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The Czechs’ Watery Crucible

The floods came crashing in on a country that had already had enough.

by Martin Ehl 4 June 2013

Water is powerful, even when you live at the top of a hill in Prague. While fire is quick, water recedes slowly and has a lasting psychological impact. At least such are the thoughts of some of us in Prague and other Czech cities that are directly affected by the recent floods.


Another thought is about the quality of government and public services. Just a week before the floods, squabbling within the governing coalition in Prague led to the ouster of the lord mayor of the city. The flood crisis is now being managed by the 34-year-old deputy mayor, a relatively inexperienced politician. It is too early to judge him, but the same thing happened before the last big floods in 2002.


But when I read that in neighboring Bavaria or Saxony, which are also seriously affected, people complain about the same thing – that there was not enough done for “flood protection” – I would say one could not possibly have predicted that 100-year floods would come every 10 years, even in as superb an economy and mature a democracy as Germany’s.


For me it is very personal. In 2002 I was not affected, but I lived relatively near the water, and I understand people’s dread of being told by the police to prepare their evacuation kit.  


I remember how in 2002 my future wife and I packed our basic stuff before leaving for work, hugged each other – and took a shot of whisky that murky morning before we parted to our respective offices.


This is a personal story and now there are many towns and villages where people must literally rebuild their houses and lives from scratch – only to be (possibly?) washed away again. It is now very emotional, I am afraid, in many places in the Czech Republic.


Then there’s the issue of the economy. The Czech Republic is in a recession, with a bleak prognosis for growth. Any two-handed economist would say that on the one side reconstruction could give the economy a boost, but on the other side, where will the money come from? The government – which under recent center-right parties was cutting even basic services and raising taxes only to be criticized by renowned institutions for too much austerity? Or from the private sector, whose activity is undermined by the recession and a corrupt business environment?


On Czech Facebook sites you can find very cynical comments on the situation. So far nobody has raised the point that it is one year before general elections. Floods and the subsequent reconstruction could seriously change the position of a weak government or the (almost always) drunken, left-wing populist president, Milos Zeman, who on 3 June made a ironical comment about the efforts of rescuers and – as usual – journalists. Since his victory in January he has been playing the role of king in a chaotic Czech political environment. Would that the floods brought us new faces that would offer leadership in these circumstances and that the president's role would be diminished.


Maybe this column looks too pessimistic, but believe me, in Prague and the Czech Republic we had a long winter until April, then about two weeks of summer without any spring and now we have jumped into autumn. According to experts from the Czech Hydrometeorology Institute, we have had extremely little sunshine this year compared with the previous two years. We have enjoyed the sun for only about 100 hours this year.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. He recently won the prestigious Writing for Central Europe journalism prize, awarded by the APA – Austria Press Agency in cooperation with Bank Austria.
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