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Czech Republic: After the flood

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From TOL Week in Review: 13 - 19 August 2002

One possible lesson of floods in 1997 is that some sense of normality will return relatively quickly to the Czech Republic. It ought not to return so quickly to its politics.

Floods seem to strike when they want, where they want, and how they want. Comparing floods--either this week's floods across Central and Eastern Europe or previous floods--may, then, seem largely pointless. In Russia, the people who died this week were killed in floods that plunged down from the mountains and swept 58 bathers out to sea and to their deaths without much notice or means of control.

In 1997, in Moravia, the Czech Republic's eastern half, wild mountain waters tore down slopes and flattened homes with barely any forewarning. In Bohemia, the country's other half, the floods this week took a slower, more predictable course. It was slower but--with the waters rising by 40 centimeters an hour or (much) more at some points--not slow. It was more predictable, but not very: The unexpected strength of two flooded areas merging helps explain the sudden drama of the flooding in Prague.

By the end, these were not just the biggest floods seen for a 150 years in some parts of the country, but in the country as a whole, and there was little that could be done about that.

Still, the Moravian floods of 1997 do provide a few yardsticks. Some are seemingly small. In five years, mobile phones have gone from the tool of a small minority to second nature for a vast majority of Czechs. Thanks to that little gadget, it must have been much easier for evacuees to organize their escape and reorganize their lives than it was in 1997. And the lessons of five years ago probably protected much of the Old Town: Metal barriers, easily assembled but very pricey, prevented much of the historic center from being flooded.

There also seems to have been something of a change in the social climate. Who was to blame for the floods? Of course, questions are being asked and fingers pointed, but instant opinion polls showed that many chose a grander target: man and his attitude toward nature. Five years ago, public opinion was relatively muted on the environment and then-Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus repeatedly asserted that there was no such thing as global warming.

Now, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has speculated that the countryside's ability to retain water has been eroded. The environment minister is proposing major changes to the management of the landscape. The public may be jumping the gun, and the politicians may prove to be wrong, but the debate is at least a welcome change, as these are issues that are vital--and perhaps urgent, because in the space of five years, both halves of the Czech Republic have suffered the worst floods in many generations.

The floods of 1997 may also give some indication of what the economic effects will be. Clearly, many small businesses have been hit savagely, some terminally. Insurers--who covered less than 10 billion Czech crowns of damages totaling 64 billion CZK in 1997--may once again get off lightly, a personal tragedy for many people.

However, overall, the bigger economic message from 1997 is more sanguine. Ultimately, this year's floods proved larger in scale and will be costlier. But the 1997 floods were huge and hit an industrially vital area. Industrial output dipped one month, but the damage to industry and retail sales (and the boost to the building industry) otherwise merged indiscernibly into a broader downward trend. Or, restated, in 1997, the acts of politicians--the introduction of an austerity package-- proved more important than an act of God.

The flood waters have passed. The flow of goodwill will ebb. The flow of public money will increase. The economy will suffer but will return to its larger trend (growing but at a slowing pace). The sense of normality will return. A semblance of life returning to a more normal pattern may prove a psychological boost for those whose lives have been badly affected. For the vast majority who have not been affected, though, the psychological impact of the past few days may be worth remembering before it gets pushed to the background.

The psychological impact may simply be the clearer realization that floods and nature can take your life and livelihood in a flash. But more generally, these extraordinary events may have exposed to many just how complex ordinary modern life is and how far-reaching and long-lasting the ripple effect can be. (Praguers will feel that over the coming months as the entire system tries to come to terms with the temporary closure of much of the metro.)

The individual is not enough. Isolated special-operations teams are not enough. Suddenly, the notion--much promoted in simplistic and hyperbolic language by many on the Czech right--that our destiny is in our own hands and independent of the rest to the social system looks even more clearly to be simply narcissism.

Instead, during a national crisis, an entire social system comes into operation. The state responded in force. Czech public television, notable for the inadequacy of its political coverage of the elections in June, reacted by turning itself into a round-the-clock public service. Once again, Czech NGOs--a sector that has developed in an impressive way and has produced some of the key providers of international aid in Chechnya, for example--showed their quality. And the solidarity shown by ordinary people--verbal, financial, and physical--should be noted by those who like to assume that post-Communist populations are fundamentally passive in nature, or that capitalism has made them indifferent (or both). These are people who have recognized that the state cannot provide everything and the individual cannot survive alone.

After these floods, the usual political debate will resume between Czech liberalism and socialism. In fact, even the floods could not suspend it. At the time the Prague floods were at their height, Vaclav Klaus penned an article that appeared on Thursday, in which he warned against the floods leading to "any unfortunate infringement into human rights that might in future heighten the role and authority of the state in a manner that might be hard to reverse." Even in the worst of crises, some people, it seems, cannot escape the shadow of their own obsessions or put hyperbole to one side. This was not just an off-key comment--it was shameful.

Hopefully, however, the floods may prompt some on the right to shed similar faults and some on the left to focus less on the state, and instead encourage both to focus more on discussing how best to empower the individual and society as a whole. Because, as perhaps these floods should show, the larger, more complex, and more pertinent framework for political discussion--at least in a modern European country--is not about the state versus the individual, but how the state and the individual can operate together and protect and develop the civilization and social systems that we have inherited.

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