitedly to a critical question from the presenter about the climate policy of the state government in NRW: "No, excuse me young lady. Because now is [just] such a day [that] you don't change the policy." What exactly has this policy been?
In 2016, NRW was well below the national average in CO2 reductions since 1990. At least 50 percent of its electricity is generated from coal. Renewable energies play a subordinate role. 27 percent of the nationwide emissions are emitted in NRW. The phasing out of fossil power generation and the conversion of industry to climate-neutral production processes have been delayed in the interests of the corporations.
The other bourgeois politicians have not missed the opportunity to claim that it is necessary to focus quickly and extensively on climate protection now, but at the federal or state level, the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and Greens are pursuing the opposite policy. In Germany, corporations directly or indirectly receive over 16 billion euros in state subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels. In effect, the government and all the parties fund the polluters.
Living with extreme weather events
As noted, this flood disaster in Central Europe is a consequence of climate change. For decades, climate researchers and meteorologists have warned that global warming will lead to an increase in extreme weather patterns. This has been statistically proven; in recent decades, heat waves and heavy rainfall have become more frequent and more intense.
In Canada this year, the previous year's heat record was exceeded by 5 degrees Celsius. Climate researchers cannot rule out that temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius will also be measured in Central Europe in the next few years. Intense heat and drought, as well as heavy downpours, will become more common.
The problem stems not only from greenhouse gas emissions but also from densely built cities; few green spaces and trees; and the continued construction of motorways such as in Dannenröder Forst in Hesse (supported by the Greens, where they are part of the government coalition).
We are not opposed to industrial development. But if we want to get a grip on climate change, i.e. stop global warming and reduce it in the long term, we have to get away from the use of fossil fuels in industrial production. In the meantime, we have to adapt our cities to climate extremes.
For example, there needs to be a shift away from private transport; insulation of buildings; new urban and building planning; sewage systems need to be adapted to rainfall; etc. This should have been started when climate researchers were already issuing their warnings in the 70s and 80s.
However, investing in this kind of massive infrastructural overhaul is not immediately profitable. Therefore, the capitalists have neglected to do so, content instead to extract superprofits from fossil fuel production and polluting industries. Under a planned economy, managed by the working class for human need, these kinds of investments would be an utmost priority.
Who is to blame?
We must not leave it to the initiative of profiteering private corporations, and the bourgeois parties allied with them, to implement the necessary measures in disaster prevention and climate protection.
It is clear to the ruling class that they can no longer continue to operate as before, as a leaked report by JP Morgan, one of the biggest financiers of fossil fuels, demonstrates. The report admits the current mode of production, based mainly on fossil energy yields, is accelerating climate change. But the ruling class is nevertheless deceiving the population and sabotaging climate protection measures. It is no surprise that JP Morgan wanted this report withheld from the public.
What we need is the broadest possible public debate on the science of climate research and the steps to avert it: in workplaces, neighbourhoods, universities and schools. Only if all workers are democratically involved in the planning and implementation of necessary measures will support for these measures be assured.
A planned economy is needed to ensure that the fight against climate change does not come at the expense of the working class. Scientific findings and technical knowledge should not benefit private corporations for profit, but the whole of humanity. We should decide democratically on investment in infrastructure and construction projects. For this to happen, banks, key industries and research institutions must be nationalised and run by the workers as part of a general plan.
In this way, we can create a society in which the livelihood of humanity is protected and the needs of living and future generations are met, and no more families are forced to suffer grief and destitution at the hands of climate catastrophes.