by Stefan Bitsch
On the fourth day of our excursion, the group had the opportunity to learn from Christian Rohr (University of Bern) and Severin Hohensinner (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna), who shared their expertise with us during the various stops along the way.
The first series of stops were concentrated around the small town of Hütting, part of the longest connected dam-building program in Central Europe, which cost around €180 million and was completed in 2012. Forty-five kilometers of dams and flood retention areas now follow the course of the Danube in this region. The area has a long history of flooding, and the town has learned how to deal with these events over time.
Hütting was a market town in the Middle Ages—one of nine in Upper Austria. Despite severe floods occurring roughly every 10 years, people have, until recently, adapted and remained there. The area had been economically profitable due to its nutrient-rich, fertile soils, with great employment opportunities from prospering river trade. The Danube was a very important trade route, particularly during the period of Habsburg rule. The enormous growth in population caused people to settle near the river despite the well-known problems it caused. During periods when the Danube ran calm, they grew crops and farmed cattle; during periods of high water, the people and their livestock would move to the upper floors of their houses and wait for the water to drain. If the situation was really severe, they would use traditional boats known as Zilles and Plätten to transport themselves and their livestock to safety. The houses had to be adapted, too; because they were made of wood, “floating away” was a huge problem—not only for the wooden floors but also provisions stored in barrels. Vertical pillars helped to secure the lower parts of the houses against floating and disintegrating, using the ceiling as a counterweight.
As a further safety measure, a dam structure was built in 1954 to secure the town against high waters. These dams, however, were situated directly at the river and provided no space for the water to overflow and spread. Flood plains, or retention areas, can act as storage, soaking up some of the water and unburdening areas further downstream. Today, engineers are aware of this and modern dams are built further away from rivers. What has happened to the villages and settlements of Machland, and how has their strong historical relationship with the river been affected by the new dam?
Hütting had approximately 240 inhabitants in 1970. A resettlement program preceded the start of the dam construction, with the aim of moving the entire town of Hütting three kilometers further from the Danube, out of the water retention area and behind the new dam. The state purportedly covered 80 percent of the value of the residents’ belongings, and a new town, Neu-Hütting, was founded. The locals still use the flood lands for farming purposes, but living there is nearly impossible. The most recent one-hundred-year flood in 2002 showed why; almost all the houses on the flood lands were flooded completely and people had to be rescued by public services. Most of these houses have now been demolished. Even then, several people, especially the elderly, refused to move; they believed that, having coped with such situations all their lives, they know the river and can recognize danger when it arises. Today, two inhabitants still live in front of the dam and authorities are unable to remove them to permanent safety. They will still need help when the river swells.
“But,” one of our guides explained, “even this problem will resolve itself sooner or later, and the dam will be a guarding rampart for everybody in town. Safety for everybody, with the great river at the doorstep.”
Nearby Labing, a town adjacent to the river Naarn (one of the Danube’s tributaries), is surrounded on one side with concrete walls three and a half meters high. In times of flooding, the “backwater effect” means that water from the flooding Danube invades the tributary and turns the tiny, calm stream into a swollen lake. The flood barriers are especially strong to withstand the force of not just the floodwaters, but also a barrage of vast amounts of driftwood carried downstream on the Naarn from the Bohemian forest. It struck our group as very intimidating to live so close to a river that is so prone to flooding. The flood marks on the concrete wall show that, in 2002, the wall was only just high enough to prevent the whole town from being flooded. It seems that living with floods often means counting every remaining centimeter…
In Grein, inside Austria’s oldest intact theater (formerly a granary), we listened to a lecture about the River Danube.
The Danube was, prior to modern interventions, an anatomizing river, meaning that it frequently changed its course, creating new islands and eroding others in the process. This had a huge impact on river trade because the navigable channels changed frequently. Captains had to predict whether old routes were still intact or if new ways must be found through the web of channels. This created a lot of potential for danger, and on top of its unpredictable nature, the river hosted many dangerous spots. The Strudengau, where the Danube splits into two channels that later rejoin each other, is historically one of the most hazardous parts of the Danube. The right channel was sandy and only navigable in high waters; the left ran fast and perilous rocks littered the riverbed. A large, unavoidable eddy followed this stretch and many sailors lost their lives there and were washed ashore on the so-called Friedhof-Lacke, or “graveyard bay.”
The shifting riverbed frequently caused conflicts between landowners on both sides of the Danube, as property boundaries were often determined by natural landmarks like the river. Changes in its course, therefore, shifted these boundaries and spurred complicated redistribution issues. To manage this, in 1812, Austria began a survey and regulation program for the Danube. By 1925, the river’s channel had been straightened and secured with concrete walls. Several artificial channels were created, and the most dangerous stretches were destroyed or made navigable. Now, the Strudengau is no longer dangerous; the infamously large rock causing the eddy was destroyed during the Third Reich. To make sure that the destruction of the rock was successful, a vast amount of dynamite was used. Pieces of shattered stone reached and destroyed houses within a hundred meters of the explosion site.
In the whole of Austria today, only two sections of the Danube remain unregulated.
In the afternoon, we visited the monastery and town of Melk. Up on a hill, the monastery has remained safe from flooding, but the regular damage done to the surrounding villages means they kept many records of local flood events. The old town houses were built to be flood-proof, constructed mainly from stone. But the land and people around Melk, part of the Wachau region which is famous for its wine and fruit, suffered most under the destruction of crops and livestock from flood events. Such damages cannot be dealt with in a single year; vineyards need years to regrow. Severe floods were therefore often followed by years of toil and famine.
The inhabitants of Melk blame an increase in water channeled to them during floods on the lack of flood retention areas next to the flood barriers upstream. This type of dispute can be seen on less localized scales: for example, in 2013, Austria accused Bavaria of causing extensive flooding in its regions by not utilizing its own water retention areas appropriately during a period of severe flooding.
During a boat ride from Melk to Krems, we admired the Wachau region and took time to relax and contemplate the landscape on our own. We came to understand why the Wachau deserves the title of “quality vineyard of Austria.” The interplay of limestone and acidic granite rock combined with the warm, humid climate, allows the grapes to flourish. The famous Grüner Veltiner comes from this region. The Wachau is also of great historic importance, boasting many fortified churches—one of which is Dürnstein, where Richard of Lionheart was held captive for two years after his return from the Third Crusade.
When we arrived in Krems, the eastern gate to the vineyard of Austria, the day ended with a fantastic dinner and some very interesting discussions about the places we visited and the stunning impressions we collected on the way.