Grief and Rage in the Rhineland — Nationalise RWE

We publish below an article written by Claus Ludwig, member of SAV in Cologne (ISA section in Germany)

During a press event about the Rhineland floods, candidate for Chancellor Armin Laschet laughs in the background with Christian Democrat member of the state parliament Gregor Golland, who gets 90,000 euros a year in “extra income” for his part-time job at an RWE subsidiary. This image symbolises the whole catastrophe.

At the time of writing, more than 160 people have died in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and Rhineland-Palatinate (RP), 30 in Belgium. Thousands have lost their houses and flats, cars and all possessions. More than 100,000 are still without electricity days after the start of the flooding. Gas and mobile phone networks are down. Whole places have been destroyed, thousands traumatised, deprived of their previous lives.

While people mourn and suffer with many across the country and beyond sympathising with them, Christian Democrat (CDU) candidate for Chancellor Armin Laschet enjoyed a joke at a press conference with Gregor Golland, CDU member of the state parliament. Golland is also a highly paid employee of the RWE corporation* which, in the midst of the chaos, continues its “business as usual” to boost the profits of its shareholders.

* RWE energy corporation

RWE energy corporation has won the 2021 German “Best of Best Corporate Brand of the Year” as well as gold as an “Excellent Brand” in recognition of the ambitious and creative way RWE presents its brand, spotlighting its transformation into one of the globally leading providers of renewable energies and storage facilities, with an additional focus on the future market of hydrogen. It has the target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2040.

Climate activists do not agree. They fought a long running battle to preserve the Hambach forest in western Germany threatened by the planned expansion of one of the group’s coal mines. RWE also operates some of the largest coal-fired power stations in Europe and in 2018 was the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions in Europe.

Now even the bourgeois media barely dispute the fact that extreme weather events are related to climate change. The 50-degree heat records on the North American Pacific coast and the heavy rainfall in the Rhineland — with, in two days, as much rain as normally falls in an entire month, in some places as much as in three months — would be conceivable as individual phenomena even without climate change. But their scale and rapid succession are products of this change, which is mainly caused by the unchecked use of fossil fuels.

RWE again and again

The RWE corporation is one of the drivers of climate change through its continuation of destructive lignite mining. This has Laschet’s blessing, who allowed the state police in the Hambach Forest to act like a private army of RWE. But RWE is not only involved in the flood disaster in general, but in a very concrete way. The gravel pit that caused the collapse of several houses in Erftstadt-Blessem belongs to Rheinische Baustoffwerke, an RWE subsidiary. The German daily paper “Kölner Stadtanzeiger” is already asking to what extent their expansion a few years ago contributed to the collapse. This must be investigated, transparently and with the participation of those affected and environmental associations.

RWE’s open-cast lignite mine near Inden was flooded as the Inde River overflowed, and its Weisweiler lignite burning power plant, one of the worst polluters in Europe, has had to reduce its capacity. The journalist Bernd Müllender from ‘taz.de’ points out that not only the open-cast mine there, but also the mines in Hambach and Garzweiler could be used to absorb large amounts of water during floods and thus relieve inhabited areas. But RWE continued production, while donating a measly million euros to flood relief from its multi billion annual profits.

Twitter users have even suggested that RWE actively pumped water from the Hambach open-cast mine into the Erft. This, too, needs to be investigated. RWE employees who could provide information about this must be guaranteed full social security by the state if they agree to testify against the company.

There were warnings

Classic flood protection concepts, such as those used on the coast or along large rivers, are of little help in such a situation. The water came from everywhere, from above, from below through the canal systems and from the side. Little rivers, normally hardly suitable for a plastic-duck race, turned into raging torrents, overflowed their banks while at the same time the water table rose dramatically. Neither dams nor sandbags could help, there was no front on which they could have been usefully built. In Cologne, cellars and subways filled up, even without a direct connection to the river, just because of the rain.

But that does not mean that nothing could have been done. There were clear warnings. “Germany knew the floods were coming, but the warnings didn’t work,” writes the British Times, quoting flood expert Hannah Cloke, who stresses that it was possible to see what was going to happen. The weather services, for example, the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), would have foreseen the crisis.

The authorities could have warned and evacuated people earlier, closed roads and bridges, assembled relief teams and checked ways to relieve the pressure on inhabited areas. This was a “natural disaster” made worse by mistakes. This too needs to be fully investigated.

Dense settlements and industrial usage close to the rivers has been beneficial for many years. But under conditions of climate change and increasing weather extremes, this is a recipe for more disasters. Recent summers have turned big cities into baking ovens or saunas. Soils that had dried out over years were flooded all at once in 2021. Regions like eastern Belgium, the Eifel and the Rhineland must be weatherproofed — cities and towns need functioning systems can absorb extreme rainfall. This requires rainwater retention basins, inner-city flooding areas such as lower-lying sports fields, car parks or meadows, as well as drainage channels that specifically direct the water away from residential areas, and an opening up of sealed surfaces to allow the water to seep away again — ideally into the giant holes that RWE has dug in the Rhein mining area.

Who is going to pay for this?

Many people are not privately insured against the damage. The established politicians are now appearing in front of the cameras and talking about helping “quickly” and “unbureaucratically”. But in 2019, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) under Laschet has limited emergency aid in the event of a disaster to “hardship cases”. As in other federal states, costs have risen due to more frequent weather events. Instead of direct aid, the NRW regulations provide for tax write-offs and thus favours higher earners. Those who pay little tax anyway go away empty-handed. Even if these regulations were to be relaxed now — after all, Laschet is running for the chancellorship and desperately needs positive headlines — many of those affected will be stuck with the costs.

We are currently only experiencing the beginning of the weather extremes caused by climate change. But already since 2000, damage costs in Germany have already risen massively. Insurance companies are becoming stingier, often cancelling policies after the first claim, even if it only causes minor costs. They interpret minor weather damage as an indication that more will follow.

The battle over who pays for the damage caused by climate change has already started. The ‘polluter pays’ principle plays no role, otherwise coal, car and arms companies would have to pay. They are protected by the establishment politicians, who in turn shut access to the state coffers for those affected. The latter should organise themselves and look for allies, for example in the climate movement, and fight for the payment of the damages and the democratically controlled reconstruction of their homes and cities.

For private individuals, all losses — house, vehicles, belongings — must be compensated in full by the state, insofar as they are not covered by insurance. If insurance companies do not pay out immediately, the public sector has to step in. Those who no longer wish to live directly near the river must be offered equivalent housing options further away. In the short term, all those affected must be offered free accommodation in hotels or equivalent housing for as long as this is necessary. The state of NRW should take this money from RWE and other corporations that are partly responsible for the situation.

Everything as before?

Laschet promised that everything would be restored to the same as before. This is a recipe for further surprises by the next “natural disaster”. The cruel deaths of over 190 people in Germany and Belgium must be a signal to fundamentally change the situation. The region must be transformed. In addition to compensation areas and drainage systems, we must also rethink where to build which houses so that we can adapt to climate change. Cities must become greener, air corridors must be created. Houses along rivers must be built in safe locations. Building houses cannot be left to private investors, but must be done by the public sector — in a planned way, at reasonable prices and with the participation of the future residents.

Thousands of new jobs must be created, on the one hand because people are losing their jobs, but also because we need these jobs — in the fire brigade, in health care, in disaster control, reforestation, for the restoration of biosystems and for the expansion of public transport. These needed qualified jobs must be financed through investments by the federal government, the state and the municipalities.

And once again RWE

The “coal compromise” allows for the mining of lignite until 2038, and allowing corporations like RWE to receive high compensation payments. The current catastrophe proves once again that this deadline is far too late. The phase-out must be completed as quickly as technically possible. To make this possible and to finance it, RWE should be expropriated immediately and transferred into public ownership. A democratically controlled public energy company can be ecologically restructured. No employee of RWE would have to lose their job. Their skills are needed for conversion and dismantling, with the same income and working conditions as before. All villages that have not yet been destroyed would be preserved and inhabited, whilst the open-cast mining areas can become part of the flood protection system of the region.

The flood disaster reveals the incompetence and mendacity of established politicians and points to the irresponsible nature of capitalist corporations. At the same time, it shows the great solidarity of the people among themselves. Rescue workers have toiled for days under harsh conditions, four firefighters paid for their efforts with their lives. Flood victims have been accommodated by neighbours, thousands are participating in the clean-up work, although they are hardly or less affected themselves, and the willingness to donate food and clothing is so high that, due to a lack of storage capacities, temporary stops have been imposed on collections in some cases. If this practical solidarity is transported to the political level, better arrangements for the affected people can be fought for.

Socialist Alternative proposes:

Free accommodation in hotels and empty flats, free food, as well as emergency aid of 10,000 euros for all those whose houses or flats have been destroyed or severely damaged;

Full and rapid compensation for the losses of private individuals by the insurance companies or the state;

Expansion of civil protection and rescue services with the recruitment and training of all necessary staff with higher pay for these activities;

Full payment of wages to all workers who are unable to go to work due to the floods;

Investigations conducted by democratically elected commissions of residents, scientists and environmentalists to clarify whether water from the Hambach open-cast mine was channelled into the Erft, and the effect of the gravel pit in Erftstadt had on the collapse of houses in the Blessem district;

No construction “as before”. No further delay in implementing the European flood protection directives. Development of protection concepts against flooding and other consequences of the climate crisis, such as overheated cities, with democratic participation of local residents and climate activists;

Massive expansion of public transport, zero fares on public transport and price reductions for long-distance transport. Expansion of bicycle lanes, creation of car-free inner cities;

An end to the “debt brake”, massive expansion of public investment to mitigate the consequences of climate change;

Financing reconstruction and flood protection through higher taxes on the rich and corporations;

Expropriate RWE, immediately exit from lignite, guarantee jobs and income for RWE employees;

System change — stop coal-fired power generation and the internal combustion engine, complete conversion to renewable energies;

Socialisation of energy and mobility companies under democratic control of employees, the state and environmental organisations.

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