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Czech News in English » Life » 'People have forgotten why houses have foundations'

‘People have forgotten why houses have foundations’

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He once wrote an article on the threat of a centennial flood; it was two years before such a flood really hit Moravia. In his last year’s book, he dealt, among others, with how to face local torrential flooding – like those that have now hit the district of Nový Jičín. “I do not try to predict the future, I just draw attention to trends. But people then have the impression that you brought it – by writing it,” says geologist Václav Cílek, who even talks about famine in Europe in his latest book.

Were you caught by any June storm?
It was on Wednesday in the Bohemian Karst. It was one of the storms that are typically coming these days: that means really a massive one.

You know, a standard Czech storm accumulates precipitation, let’s say, on 500 square kilommetres and then the rain falls for instance on 2 – 3 kilommetres, but the storms coming this year are different. They accumulate on dozens of thousands or more square kilommetres in the Mediterranean Sea, and behind it is millions of kilommetres of the Atlantic. And then all you need is to have the globe a bit warmer, by 1 – 2 degrees…

Which we have?
Yes – even if we look at very sceptical estimates. On a million square kilommetres it produces a huge amount of energy.

We all know how much energy is needed to vaporise water. And when it is condensing again, the energy is released and winds are stronger. Moisture can come from a bigger distance.

In the language of economics, it’s like if you poured more money into the economy – there is more energy in the climate system.

Were it not for two steps, we would be flooded
In 1993 they invited you to the protected nature area Broumovsko where an unusual torrential flood that made a dry ravine two metres deeper in an hour. Since the middle of the 1990s, such phenomena have been more frequent. Were there really fewer of them in the past or we just do not have enough information?
That’s what we are speculating about. One of the ways to find it out is deep ravines. There are all across the Czech territory, often in the forest or below hills, 15 – 20 metres wide, 6 – 10 metres deep. Their steepness suggests they are young.

Sometimes I walk to here, to the Institute of Geology, from the railway station Prague-Sedlec. And when walking up to Suchdol, there is a huge young erosional ravine, where you can see that it takes the road, probably from the 18th or 19th century. That means there was torrential rain that was much stronger that what we have seen this year. It is necessary to count on that such rains can come again in future.

How can we count on that when warning systems are not ready for fast storms?
I was thinking about why storms caused less damage in the past. Of course, settlements used to be smaller, more compact, so torrential rains fell in free landscape. Moreover, settlements were often built on medieval foundations – the same foundations in which they survived the period of creation of deep ravines – and kept this shape until roughly the 19th century.

But the way houses were built was different. Today, people want floor in their new houses at the level of the lawn like they see it in American television series. They like coming out of their living room directly to the lawn. A metre-high underpinning looks obsolete. But it has its meaning.

But if the house is not situated near water?
I will give you an example. We live in a family house on the outskirts of Prague-Prosek. On Tuesday a downpour came and the tank capacity did not suffice. Our courtyard was covered with some 15 centimetres of water, which was absorbed only during the next hour. If we did not have two steps to the house, we would be flooded.

Notice that even in old churches in Prague, there are eight, ten steps above the pavement, for the case that big water comes.

Would you be able to give some advice to those affected by floods in the Nový Jičín district?
Well, those who are dry should not tell the wet ones what to do. Maybe just for the mayor to take a few sensible men, go round the surroundings of the village and search for erosional gutters because that is where water can come from. And one more thing: when you go through forests these days, there is a large number of slope roads. If there is no money for road maintenance owing to the crisis, the forest slope roads are a typical place where erosion occurs.

When walking along rivers and seeing cottages and sheds in flood zones, do you say to yourself – you will be surprised one day?
Sheds is nothing, but what I do not understand is new houses built on wrong places. Which is not specific to us, this is typical for the United States: that is why rivers flood whole quarters there.

Is it because their historical memory is shorter?
Yes. They move house more frequently, do not forget local slides and fires – a research showed that the historical memory in California is mostly six years – and their attitude to life is optimistic: that disasters do not concern them or that they will overcome them.

I think that as houses have their energy audit these days, they should also have what I call an environmental audit. Considering possible risks, maybe even strong wind, it does not have to be accompanied by precipitation. A buyer should know the history of a house fifty years back, like you want to know the number of accidents when buying a car.

Does it exist or have you just though it up?
Yesterday. It does not have to be in the rules, but one should ask about these things when buying a house.

What if drought comes? And a volcano explodes?
In February 1995, you published an article in Respekt entitled “When will floods come to the Czech Republic?” and you awaited great flooding. Isn’t it frightening when the forecast comes true?
I don’t try to predict things for a long time already. It is impossible to predict the future. I just draw attention to trends. But people then have the impression that you brought it – by writing it.

At the moment, for instance, a few bubbles are ripening, as the economists say – climatic and energy bubbles. You just don’t know when it comes. I am watching the crisis and I am surprised: nothing has happened in the material world, no meteorite has hallen, no Chingis Khan has invaded any place. And now imagine that something really starts to happen in the physical world!

So you no longer deal with the question of whether there is any climate change and whether it was caused by people, but what does it imply. You write for instance the agriculture can experience renaissance in Europe. But what are we supposed to do with farmers until that time? Take care of them, expose them to tough competition, or not to care about them at all?
I thing that care for land should be one of the fundamental tasks. I can see people mainly in small towns who worry about how land is built up and destroyed. It is surprising that no party has included land protection in their policy statement. I think that would address a lot of voters.

I asked you about people, and you though about land first. Does it mean that farming is a skill that won’t be forgotten?
The truth is that I do not perceive much what is going on among farmers. What disturbs me more it land degradation. When you arrive for example in Bylany near Kutná Hora, there is a Neolithic archeological site. The local land is as fertile as it was 6,000 years ago. This is fascinating: as if you built a plant that would manufacture goods for 6,000 years. But some 30 – 50 years of bad management is enough to jeopardize this productivity sharply.

You ask yourself under what circumstances there could be famine in Europe today. In this respect, you mentioned for example a volcano explosion that would cool down climate on Earth for two-to-three years. But that happens very rarely.
It is nothing unusual, it can happen twice in a century. Then at least one crop is 50 – 60% endangered and the following two crops 20 – 40%. A volcano explosion affects the high levels of the atmosphere, so its impact is global. Then those will import goods who will be able to pay more than the others.

Or an easier-to-imagine situation: Over the past five or seven years we have seen major drought in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Romania. The whole Mediterranean area is drying out and it’s a matter of time when drought comes to the Czech Republic. The fact as such would be no problem: I perceive the European Union also as a food project. The climate is never bad in the whole of Europe, it is always possible to import foodstuffs from the other side, which I think is a reasonable degree of globalisation.

There just cannot be demand in China at the same time.
Exactly. When there is such a vulnerable system like the southeast Asian monsoon, crop can decrease more easily there. The Chinese would buy it in Europe, we would make a lot of money on that, but it would make prices volatile and provoke panics among people.

So we should have more inventories?
Yes. Most countries have strategic food reserves for 20 – 26 days. It used to 80 – 120 days. It should be one year.

When you look at the topics that you yourself regard as important – energy security, food base, pension reform, the ability to build nuclear power stations, investment in education – is not Europe acting with forethought?
Everybody criticise the European Union because they see mainly its complicated rules. But I do not want to sneer at it. I see the huge potential in its interesting and well worked-out studies. And the officers try to react to them, even though it takes them a lot of time and the bureaucratic roads are tortuous. So thanks god we are an EU member. It is better to be at the mercy of Brussels bureaucrats than of the creativity of domestic politicians.

What bothers you about domestic politics?
It seems to me that politics brings to power younger and more and more interchangeable figures that could be members of several parties at the same time. It is becoming a sort of a business.

I was thinking was what is the leading political principle – what is the substance of this state. And it seems to me that it’s like a jug full of milk with a few holes in it and somebody sucking from each of the holes. But there are fewer and fewer holes. To get away with that, the government has to bribe most of the population by means of the so-called mandatory expenditures. And a limited number of private entities then fight for the rest. The state then does not have many tools to react flexibly, it is constantly short of money.

But we will need a lot of money, because of energy, foodstuffs.

Václav Cílek

Born on 5 November 1955 in Brno. Graduated from a technical secondary school Příbram (also attended a secondary school in Tanzania where his father worked as a geologist) and studied geology at the Charles University. Worked at the Mining Institute of the Academy of Sciences 1980-90, in 1990 joined the Institute of Geology and has been at the helm of it since 2004. Among his best known books are Krajiny vnitřní a vnější (2002) and Makom: Kniha míst (2004). He received the Tom Stoppard Prize for the books. He is married with two children.

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