On a warm September afternoon, the Ahar River blows gently through steep-roofed vineyards and wooded valleys in a prosperous corner of West Germany. It is hard to believe that the river can now swell with such destructive force that it is flowing only one foot deep across the compacted gravel.
Eight weeks ago, in mid-July, while a storm system was trailing east across Europe, the Ahar Valley was hit by unprecedented rainfall. In just a few hours, the water level rose to more than nine meters, submerging the entire village.
One hundred and thirty-four people were killed when floodwaters receded in the narrow valley. More than 500 homes were completely washed away, and thousands more were severely damaged. Seventy bridges have been washed away along roads and railways. Although Ahr has been flooded several times in the past, scientists have blamed the intensity and volume of rainfall for climate change.
For the survivors, it was a terrible two months: daily struggles to rebuild life and livelihood in the suffocating dust and mud, grief, shock, and trying to realize that the life of this community will never be the same again.
Vera Ziken is a longtime resident of Altenhar whose home and surrounding vineyards were damaged by the floods. “If you just look at our city, how many houses have been damaged out of repair, how many houses have been demolished – what is left is pieces of this city. And there are many houses that will not be rebuilt, ”he told VOA. “The fundamental problem is that with climate change, this heavy rain that has affected Germany, we have to take a different approach. We have to work to prevent it, so when this kind of rain happens again, the water will not hurt the community as much as it does. Has done and can cause such damage. ”
Will the climate crisis persuade German voters to adopt new approaches? Germany’s Green Party is currently third in the election, but their support has waned in recent weeks. Leipzig’s Green Party candidate Paula Paichota said a generational divide had left Germany behind.
“If something can be felt, people change their attitude towards it. And climate change can be felt here. We had summer droughts, we had extreme rains, we had a lot of problems in our forests. So, we feel that climate change is actually real and it is happening. However, we see a clear division between the young and the old. Young people under the age of 40 prioritize environmental issues, climate issues, in their voting decisions. Older people don’t do that, ”Paichota told VOA.
There are also geographical divisions. The eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt has the largest lignite mine in Europe, commonly known as “brown coal”. It is the most polluted and low-energy source – and Germany is the world’s largest producer.
The government plans to close all its brown coal mines by 2038. Many Germans want them to close soon. But there are two big questions: what will happen instead of the thousands of jobs that will be lost in Germany’s economically depressing region? And will it replace brown coal, which supplies 20 percent of Germany’s electricity?
Germany is also phasing out nuclear power by the end of 2022, with local officials saying their lignite is important for Germany’s prosperity.
“Brown coal is still the number one source of energy in our state,” said Rodiger Erben, a Social Democratic Party member in the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament. “Wind and solar power are great, but when the sun doesn’t shine or we have a day without wind, the basic energy supply of the industrial sector must still be there. There is, of course, a contradiction in what is being said internationally. Outside of Germany, you see many pictures of our wind farms or huge solar parks and at the same time, Germany is one of the largest investors in brown coal worldwide.
“There is this East German proverb: ‘I am a mine, who can do more than me?’ It basically says that as a mine you are the foundation of the economy, ”Erben told VOA.
Back in the Ahar Valley, many residents say they are too busy rebuilding to get bored with politics. But there is also frustration that the authorities did not take preventive measures.
“Of course, climate change was certainly part of the cause, but it wasn’t the cause alone. They all kind of failed here. [Chancellor Angela] Merkel and her people, they have failed, but I believe the politicians in the state, they have failed too.
Merkel’s successor faces formidable challenges: tackling the climate crisis while empowering Europe’s largest economy; Reuniting climate-conscious youth with the older generation; And to balance Germany’s long-standing economic and social divisions between East and Wes