Historic buildings under water - but could flood defences do more harm than floods themselves?

Lesser Town hit by water

One of the most powerful images of the floods over the last few days has been the sight of the medieval bridge in the town of Pisek entirely under water, with nothing but the Baroque statues on the parapet visible above the rushing river. Scenes of the ancient Lesser Town of Prague have been just as dramatic, and not surprisingly there are fears that permanent damage could have been caused to some of the country's most important historic monuments. David Vaughan reports.

Lesser Town hit by water
Unlike in the great floods of 1890 Prague's Charles Bridge seems to have survived intact, but its smaller and older sister in the southern town of Pisek has fared less well. Only when the waters have subsided will we know quite how much damage has been done there. In Prague, all the old houses on Kampa Island are still under water, and on Tuesday and Wednesday flood waters covered large areas of the medieval Lesser Town and the entire 19th century district of Karlin, historically Prague's oldest suburb.

But the architectural historian Zdenek Lukes warns against trying to find drastic solutions to the problem of flooding. He warns that the 1890 floods were used as an excuse to demolish many of the old houses on the embankment as new flood defences were built. This included all the old fishermen's houses in the now forgotten district of Podskali. This, he says, should not be allowed to happen again.

"Maybe some people would say we must again regulate the river and it could be the start of ideas to devastate parts of the city. But I think that in the medieval period many floods came - every five or ten years. All or most of these historical monuments survived. That's why the way, maybe, to solve the problem is not to totally regulate everything with heavy constructions, heavy walls and so on, but to find specific, intelligent systems."

One very effective and simple system that we saw in place on Tuesday and Wednesday on the right bank of the river, was a watertight fence of movable panels, which raised the level of the banks by around two metres and helped to keep most of the Old Town dry. In the wake of the floods, I asked Zdenek Lukes what should be done now to make sure that historic buildings are protected for the future.

"I think it needs a special programme, how to revitalize all these parts of the city, and also the sewage system, for instance."

And who's going to pay for this programme? How's it going to work?

Cesky Krumlov,  Photo:CTK
"I think maybe a programme of collecting money with help from international institutions. I think that some states started to help Prague with experts, for instance. This is one thing. Another is material to repair and maybe architects also to say what it is necessary to do with the system of regulation of the river and so on."

Prague and the South Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, which have seen some of the worst of the flooding, are both on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, and UNESCO will be one source of help. It will not be able to offer money directly, but it can help find expertise and support any applications for financial help from the World Monument Fund.