Experts: Deadly floods made worse by misguided farming practices

Environmentalists believe the agricultural sector, itself a major victim of the floods, can also help protect against future flooding. [Sviluppo/Shutterstock]

German environmental organisations are calling for flood protection measures to be improved and for a change to the way agricultural soils are used weeks after catastrophic flash floods deluged the country and left more than 200 dead across Western Europe. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“A combination of building blocks is needed for effective climate protection, ecological flood protection, against land sealing and for more soil protection in interaction with disaster prevention,” according to Olaf Bandt, chairman of German environmental organisation BUND.

BUND and several other environmental organisations have called for the implementation of environmentally friendly flood protection measures, including adjustments to farming and forestry practices, in a series of position papers.

The catastrophic flooding, which affected river basins across northern and central Europe has claimed the lives of over 200 people and caused widespread property damage.

Environmentalists believe the agricultural sector, itself a major victim of the floods, can also help protect against future flooding.

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Containing the water

“Agriculture can make a significant contribution to flood phenomena,” Matthias Meissner from the NGO BUND told EURACTIV Germany.

“Above all, the storage capacity of soils and the reduction of surface runoff from heavy rainfall are important here,” he explained.

According to Meisner, soil structure and humus levels in the soil are vital for flood protection. Because of that, BUND is demanding that regulations be introduced to ensure a year-round soil cover and diverse crop rotations – practices already in place in the organic farming sector.

Soil cultivation by heavy machinery must also be reduced so as not to compact the soil, Meissner continued.

“In my eyes, there is a clear lack of focus on soil protection in the CAP reform that has just been adopted,” he said.

The heavy rainfall has been exacerbated by misguided land use policies, according to the president of the European Agroforestry Association (EURAF), Patrick Worms.

To contain the water, hedgerow and tree structures are needed on farmland, otherwise it would flow into the landscape.

“Large bare fields are far more prone to erosion in a storm that those surrounded by windbreaks, hedges, other permanently planted features, or divided into alleys by tree lines,” he told EURACTIV.

“The truly sorry thing about this is that much of destruction could easily have been avoided at no or little cost to farmers,” Worms added.

But according to Meissner, the disaster, which hit the western German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North-Rhine Westphalia could not have been prevented if farming practices had been changed.

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Strengthening water meadows and forests

NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe, meanwhile, is calling for more consistent reinforcement of the existing law on the observance of buffer strips along water courses and protected areas, for example with regard to the “observance of good professional practice and soil protection in the cultivation of agricultural land.”

The organisation is also calling for the mandatory designation of so-called development corridors along all watercourses.

Within these areas, arable land must be converted to grassland and at least 50% of the area must be used for the re-wetting of floodplains.

“Floodplain forests can serve as floodplains that keep water in the landscape,” Meissner said, noting that a financially reinforced nationwide water meadow programme is needed.

Forests can also help protect the environment from floods, he said, since unexploited natural forests have the potential to act as a “sponge” and absorb water.

“BUND demands that at least 10% of the forest area be permanently designated as natural forests,” Meissner added.

The German Federal Hunting Act must also be adapted to ensure a near-natural “conversion” of forests and enable forest-friendly wildlife management, he added.

At the EU level, the Commission adopted on 16 July a new EU Forest Strategy, a flagship initiative under the European Green Deal.

The strategy contains a package of measures to increase the quality and quantity of European forests, which, according to the Commission, provide “vital ecosystem services” to society – including “protection against severe floods” and a “reduction in the impact of droughts.”

“In view of the current heavy rain and severe weather events, we are clearly reminded of how important healthy forests are,” said Olaf Tschimpke, the president of Germany nature conservation association Naturschutzbund (NABU) at the presentation of the strategy.

EU countries have watered down the Commission’s proposals made as part of the forest strategy too much, he added.

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The German agriculture minister presented on Wednesday (24 February) a worrying annual report on the condition of German forests, which again highlights the dramatic effects of climate change on the ecosystem.

Resilience in times of crisis

EURAF’s Worms also highlighted the importance of flood protection for farmers since climate change “pretty much ensures that we will have more and more years of droughts and floods.”

According to Meissner, agriculture may have to adjust its crop rotation in order to better adapt agriculture to weather extremes.

“Where crops that are better able to cope with drought have poor marketing channels, we need to build pathways here,” he said.

Making agricultural production more resilient to crises is also a priority of Slovenian Agriculture Minister Jože Podgoršek, who currently chairs the EU Council of Ministers.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, he said this also includes weather extremes caused by climate change.

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[Edited by Natasha Foote/Josie Le Blond]

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