by Mark Bergfeld, who grew up in the area
I grew up in Erftstadt, went to school in Kerpen and played soccer (ages 6-19) in most of the towns and villages hit by the floods. I also was a local council candidate and have been part of progressive mobilisations in the area.
The flooded areas of the Rhein-Erft Kreis and in particular Erftstadt are both historically and economically intertwined with lignite coal mining, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. All lakes in the region are former open cast coal mines and Garzweiler still operates today.
Most of my friends’ dads worked for the energy company RWE, and many young guys in the area still regard it as a good employer which affords them a decent life. When I was in school we would regularly visit the open cast coal mine down the road to learn about lignite.
But the lignite mining industry does not only dominates our cultural identity, career aspirations and education system – it also shapes our political representation. Gregor Golland (CDU) who earns 120k Euros for his part-time job at RWE, is also the representative in the Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) state parliament.
RWE’s political and economic power are a major obstacle to moving toward carbon neutrality and shifting away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the German federal government will only exit from coal production in 2038. This constitutes a breach of the Paris Climate Agreement.
The devastation that Erftstadt and other towns in the regions are seeing are not due to technical issues but human-made climate change. However, there is a technical issue at hand which cannot be neglected.
The dams are breaking because they haven’t been built for such scenarios. The little streams have turned into rivers because they have been straightened and folks built their houses on the banks. Such ‘technical issues’ need to be addressed in Erftstadt and across the EU.
Importantly, there is a political dimension to this man-made disaster. The EU Commission has put forward its #Fitfor55 package. It offers too little, too late. Germany is putting its car and coal industries before human lives in Erftstadt and elsewhere.
Erftstadt will never be the same after this. Towns like Blessem stand in ruins. The collective trauma can be witnessed already. Politicians are only gearing up for the federal elections in September by promising money for home owners and those affected by the floods.
But in the cracks & amidst the ruins old social networks are being reactivated and new mutual aid networks are emerging. I don’t know whether they will be strong enough to dislodge the power of the CDU and RWE. But they sure will be important for others when catastrophe strikes.
To finish up: Greta Thunberg has consistently said that politicians should listen to climate scientists. In September, the German electorate should punish all those who have been denying climate science or putting the coal and car industry’s interests above people and planet.
It requires equitable solutions to the climate crisis. This means folks need green union jobs that provide them with a strong occupational and cultural identity that lignite and the car industry once provided. That is a small piece of the puzzle that will need to be addressed.