BY CARL-ERIK ISACCSSON
STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Since early July, severe flooding has devastated large areas in Central Europe, particularly in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany near the Oder and Morava rivers. The floods have also hit Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine to a lesser degree. The direct cause of the flooding has been heavy rain in the area.
In Poland, an area of more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) is flooded, including 1,100 cities and villages. At least 60 people have died and 140,000 have been evacuated from their homes. Most of the farmers hit by the flood are now ruined. Few had insurance or savings. Their crops are destroyed by poisoned flood water, which has also contaminated drinking water supplies and made it impossible to return.
As of July 27, the 750,000 inhabitants in the Polish city of Wroclaw were still getting their fresh water by lining up with barrels at tank-trucks. The Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet reported that on the night of July 20 angry citizens blockaded a street in Wroclaw to protest the poor government support they have received; police responded by breaking up the blockade. Authorities there have been trying to clear the water treatment plant there by pumping sewage into the Oder river, further contaminating it.
Before the catastrophic dimensions of the flooding became clear, Polish prime minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz publicly criticized the victims for not having proper insurance and threatened to not give any assistance. But soon the Polish government had to promise $1,000 to each family affected by the flood, plus one ton of grain for each hectare of destroyed farmland. The government in the Czech republic has made similar promises.
Swedish prime minister Goran Persson plans to visit Poland the first week in August to study the situation and promote the use of Swedish construction companies in rebuilding the damaged areas. A German insurance company has estimated the property damage in Poland, Czech Republic, and eastern Germany at $5.5 billion. Bonn and Stockholm have given some emergency relief to Poland, and the European Commission decided on to give $2 million in emergency relief. The World Bank and European Investment Bank each offered Warsaw $300 million in loans - still far short of the damage.
In the Czech republic 100,000 hectares fertile farmland was flooded, 46 people died, and 2,500 were injured. Some 80,000 have been evacuated and 10,000 are considered homeless.
Even before the flood catastrophe, the economy of the Czech Republic had been in rough shape. A trade deficit had grown, as imports increased while exports slowed down. The Czech crown fell against other currencies and growth rates for 1997 were estimated to be just above zero. Now the figure will surely be negative.
Poland has had the strongest growth among the countries in Eastern Europe - 6 percent annually. That rate is now expected to slow down, but the political crises due to the government's lack of response to the flood catastrophe will be an even more important consequence. Parliamentary elections are coming up September 21 and the opposition is benefiting from the resentment at the government's handling of the flooding.
Meanwhile, German chancellor Helmut Kohl has visited the area in eastern Germany around Frankfurt an der Oder several times, which at the beginning of August was the most threatened by further flooding. The areas around Frankfurt an der Oder, are now the scene of dramatic sandbagging efforts by people trying to protect houses and farmland. The Polish town Slubice in that area, with 18,000 inhabitants, has been evacuated.
Carl-Erik Isacsson is a member of the metalworkers union
in Sodertalje, Sweden.
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