Improving Poland’s Odra River for Safety

February 5, 2015


World Bank Group

Wroclaw is Poland’s 4th biggest city, a vibrant place with an old city center and a booming nightlife. The mostly tranquil Odra River slices through the center of Wroclaw. But the city and the Odra have had an uneasy relationship for centuries. Because when the Odra floods, the people of Wroclaw know to fear for their lives and their livelihoods.

When the mountain snows melt, and it rains hard in the spring at the river’s source in western Poland and the Czech Republic, the Odra can come tearing through Wroclaw, as it did in 2010 and 1997. The city wasn’t prepared. “The Wroclaw anti-flood system before 1997 was made to absorb approximately 2,200 cubic meters of water per second,” explains Krzysztof Bros, a designer for the construction company URS. “It is estimated that in 1997, approximately 3,640 cubic meters of water per second attacked the city.” The 1997 flood killed 54 people and destroyed more than 700,000 houses, adding up to over a billion US dollars in losses.


" The huge surge won’t hit Wroclaw like it used to, it will move through the new flood control system and it won’t be like the 1997 flood. "

Wiktor Jurkiewicz

engineer, URS company

World Bank Group

Now, to prevent a repeat of ’97, construction crews are dredging and deepening the riverbed and shoring up the Odra’s embankments.  They’re updating and reinforcing the old brick walls, built by the Germans in the 19th century. Crews are building new wiers, complete with fish ladders. Two new floodgates sit smack in the center of the city. All of this is being done with help from the World Bank. New synchronized dams move water through the city, via the deeper riverbed, spillways, and canals, instead of over it, through the streets and buildings. “These works aim to spread out the volume of water going through Wroclaw,” says Wiktor Jurkiewicz, an engineer for URS. “The huge surge won’t hit Wroclaw like it used to, it’ll move through the new flood control system and it won’t be like the 1997 flood.”


" The residents of Wroclaw have always been worried about the danger of flooding. So it's important for us to see that the threat no longer exists. "

Anna Orynska

Wroclaw resident and tourist guide

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Searing Memories of 1997

For those who remember 1997, the upgrades point to a whole new relationship with the river. New lights and plantings along the banks will turn the Odra from something to be feared into something to be cherished. Anna Orynska is both a Wroclaw resident and tourist guide in the city. “The residents of Wroclaw have always been worried about the danger of flooding, even regular rain made them feel threatened. So its important for us to see that the threat no longer exists,” she says. “Now the city faces the river with a new feeling of safety. Before, people were afraid of the Odra. It’s so important for the residents, the strengthening of the embankments, the river channel; now we can enjoy the river.”

For Jerzy Walczak, who runs a charter boat on the Odra, memories of the river’s fury still burn bright. “It was a catastrophe for many people because they lost the work of their lifetimes. When I finally made it back from work to my apartment, I couldn’t get out for three days. We lost power and we would sit and listen to the police patrolling in their boats in the streets.”

Jerzy Walczak says he’s seen a lot changes on the river already. And as the flood protection work gets wrapped up over the next few years, he hopes the Odra will become a place for swimmers, boaters and fishermen, instead of a force to be feared.


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