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Poland/Czech Republic: Floods Pave Way To Reform

Prague, 29 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Central European flood disaster has killed more than 100 people during the last three weeks, left tens of thousands destitute, destroyed towns and villages and dangerously contaminated the soil over large areas of the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland.

But it has also created an opportunity, despite the incalculable damage, of introducing major and lasting improvements in the ways those countries conduct the business of government at home and work with each other.

The floods started at the beginning of July, when continuing rain led to overflowing of rivers in the Czech Republic's area of northern Moravia and in southwestern Poland. The floods quickly spread, reaching a truly "biblical" proportions. They soon were affecting the eastern third of the Czech Republic and large areas of southwestern and western Poland. Consecutive waves of flooding eventually spread to parts of eastern Germany along the Oder river.

Today, sections of Oderbruch, a great expanse of low fields in the east of Berlin, are in danger of being submerged while inhabitants of the Polish border town of Slubice have been ordered to evacuate their homes. And a new waves of water is expected to arrive soon.

The floods represent the irresistible force of nature. There is nothing man could do to prevent them. There are ways, however, to make it easier to deal with this challenge, minimize the damage and manage the crisis. But it is in the management of the crisis that major flows have appeared.

Germany, Europe's richest state, has had both resources and means to prepare. The Czech Republic has also done quite well, with the government reacting promptly to bring rescue to victims and aid to the affected areas. Almost 50 people were reported to have perished in Moravia as a result of the floods.

Even so, RFE/RL correspondents reported in mid-July that First Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslav Kopriva said that "better communication at all levels, and improved legislation to define the authority of public officials in an emergency are needed." Kopriva also was reported to have said "the state should have a more effective way of ensuring that things are done to protect people, such as forced evacuations."

But in the opinion of many observers, Poland was the least prepared to deal with the problem. And the issue there has been ingrained in the very method of government.

An American reporter has noted that "old ways of thinking and an archaic system of crisis management" appear to have been at the heart of the Polish problem. This opinion was seconded by a veteran German correspondent, when she wrote that "the state agencies responsible for crisis management proved grossly incompetent" and that "the organizational chaos was made worse by the arrogance of ministers responsible for organizing the relief operations."

The Polish and foreign media have repeatedly reported cases of misuse of equipment, shortages of basic tools and faulty logistics in the centrally directed operations. There has been a general agreement that excessive centralization of decision making caused countless delays, compounding difficulties of dealing with emergency situations. Local government bodies have been left without the means and executive authority to resist the disaster. The effect has been a major debacle for the government.

Michal Kulesza, an expert of local administration and advocate of far-reaching decentralization of decision-making who was dismissed from positions of responsibility by the current government, was reported to have said that "the centralized state has gone down in the flood."

Kulesza may be over-optimistic as the bureaucratic structures have frequently showed considerable staying powers. But there is little doubt that the current natural disaster has demonstrated a palpable need of major administrative and political changes.

Some of these changes may come rather soon. According to a public opinion poll published Monday in Polish newspapers, less than nine percent of the respondents would support the ruling left-wing coalition if elections were held today. This demonstrated a loss of some 13 percentage points in three weeks. Parliamentary ballot is scheduled for September 21.

There is also a need urgently to develop better communication between neighboring countries to coordinate operations in the case of similar disasters in the future. The current flood disaster has demonstrated the lack of basic procedures and methods, particularly between Warsaw and Prague.

The Czech Republic and Poland are aspiring to enter both the European Union and NATO. That alone should prompt them to expand cooperation between themselves and extend it to their German neighbor as well. There is a Polish-German treaty to that effect, but its implementation has been slow owing to administrative and political difficulties. These difficulties are now likely to be overcome.

And so, there is an emerging possibility that the current disaster could yet contribute to reinforcing the still fragile unitary ties in the region as a whole. Should it happen, it would turn the human debacle and economic disaster into a long-term political benefit.