Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits an area affected by flooding in Iversheim, Germany, on July 20.

WOLFGANG RATTAY/Reuters

German authorities faced pressure on Tuesday to set aside long-standing privacy concerns and send mobile phone alerts directly to people in potential disaster zones following the devastation wrought by last week’s catastrophic floods.

Unlike many other countries, including Japan, Israel and New Zealand, Germany has no way of sending text messages en masse to citizens about extreme weather events, partly due to the experience of oppressive surveillance in the country’s formerly Communist east and under Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Some government ministers and senior officials have already called for a change as Angela Merkel’s government fends off accusations that its preparedness systems were woefully lacking, despite severe weather warnings from meteorologists.

Story continues below advertisement

“This flood disaster must be a wake-up call to everyone that we should not only discuss data protection, but also the real protection of citizens against disasters,” Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer told Bild, Germany’s biggest circulation daily.

The floods, which have killed at least 170 people and caused untold destruction, have dominated the political agenda some 10 weeks before a national election in September and raised uncomfortable questions about how Europe’s richest economy could be caught flat-footed.

In Germany’s decentralized system, responsibility for disaster protection is split between the federal government and regional and local authorities, but officials have rejected suggestions they had done too little to prepare.

The confirmed death toll rose by five to 170 on Tuesday as the recovery operation revealed further bodies. Rescuers in the worst-hit regions rushed to clear debris and sewage and provide safe drinking water to help avert a public health crisis.

Several experts said the unprecedented scale of the floods meant existing defences would inevitably be overwhelmed. But critics pointed to failures in warning sirens that had been allowed to fall into disuse, delayed evacuations as well as patchy mobile phone warning systems whose efficacy was limited due to networks being knocked out.

Critics argue that little has changed since the BBK civil protection agency held an emergency warning day in September to test the nation’s alerting infrastructure, which went far from smoothly. The system overloaded, preventing many people from receiving push alerts.

Merkel, visiting the devastated town of Bad Muenstereifel, said authorities would look at what had not worked but cautioned that mobile phone alerts, such as those used to warn airline passengers of delays, could not always be relied on.

Story continues below advertisement

“That obviously stops working when the mobile phone system fails,” she said. “And that happened extremely quickly.”

COSTS

Almost 20 years since then-centre-left Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won re-election in large part because of his assured response to severe floods in eastern Germany, the disaster has inevitably cast its shadow over the September ballot.

An opinion poll conducted since the flooding began last week showed a slight gain for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU). But Armin Laschet, the state premier nominated by the conservative party to succeed her as chancellor, has seen his own approval hit after he was filmed laughing as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited one of the flood zones.

The financial cost of Germany’s worst natural disaster in almost 60 years will also weigh heavily on the next government.

Coming on top of unprecedented spending on coronavirus relief measures, the cost is sure to run into the billions. Bavarian Environment Minister Thorsten Glauber said his southern state would spend 40 billion euros ($47 billion) on flood defences in the coming 20 years.

For immediate relief, the federal government plans to provide 200 million euros ($235.5 million) in emergency aid to repair buildings and damaged local infrastructure, and to help people in crisis situations, according to a draft document due to go to the cabinet on Wednesday.

Story continues below advertisement

That will come on top of 200 million euros that would come from the 16 federal states. The government also hopes for financial support from the European Union’s solidarity fund.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies