Drought exposes ancient “hunger stones”, Communist-era water mismanagment

Photo: Czech Television

Receding waterlines stemming from long droughts this summer have revealed some disturbing ancient relics – so-called “hunger stones”, some dating back as far as 1616, which serve as a warning to future generations. One such hydrological landmark on the Labe River is inscribed in German with the words "If you see me, weep."

Photo: Czech Television
As the “hunger stones” clearly demonstrate, droughts are hardly a new phenomenon. But prolonged dry spells are becoming more frequent, to some degree thanks to climate change. And they are evermore devastating due to decades of poor water and landscape management.

Under communism – in the name of progress and efficiency – countless Czech streams and rivers were straightened artificially to reduce travel time along watercourses. When new roads and motorways were built alongside them, artificial banks of concrete were also erected. The result is that heavy flows go downstream rather than being retained by the marshes or wetlands which naturally form as a body of water meanders, ebbs and flow.

To combat drought, and as part of a larger landscape and water management project, the Ministry of Agriculture has announced a subsidy for the repair, reconstruction and construction of ponds.

The ministry's water management department chief, Pavel Punčochář, says not only are ponds essential for retaining a significant volume of water in the landscape to offset the effects of long-term dry spells and drought, they create microclimates that benefit all sorts of wildlife.

Pavel Punčochář,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“A pond is, of course, a preventive tool which can increase the volume of water reserves in a given region. Ponds create a microclimate, especially when linked to other ponds through small watercourses. The ministry initiative is not about creating water sources for economic use, such as fishponds. It’s about bolstering water supplies and retention to fight drought. I can remember a time when there were about 75,000 ponds in the Czech lands, in today’s Czech Republic. Today, we have less than a third as many, about 23,000.”

The Ministry of Agriculture this week announced it has earmarked 400 million crowns for the project, with individual villages, towns and cities able to draw up to 10 million crowns. The main bright spots, says Mr Punčochář, are the mountainous regions. But there, too, work needs to be done.

"If you look at a drought map, you can see that in mountainous regions, the drought is far from dramatic. This is because temperatures are lower but mainly because rainfall is more frequent. But these areas also could use small reservoirs and watercourses. We should also subsidize water management in the mountains to support life there."