Natural disaster or human negligence? This is the question which the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia and Montenegro will have to answer after they ensure the return of 20,000 people to their homes. Evacuees have only recently begun the return process following catastrophic floods in the region.
Authors: Jasna Pekić, Aner Zuković, Safet Šarić, Adnan Avdagić and Svetlana Krstić
“The water level rose so quickly that we had no time to take anything out of our house. Civil Protection Services and the Armed Forces of BiH brought us to a safer location,” reported Boško Mirković from Novi Dvorovi in the Semberia region. A state of emergency was proclaimed in Bijeljina on December 13, 2010. Catastrophic floods had submerged Foča and Goražde only 13 days earlier. Following this initial flooding, other municipalities downstream all the way to Bijeljina were affected. According to Civil Protection Services data, the consequences of the recent floods were the evacuation of over 3,000 people and damages totaling hundreds of millions of BAM. The BiH Ministry of Security estimates that flooding caused damages in excess of 250 million Euro.
BiH is not the only Balkan state hard-hit by this disaster. Over 20,000 people were evacuated from their homes throughout the region following torrential rains according to <www.setimes.com.> HYPERLINK Flooding in Albania, BiH, Montenegro and Serbia is described as the most severe in the past century. In neighboring Montenegro, the municipalities near Skadarsko Lake were some of the most damaged. Approximately 2,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, and the Government of Montenegro in Podgorica sought international assistance. Parts of Bulgaria and Croatia were also affected by extreme weather conditions. NATO reacted to Albania’s plea for assistance, providing five Turkish and Greek helicopters. These helicopters delivered basic supplies and assisted the Albanian army and police forces in search and rescue operations.
At an urgent session held early this month, the BiH presidency decided that several units, as well as the resources of the Armed Forces of BiH, should provide help to civil bodies in their efforts to reduce the consequences of flooding in the municipalities of Novo Goražde, Bijeljina and Čapljina. The Coordination Body for Protection and Rescue, a unit of BiH’s Ministry of Security, may legally call upon the Council of Ministers of BiH to proclaim a state of emergency in the case of natural or other disasters based on entity- or district-level requests. After all available civil resources have been utilized, the Ministry of Security may then call upon the Ministry of Defense to engage the Armed Forces.
The five member Mirković family was first evacuated to Dvorovi Spa. After this area also flooded, the Mirkovićs and numerous other families from Semberia were transported to the army barracks “Vojvoda Stepa” in military trucks. The last extremely damaging flood in Semberia occurred in 1925. The flood of 1925 was so severe that even the city of Bijeljina was under water. In 2010, the Drina River flooded many villages in the Semberia region including Janja, Amajlija, Popovo and Dijelovi. High waters receded after three days, but further flooding then occurred in the villages of Dvorovi, Trnjake, Triješnica and Dizdarevo. At the time of publication, these villages remain partially submerged.
Many individuals are still waiting for relief and a roof over their heads. However, the “dry” public has begun looking for a culprit. Dual explanations are present in media. Some blame the governments of BiH, Serbia and Montenegro for their negligence in monitoring the work of hydro-electric plants throughout the region. Others claim that flooding was unavoidable. The Government of Montenegro is most frequently cited for its failure to prevent flooding in municipalities near its borders which spilled over into Serbia and BiH.
“The media, concerned citizens and especially mayors tend to blame others, thereby concealing their own recent inaction. This is most frequently the case in the municipalities which have been hardest hit by flooding,” said Samir Agić, the Assistant to the Ministry of Security of BiH within the Coordination Body for Protection and Rescue. He further commented on the announcement by municipal officials in Goražde and elsewhere that they plan to sue the Government of Montenegro for damages suffered, saying that “they do have a right to initiate a proceeding, to try and prove that someone else is to blame for their problems. I am not denying the fact that there may be something to these accusations, but I do not believe the flooding is Montenegro’s fault.”
Agić supported his claims and opinion with the results of a meeting held on December 3rd at which BiH Presidency member Bakir Izetbegović and Minister of Security Sadik Ahmetović were present. This meeting was also attended by representatives of the Bosansko-Podrinjski Canton. At this meeting, the point that “Montenegro might have done something which opposes the guidelines of international relations” was mentioned said Agić. He then contacted the Assistant to the Minister of Internal Affairs for State Emergencies in Montenegro, Zoran Begović. All meeting attendees listened to their subsequent conversation.
“I told him the problem was the fact that the Bratinje hydro-electric plant was releasing more water than it should, and that it was, to a certain extent, to blame for the floods. He said that 443 cubic meters per second were being released, plus some water which had to be released to prevent the dam from breaking, but that this overspill was the consequence of heavy rain” said Agić. He added that he had recently spent two days in Montenegro and was briefly trapped in his car due to rain.
An Act of God or an Act of Man?
Floods have occurred frequently over the past year. The media provided extensive coverage regarding torrential rains in Poland and the Czech Republic in May 2010. Three individuals lost their lives in mid-2010 in the eastern Czech Republic due to serious flooding. In August, eastern Germany, the northern region of the Czech Republic and southwest Poland experienced severe floods which claimed six lives. Heavy rain and rising water levels in late September 2010 caused the government of Slovenia to sound the alarm regarding flooding and landslides, particularly in the west and northeast.
Clearly, the current disasters in the Balkans have occurred on a similar scale throughout Europe this year. Several European countries conducted studies which analyze the causes and results of flooding. Studies available online all draw the conclusion that European floods are often a direct consequence of human activity. Flood defense mechanisms throughout Europe are severely outdated. The regulation of European rivers has been reduced to the creation of narrow channels with limited capacity for excess water absorption. This subsequently increases river speeds, creating torrents during the occurrence of naturally increasing water levels in spring and autumn. Baobab, an association investigating natural scientific processes, stated in mid-2010 that the “reasons for floods in Europe are the channelization of rivers and the destruction of natural flood areas as a direct consequence of human activity.”
Over the past few years, BiH has witnessed reoccurring floods in certain areas. In 2010, flooding was more frequent and took place in the spring, summer and winter. No evaluations regarding damage have been completed. Certain representatives of international organizations are now calling for an evaluation to be carried out regarding the most recent and catastrophic flood. UNDP spokespeople have reported that some activities aimed at the reduction of the risks of natural and other disasters are now being carried out within a regional initiative called the Regional Disaster Reduction Project. This project is implemented exclusively at the state level, where close cooperation exists with the Coordination Body for Protection and Rescue of the BiH Ministry of Security.
At the local level, UNDP is engaged in a “Response to Floods” project. This initiative provides assistance to the municipalities in BiH which were affected by the June floods. A damages and needs assessment is currently being undertaken, and will be followed by the drafting of reconstruction plans. The municipalities of Derventa, Modrica, Srbac, Celinac, Lukavac, Čapljina, Olovo, Gornji Vakuf and the Brčko District are included.
The assistance provided by neighboring countries when natural disasters strike is of note. A regional meeting for the leaders of the Emergency Situations Departments (EMSEEC) was held in November 2010. EMSEEC participants are BiH, Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia. These countries have demonstrated their commitment to joint activities regarding the analysis of existing capacities and regional telecommunication resources with the aim of decreasing the risk of disasters. Agić illustrated the importance of this cooperation and its implementation with the example of assistance provided to BiH by Croatia, saying “the help I am talking about is especially relevant during the summer when fires in the southern parts of BiH bordering Croatia occur. The help thus far provided by Croatia was free.”
What Next for Evacuees?
The Federal Hydrometerological Institute has refused to provide expert analysis regarding the present situation. Nino Rimac of the Sector for Hydrology, Department for Prognosis and Water Balance, said that the Institute does not have time to conduct a detailed mathematical analysis of the recent developments. Rimac added that only two individuals are employed within this Sector, and that they work in the field in order to assess events and prepare studies. He commented that the media has “exaggerated” the current flood and that water levels were not as high as claimed. “In order to justify these claims, mathematical calculations must be done, and we at the Institute do not have time for this,” said Rimac. He refused to comment on the cause of flooding because such claims would also require the results of studies which the Institute does not have time to complete.
Even if Rimac were able to answer these questions, it would be of little comfort to Boško Mirković and his family. Along with numerous other families, their protracted evacuee status will continue until sufficient conditions are created for return. The Mirković family has suffered damages worth thousands of BAM. They have lost all of their furniture and appliances, their wooden floors, their home’s insulation, windows and doors and the wood which they were previously using for heating. Clearly, the Mirković family requires assistance and cannot afford to pay for all they have lost. All government institutions have promised help. Bank accounts have been opened for the flood victims and concerned citizens have donated useful materials and organized humanitarian initiatives with the support of various organizations.
What must be done now to ensure that the Mirkovićs and countless others do not face this situation again in the spring of 2011? Weather patterns show that rising water levels create increasing amounts of damage each year.
“Institutions in BiH, at all levels, have to do much more to prevent disasters. All segments must be included in order to reduce disasters like the one we recently experienced. According to some UN indicators, one American dollar invested in prevention reduces damage by eight times,” Agić concluded. He added that in the current case, if BiH does not invest 100,000 USD in reconstruction and cleaning of the damaged channels, the country can expect to suffer future damages of 800,000 USD. This warning should not be ignored. It is better to be safe than sorry.