Hydrological situation in Poland


Both flood and drought news are cause for concern. Our society has quickly forgotten the fact that both of these deviations from the average are parts of the hydrological cycle and, as such, are a very important component in shaping the diversity of nature around.

It is difficult to find a moment in recent history when the natural phenomena that these typical cyclical states of river systems are in fact, were made into ‘lids’ in a flood of negative information. Clearly, both surging river waters and prolonged drought are not comfortable conditions and, as such, should draw attention and prompt the creation of safeguards where and when they occur. This has been done for hundreds of generations before us. Nothing more than that. Drought and flooding are signs of the seasons, of the passage of time, according to the rhythm of Nature. These conditions are present in our history and, until quite recently, the spring floods were welcomed – they marked the end of winter and the renewal of pastures in the river valleys. The summer drought, on the other hand, was a sign that the harvest was approaching and needed to be done in time for the autumn rains. This was and is the norm. The change that should be much more worrying is the disappearance of this normality.

There are no cyclical phenomena in recent times. The earth has lost the rhythm with which humans, together with all the nature around them, have been led for centuries.

Droughts last too long, are sometimes too severe, and have become ‘lethal’ to forests, waters and people. Similarly, floods – they are no longer “invigorating for valleys”, but destructive, sudden, instantaneous and equally deadly. Today, there is no doubt that we humans have an important part to play in this change. We have managed to add enough to the natural processes for the spell of balance to overflow. It is high time to understand and acknowledge this. We have managed to initiate the process. As you can see, disastrously successfully. Are we able to stop it? We do not know. What is known is that the changes we are experiencing, along with the entire Planet, are more the effect than the cause of our troubles. Stubbornly, like an alcoholic or other addict, we run away from admitting that we have more to do with it than we would like.

Our main predicament lies in our complacency about technology and the ‘causal power’ of man, especially over the last two centuries. This lack of humility today is supported by the manipulation of information, so that certain actions manage to be dressed up in catchy slogans of ‘defence’ against threats, when in fact the result of these actions is a significant increase in threats.

Let us look at the water in our country. Supposedly we have very little water. Supposedly, because in reality we have just as much of it, and the evidence for this exists and is available today literally at the click of a button.

Rainfall totals in Poland. Source: Meteomodel.pl

Records of rainfall levels for the last hundred and fifty years or so indicate quite different – from the commonly proclaimed facts today – about rainfall in our part of the world. It may surprise many, but precipitation levels have been more or less the same over these several decades. Researchers find some regularities in the history of precipitation. Cycles of wet years have been interspersed with dry series since the beginning. But on average, over the long term, it still rains the same amount in our territory. In the mountains more than 1,000 mm per year, lower in the Foothills between 800 and 1,000, and in the lowlands between 500 and 800 depending on the region. The variability in each range reaches 100-150 mm over the multi-year cycle.

Here, using the example of Wrocław:

Annual precipitation totals in Wrocław from 1901 to 2000, Source: eko.org.pl

Nature as we know it has adapted to this variability over the last few thousand years. Man, on the other hand, until a few decades ago, accurately read the traces of where water can rise and chose habitats using these observations.

Sometimes he used the knowledge very cleverly: the wetland was a defensive bastion. Barely 3-4 decades ago, periodically flooded river valleys did not bother anyone; cattle, horses and fowl grazed there, often in the so-called gathering meadows. Most farmers valued the fact that it was in such areas that grass appeared when it was still, or no longer, present elsewhere. It was enough to be aware of the cyclical flooding of the river so that no one was prevented by the spring or “Jan” waters from enjoying the landscape within the limits agreed with Nature and reason.

The amount of water available was also sufficient to not only feed our ancestors, but also to produce a considerable surplus. Both living space and water were just what was needed at the time. Undoubtedly, the possibility of profiting from the surplus fuelled the desire to rip out new land from nature in order to increase production – read: profit. However, the possibilities of ripping out land for water on a large scale were unknown. However, with the advent of machinery, new technologies, the tapping into water power as a source of electricity, appetites for exploiting nature have grown. Unfortunately, knowledge of the effects of changes to the landscape and river systems as a result of these activities came much later.

Contemporaries of these changes, engineers initiated a dangerous model of thinking, which still persists today in parts of society, that treats the environment like a machine which, if broken, can be repaired quite easily, and continues to work as the designer wishes.

In fairness, however, it must be acknowledged that many experts, not only in our country, were already expressing concern at the time and urging caution when the long-term effects of the planned interventions were not known. At the time, their cautionary appeal resounded too little, drowned out ever more strongly by the lobby profiting from the engineering approach to water. This process has led to the now complete disconnection of parts of the hydro-engineering community and the decision-makers they “convinced” from reality. Through this path, a new approach to the landscape, and thus, river catchments, was forged. The ‘leaders’ of the time came up with the idea that they knew better how water should flow. As they came up with the idea, they persuaded the decision-makers and the policy of “controlled” hydrology according to the ideas of this group began, which is strenuously continued in our country to this day. The effects of this change in approach to water are being felt today, and with increasing regularity. Today’s droughts and floods are proving more and more severe. The former last longer, the latter are increasingly violent and destructive. Contrary to the opinions broadcast by most media, the reason is not climate change, but changes in nature, which this technical approach to water has caused and continues to cause in our country.

Modern knowledge has unequivocally shown – for at least four decades – the harm of an overly technical approach to water management and maintenance.

On its basis, the Water Framework Directive was created, setting out the reasons and directions for necessary changes in water maintenance. The series of catastrophic floods in western Europe was an effective lesson for many nations, except our own. When it comes to conversations with adherents of the ‘controlling’ approach to water, we often hear the argument that we should not take the example or heed the advice of western communities who, according to opponents, first destroyed their environment, getting rich from it, and today, wealthy, are making amends. This theory deserves a super award for turning the cat on its head. The truth is that the entire change in the approach to water management in Western countries came about from an honest cost-benefit assessment of the management model that resulted in the aforementioned series of devastating floods. The assessment was supported by pilot restoration programmes and detailed analyses assessing their effects in the context of the phenomena. One of the most interesting is the Elbe programme: The effect of the renaturalization of 35,000 ha of floodplain meadows (by moving the dikes away) was calculated to be around 630 million euros. Calculated as the sum of savings on maintenance of the dykes, reduction of flood damage, retention of nutrients (eutrophication factor) and public willingness to renaturate, the effect is a gain of more than €2 billion. It works out that it is cheaper to have a wild river. In Nature, a flood is an invigorating change, a renewal of the valley, an exchange of oxbow waters, a replenishment of groundwater and a protection against drought. It is enough for the valley to have room to pass.

Alongside this, when assessing the arguments for and against the current technical intervention-based approach to water management, including flood risk reduction, it is hard to resist the impression of contradiction within the group of proponents of regulation.

Let me highlight two main contradictions:


The energy of water in an engineered system, in a straight, uniformly sloping channel, increases as the quantity/depth of water increases, so that when more water appears than the designer has assumed, it goes beyond the imposed engineering limits and destroys everything. The “industry” knows this very well, as gross material losses in floods are hydro-engineering infrastructure.

If, in a natural system, the diversity of riverbed and valley morphology is an excellent stabiliser of this energy, what is the point of creating an artificial, highly uncertain and expensive system? Of course, the contractors – from the politicians, closely followed by the designers, to the companies rubbing their hands together after every major rain… I recommend a search for the keyword “kings of land reclamation” – those benefiting from such a model will stubbornly defend this “perpetual motion” of filling their pockets, but for those paying, i.e. the rest of society, such an arrangement makes no sense.


Physics, and according to it gravity, force the water to flow down to the lowest point on the surface, and below it, towards the sea anyway. What is the point of helping physics? Apart from, of course, spending not inconsiderable resources and creating the illusion among the “subjects” of being able to “fight” a problem that one has first created oneself with heavy money?

A side effect of the current water policy, which is inevitable and increasingly visible, is a state of permanent drought, which is caused neither by climate change nor by the supposedly low rainfall, but by changes in catchment areas and losses of natural retention of river catchments. Losses that cannot be replaced by any artificial method.

Actually, there is no point in writing further since you already have the answer, dear reader. We live in times of a constant flood. A flood of information. Usually negative, oozing a sense of fear. This flood, like the real floods, is a tool for governing fear and, moreover, a grinder for milling public funds. It comes to pass that we ourselves pay for the fear they manipulate us with.

Author: Artur Furdyna

The text was written as part of the project „Hydrozagadka – how to win against drought?”