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Over the past few decades, builders have transformed large tracts of France's countryside into shopping malls, parking lots and highways. The paved-over terrain has ``doubled or even tripled'' the volume of unabsorbed water runoff, according to Claude Allegre, president of the Office of Geological and Mineral Research. Allegre warned, ``Let's be clear: the frequency of flooding is going to increase and occur farther and farther upriver.'' Farmers eager to make their work more efficient have also ripped out hedgerows and filled in ditches. What used to be patchworks of fields plowed at right angles to one another are now consolidated under parallel plowing that drains in one direction. Said French Environment Minister Michel Barnier: ``You have to understand that 770,000 km of hedgerows have vanished from our countryside since the 1960s, with 220,000 km of those in Brittany alone. To avoid these kinds of natural catastrophes, we're going to have to change 40 or 50 years of bad practices.'' German and Dutch critics fastened on the strangulation of the Rhine, which has been forced into a steadily tighter corset since the last century. More than 90% of wetlands through which the great river once meandered has been filled in and built up.

Straightening of the upper Rhine's bends for shipping purposes has also shortened the entire course 80 km since the 1830s. Alpine runoffs that used to flow from the Swiss border to Karlsruhe in 60 hours now take half that time. Klaudia Martini, environment minister for the downriver German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, noted that regular torrents are an inevitable outcome. ``We have been raping nature for 40 years,'' she said. ``The Rhine is showing us this was wrong.''

If those culprits were not enough, the hard-pressed Dutch had no lack of their own. Too much construction? Too few wetlands set aside for overflows? Not according to the endangered folk of Gelderland, where the now billowing Rhine forks into three branches, one of them fed by the swollen Maas. Plenty of Gelderlanders were up to their necks in frustration as well as flood- prevention measures last week as officials finally got around to reinforcing the rivers' ramparts. A householder in Druten leaned out of a window in his second-floor refuge as members of Parliament inspected the town. He shouted, ``When are you guys going to stop talking and start building some dikes?''

Plans for shoring up the waterways have languished for years under a policy-review system that requires lengthy consultations. Environmentalists may have claimed the moral high ground in Germany and France last week, but Greens in the Netherlands were beset by charges of obstructionism. To many evacuees, preserving the beauty of their landscape was less important than preserving terra firma. As one result, Kok's government decided to proceed unilaterally with strengthening and elevating 70 km of the most vulnerable dikes by next November.

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