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Freiburger Geographische Hefte, Vol. 73

Iso Himmelsbach (2014): Experience – Mentality – Management. Flood and flood control on the non-navigable rivers in Upper Alsace and the Upper Rhine (1480-2007)


This thesis presents a historical-geographic approach dealing with historical flood events and the development of flood protection of 15 non-navigable tributaries of the upper Rhine River. The study researches the French region of Alsace and the southwest part of the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg as well as the river Rhine between Basel and Strasbourg and covers the period between 1480 and 2007.

There is no known date indicating the beginning of flood control. Since people settle alongside rivers, they try to protect their valuables against the effects of floods. Until the 18th century flood control was merely an interest of those owning property or living near rivers. The moment however, when flood events had been recognized as an impairment of national economy, public interest extended on flood control along the non-navigable tributaries. It turned out, that two different legal practices existed in Alsace and Baden. That led to the development of two different concepts of flood control which exist in her essential main features till this day. In France the government had no direct access to the non-navigable tributaries which compromised a planned approach. Due to this fact flood control in Alsace remained a patchwork of local actions. In Baden the government had the power to intervene massively and comprehensively. The fluvial topography of most non-navigable rivers had been severely altered and dams had been build leaving however a false sense of security.

This historical development still impairs the taking effect of the directive on the assessment and management of flood risks of the European Union of 2007.

The second part of the work deals with the classification and long-term evaluation of the flood events, which occurred between 1480 and 2007 in the research area. The occurring flood events are researched by identifying their meteorological causes, their monthly distribution and their distribution throughout the hydrological year.

Special emphasis is put to the question how flood events had been recognized and interpreted by the people who endured the extreme flood events around the year ad. 1500. The flood from July, 1480 triggered an argument about the Deluge throughout Europe. The evaluation of those historical sources reveals a great deal of the knowledge about flood development of those times. Additionally the question how those flood events had been used as an instrument to exercise power is researched focussing on the difference between the concepts of ‘interpretation’ versus ‘interpretational sovereignty’.