BUDAPEST, Hungary – The mighty Danube is not the only river in Europe bursting its banks this week, but it packs the biggest punch.
Winding 2,850 kilometres (1,777 miles) across 10 nations, the Danube is the second-longest river on the continent, making its way from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea bordering Romania and Ukraine. Only the Volga in Russia is longer.
In the last decade alone, the Danube has been at the centre of two major floods, several devastating droughts and a winter cold snap that froze the vital waterway for hundreds of miles. Its bridges have been bombed by NATO, its waters have been temporarily poisoned by toxic chemical spills, and yet it still provides drinking water for millions.
Immortalized by Johann Strauss in his “Blue Danube” waltz, the river is closer now to a murky green. From fishermen in prehistoric times to modern industries, many have harnessed its power for energy and transport, while derivatives of its present name go back to Celtic, Roman and Thracian times. It has inspired works by musicians as diverse as classical composer Richard Wagner, American satirists Spike Jones and his City Slickers and even the German industrial metal band Rammstein.
This week, however, the Danube is in its bad-boy mode.
The river reached heights not seen in over 500 years in the German city of Passau before surging downstream to crash through a levee in the southern village of Deggendorf. Dozens of village residents had to be airlifted to safety Wednesday by helicopters. On Thursday, the river smashed through another levee, engulfing entire neighbourhoods in the same village.
“We would have risked our lives had we stayed at home,” Deggendorf resident Hans Loefflmann said, adding that he and his wife had to leave all their valuables behind when the floods gushed into their house within minutes.
Those living in Passau, meanwhile, were glum, facing football fields of mud, uprooted trees, demolished cars and flood-wracked furnishings to clear away.
At least 16 people have died in the flooding of the Danube and Elbe rivers in central Europe this week and at least four others are missing. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in the region, including over 700 in the eastern German city of Dresden, where the Elbe crested Thursday at 7 metres (21 feet) above normal levels.
For residents of Budapest, the Danube River is a source of pride and wonder, its waters providing an imposing setting for the city it divides in two — Buda on the right bank and Pest on the left. But now the Hungarian capital is now in a state of emergency, bracing for the river’s raging floodwaters, which have already caused havoc upriver in Germany and Austria.
The Danube is normally around 370 metres (400 yards) wide as it passes the city’s imposing Hungarian parliament building. Now its waters are lapping at the back steps of the neo-Gothic structure and cover large sections of the heavily used roads on both sides of the river.
Authorities are confident that the Budapest embankments, which date to the 1870s, will withstand the Danube’s current assault, expected to peak here on Monday. Yet several hundred guests at hotels on low-lying Margaret Island, a popular park in the river, have already been evacuated.
“I had to find another place for my running routine, but at least here in the city the walls on the river are high,” said Monika Pele, a physical education student who usually jogs around Margaret Island. “Actually, the Danube is beautiful when it’s this wide.”
Hungarians are well aware of the destruction the Danube can cause. A flood in 1838 killed more than 150 Budapest residents and left at least 50,000 homeless. Memorial plaques high on city walls, some hundreds of meters (yards) from the river, indicate just high the waters rose.
In the Austrian capital of Vienna, the Danube peaked Wednesday at levels above those of the 2002 floods that devastated Europe. The city’s extensive protection system held, however, although the highway to the airport was temporarily inundated.
Floods are not the Danube’s only problem.
A severe drought hit the region in 2011, stranding 80 big cargo ships on the Danube at the Serbia-Hungary border and causing sunken German World War II-era ships to break the surface of the water. In Romania that year, the Danube’s water levels were so low there was concern about not having enough water to cool the reactors in the nuclear power plant in Cernavoda, which produces 20 per cent of the country’s electricity.
In 2003, another lengthy dry spell caused by a lack of rainfall and high temperatures lowered the Danube’s levels so much that the river had to be dredged in Romania to allow hundreds of stalled barges to pass.
Last year, a deep freeze produced huge ice chunks and froze over hundreds of miles (kilometres) in the Danube, paralyzing the shipping of raw materials, coal, grains and other goods.
Natural disasters have alternated with man-made calamities to threaten the river and those who depend on it.
The 1999 bombing of several bridges over the river in northern Serbia by NATO forces during the Kosovo War paralyzed shipping on the waterway. It was years before the debris was hauled out of the river and navigation fully restored.
In 2000, the Danube suffered a bout of cyanide poisoning, when a spill at a Romanian gold mine flowed into its tributaries. The toxic waste killed off most of the fish and plants along stretches of the Tisza River in Hungary. Although most of its power was diluted by the time it reached the Danube, some measurements showed concentrations of cyanide at 50 times over the maximum levels.
Another spill in 2010 of red toxic sludge — a byproduct of aluminum production at a plant in western Hungary — killed 10 people after flooding three towns and reached the Danube through tributaries. Fortunately, the highly caustic waste was greatly diluted by the Danube’s abundant flow.
Now, Hungarian authorities are making sure the red sludge tragedy isn’t repeated in the town of Almasfuzito, which sits on the Danube just across from Slovakia and has its own red-waste reservoir.
Zoltan Illes of the ministry of rural development said there would be round-the-clock surveillance at the 74-hectare (184-acre) reservoir until Saturday, when the flood threat is expected to pass.
“Building a red sludge reservoir on the shores of the Danube was a very bad decision made decades ago during the communist regime,” Illes said after visiting the site. “Since we don’t have a time machine, it’s a fact we have to live with.”
AP writers Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, George Jahn and Noura Mann in Vienna, David Rising in Berlin and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.