Wrocław, a city with more than 600,000 inhabitants and located at an upper reach of the transboundary river Odra, was chosen for case study purposes for several reasons. Since the Polish transformation in 1989, two big floods occured in Poland: the ‘millenium’ flood of 1997 and 2010. Wrocław experienced these two flood events and due to that fact significant changes in flood risk management can be observed and analysed. At the same time, the EU accession (with its financial consequences) has become a serious milestone as well.

map Map of Poland; numbers represent Polish case studies (3 = Wroclaw). 


‘Millenium’ flood of 1997

Lack of a political and policy agenda on flood management both at the national and local level, has lead to decapitalisation of flood infrastructure. Floodbank failures during the flood caused massive damages (in socio-economic terms). At the same time,  highest water flow estimations and crisis representatives plans in case of flood event, were prepared on a basis of experiences of the flood of 1903 (with water flow of 2200 m3/s). Both estimations and crisis plans did not taken higher possible water flow into consideration. As a consequence, more than 30% of the Wrocław area was covered by water.

Summing up, the flood of 1997 brought into sight:

  • insufficient condition of flood infrastructure
  • water flow models and crisis actions that were based on highest water flow measured in the past, have been considered by local authorities as disproportionate
  • inapropriateness of crisis actions (+ inadequateness of crisis management plans)
  • both too large scale and water flow levels that can be dealt with in an effective way
  • heroic actions taken by local authorities and Wrocław inhabitants showed potential to cooperate and unify inthe face of natural disaster

Unprecedency of this flood event resulted in that the flood of 1997 has been considered as external, thus the possibility to frame this shock event as even partially the consequence of a defence oriented approach was very low.

Worth mentioning is the underlying media coverage message that seemed to emerge from its sketchy content analysis. It can be summed up that “although flood damages were unprecedented and unimaginable, spontaneous local initiatives (with material support from the Polish society) exhibited potential for united actions. We managed to integrate in face of such disastrous flood event.”

Flood of 1997 – lessons learned resulted in:

  • An improvement in flood infrastructure (reservoirs’ capacity were increased, embankments were heightened, flood channels and sluices widened. All initiatives were taken according to water flow of 3600 m3/s)
  • An increase in significancy of preparation strategy (improvement in flood warning infrastructure, better crisis actions coordination, establishment of Flood Leaders)

As a consequence of the ‘millenium’ flood several additional actions were taken. The Programme for Odra-2006 started in 2001, was a joint-venture action plan aimed to coordinate flood mitigation activities from the sectors such as water and flood management, spatial planning, forestation projects, incentives for insurance, and inland waterways. Due to vital and effective lobbying taken by local policy entrepreneurs, tthe Programme received political attention at the national level and its realisation was enforced by a special legal act. 56; various institutions altogether (with 7 ministries) were included in the Programme. Realised on an unprecedented scale, the Programme for Odra-2006 showed both potential for consensus between institutions previously focused on their own interests, and lack of their cooperation experience in dealing with such complex flood risk management issues. The Programme, critisised for its incoherenc, changed a few times in terms of its scope and division of responsibilities, and has been terminated permanently at the beginning of 2015.

The sense of community is another issue worth mentioning here. Wrocław, a post-German city, share high index of people from Eastern borders of Poland. They were relocated to Wrocław after 1945 but remained inhabitants not bounded with the city they live in for decades. Several studies showed the flood of 1997 has broken this spell in terms of high identity with place or potential for cooperation.

 wroclawGrunwaldzki bridge from Cathedral tower, Wroclaw

Flood of 2010

In 2010 another shock event occured but its physical circumstances and consequences afterwards were quite different. First of all, water flow was on the level of that in 1903 (2200 m3/s). Following the prepare-for-the-previous-biggest-flood-logic, it means that even flood infrastructure that have been in Wrocław in 1997 could have managed to bear such water flow. From the broader geographical perspective, a command and control paradox began to emerge. Opole, a town with more than 120,000 inhabitants, which is located at an upper point on Odra, improved its defence measures significantly. Thus, Wrocław authorities (crisis representatives in particular) perceive their role as a consequence of that paradox.

Defence + preparation significancy

What is more, flood infrastructure (embankments, reservoirs’ capacity, sluices), improved since 1997, became serious flood risk mitigation factor and consolidated dominant discourse about effectiveness of a defence approach. At the same time Flood Leaders recruited from the most charismatic inhabitants passed their test and significantly contributed to the the effectiveness of preparation strategy.

The flood of 2010 brought into sight that both improved flood defence measures and crisis plans and actions are effective in mitigating flood risk. Important to note also is the EU accession in 2004. Although significant funds have been dedicated to Wrocław since 2004, at the same time particular measures (such as flood risk and hazard maps, or new definition of ‘flood’ proposed in FD rather critised as less precise than that in Polish Water Law).

Conclusions so far:

  • The flood event of 1997 had a triggering effect in increasing significancy of defence and preparation strategies (+ window of opportunity for local authorities as a mean to gain additional funds for city development)
  • The flood event of 2010 consolidated the defence based approach supported by effective crisis management active in the preparation phase
  • A lack of financial resources is not a problem in Wrocław
  • Joint-venture actions (with vertical cooperation) showed a lack of know-how shared by water and flood institutions in Wrocław
  • The “prepare-for-the-previous-biggest-flood-logic” remained the same
  • The isurance rate among the  inhabitants remained pretty much at the same level
  • The spatial planning strategy during both flood events in 1997 and 2010 showed its incapacity to actively prevent future development. Legal changes on national level loosing spatial planning restrictions seem to restrict role of this strategy more significantly
  • Although strong arrangements within the city of Wrocław’ institutions can be seen, little horizontal need for cooperation between other municipalities can be observed
  • Water and flood risk management institutions in Wrocław, although based on hydrotechnical measures are supported by a growing academic community (expertises, joint-venture projects). This trend is expected to become more significant in the future
  • Water and flood management is organised with insignificant consideration for inland waterway interests
  • Flood management institutions exhibit little experience with public involvement concept in policy-making actions
  • The flood of 1997 became an ‘identity factor’ for inhabitants