Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia Floods - Catastrophe Authorities Forgot

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Last year’s floods were the worst in 30 years, made even more damaging by a combination of institutional inefficiency and changing weather patterns.

by Semir Mujkic

24 November 2015

Rajko Duranovic is one of thousands of homeowners whose lives have been devastated by the floods which hit Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2014.

Floodwaters washed away more than 100 cubic meters of soil from his garden, destroyed his shed and tools and exposed the foundations of his house.

A year later, although a temporary flood prevention bank has been constructed, he says he is worried whether it is robust enough to prevent the water bursting again.

All over Bosnia there are householders like Duranovic with similar concerns.

Critics say their plight has been exacerbated because various government departments are not coordinating their flood relief efforts and because Bosnia can now get the same amount of rain in three days that it usually receives in three months.

More Flooding and Landslides ‘Inevitable’

"The earth simply cannot take all that amount of water," says Enes Alagic from the agency for water management in the Sava river area.

He points out that in 2014 there was relatively little sunshine in Bosnia, which meant that floodwater could not evaporate properly and water tables became saturated.

The result, says Alagic, was that the Sava area and the nearby Maglaj area experienced flooding which had not been seen before in hundreds of years.

"These kind of water levels cannot be defended. No-one in the world has such defensive systems."

Dalia Jubucar from the Sarajevo Hydrotechnic Institute also thinks that there is little that can be done in the face of such deluges.

She has visited flood-affected areas and her conclusion is that landslides and flooding are inevitable in future with the worst yet to come.

Riverside flood defenses like those being constructed near Duranovic's house are not the answer, she argues, because Bosnia is now a country of narrow, densely populated valleys that will always be susceptible to flooding.

Jubocar argues that such defenses are not cost-efficient and there is always a danger that floodwater will spill over them regardless of how high they are.

"The European Union gave up building big dams after the catastrophic floods of 15 years ago," she says, "because officials realized that no defense mechanism is good enough in the face of huge floods. "Instead they opted for a new approach - flood risk management (FRM)."

FRM is the system whereby areas deemed to be in danger of flooding are properly charted and mapped, so that urban planners do not allow housing construction in those parts.

Need for More Transparency

In most areas of Bosnia there is a proliferation of houses located between roads and rivers even though it is well known these areas have traditionally been used for agricultural purposes and are more likely to be flooded. When it rains, the water is less likely to disappear.

Residents of these areas must now be prepared to learn to live with the possibility of regular flooding, Jubocar argues, and Bosnia can learn from other areas of the world affected by the problem.

There the construction of houses has been modified to take account of the danger – for example ceramic tiles are used instead of wooden floors in the basements of houses and wall sockets are placed higher in rooms in order to be above flood high water marks.

Jucobar argues that many lessons have been learnt from 2014 and the likelihood is that the mistakes then will not be repeated – but only as long as certain anti-flood measures are implemented.

Paramount among these is better transparency in the use of money spent on flood protection systems. At the moment this is almost non-existent and even the subject of a police inquiry which appeared to have become bogged down.

Police head Dragan Lukac said soon after the floods that an investigation was being launched into how money on constructing stronger river banks was being spent. But no investigation has been carried out to date and the police department is reluctant to explain why.

The lack of transparency is made worse because there is no unified data on damage to Bosnia’s flood protection systems and no information on the cost of its reconstruction.

The protection systems are the responsibility of the Ministry of Water Management and an allied institution called Vode Srpske – but neither replied to inquiries.

Other institutions are equally reluctant to reveal flood damage data and the money they have spent to alleviate damage caused by future floods.

One of the few officials who will talk about the problem is Almir Prljaca, head of the agency responsible for water management in the Sava river area.

He says river banks in his area can endure significant levels of water, but when floodwater flows over them, they become damaged and prone to collapse completely.

Prljaca said that in the aftermaths of the floods last year, his agency used all its funds to reconstruct river banks, for which it also received financial help from the government. As a result, he says, many flood damage protective facilities have been repaired.

But all of this is of little consequence for Bosnia’s beleaguered flood-hit population.

Sarajevo Hydrotechnic Institute Director Tarik Kuposovic warns that people living alongside rivers cannot in many cases be adequately protected by flood protection systems – and the situation is especially dire for those who reside near the Sava river.

Writing in the Avaz daily newspaper recently, Kuposovic warned that the consequences of such flooding could be incomprehensible. Referring to the EU report which predicts 10 percent more rainfall in Bosnia each year, Kuposovic wrote: “If the forecasts are correct, the only thing left to rely on is God’s help.”

Little Substantive Repair Work

In places throughout the country rivers that desperately need to be cleared of silt have not been properly dredged.

Some of the most disturbing images during the floods in May last year were surely photos of homes buried into sand, stones and soil brought on by water in the area of Zeljzno Polje.

The houses remained buried weeks after the floodwater had submerged. Matters at long last appeared to have improved in February 2015 – many homes had been rebuilt.

But crucially no steps had been taken to clean up clogged up river beds which are widely seen as one of the underlying causes of the flood.

Dalia Jubucar from the Hydrotechnic Institute argues that clearing up rivers is a legal obligation for all levels of government and the work should be done on a regular basis, regardless of whether there is a danger or not from floods.

But even when this happens there are still dangers. The area surrounding Zeljezno Polje is a good illustration of this. Part of the sand, mud and other debris that buried houses in the aftermath of the floods was duly dumped back into the river.

But in doing this, the authorities appear to inadvertently narrowed the river, thereby increasing the danger of new floods. By solving one problem, another was created.

The Warnings not Heeded

The floods of 2014 did not come completely out of the blue. Federal auditors cautioned as much as in January 2013 but no-one listened.

In a remarkably prescient 50-page report, they warned that Bosnia’s flood protection and water management systems were inadequate. The report said that government departments were not coordinating to combat the problem.

Under Bosnia’s arcane water management laws, rivers are divided into two categories – bigger rivers are run by the Bosnian Federation whereas smaller river and streams are run by cantons.

Unfortunately, the cantons have not allocated enough money to flood protection for several years. They collect 45 percent of all money taken from water fees and it is up to them to decide how it is spent. This can have catastrophic consequences.

In 2010 for example the cost of flood damage was nearly 100 times more than the amount put aside by the cantons.

The auditors discovered that only 10% of the cash collected by the cantons had been invested in flood protection. Officials in Posavina Canton – an area noted for its susceptibility to flooding – even had the distinction of not investing a cent to offset the danger.

“We can get a real picture of the inefficiency of the system if we add the fact that [the] cantons mostly do not have complete information on damage caused,” the auditors said.

Even worse, the cantons and municipalities are not even obliged under Bosnia’s legal system to inform one another of their work in flood protection even though rivers often straddle their borders.

Many of these problems were summarized by the Center for Civil Initiatives (CCI) report, Floods in BiH – Natural Catastrophe and/or Institutional Inefficiency?

It argues that the current floods management mechanism is not able to respond adequately to the needs of Bosnian people, offering them few assurances in the face of a natural disasters like severe flooding.

Emir Suhopoljac from the city of Doboj in northern Bosnia knows those dangers all too well. Early in the morning of 15 May 2015 he awoke to discover that water from the Bosna river had breached sandbags surrounding his house. It rose so quickly that he had to be rescued by helicopter.

He returned home after the water subsided to a distressing scene. Part of his home had been washed away and fish were in his basement.

Suhopoljac and his neighbors have a simple explanation for the flood – it all stems from when a bridge destroyed during the civil war was repaired. The authorities in effect diverted the river which means that the stream near his house floods every time there is significant rainfall.

“I’ve been asking them to fix it for 18 years now,” Suhopoljac says despairingly.

Attempts to find answers as to exactly how and why he and his family have had to suffer so much for so long have proved to be frustrating.

Both the contractor responsible for river bed restructuring and officials from Doboj have not replied to requests for them to provide some form of explanation.

No Explanation

The authorities throughout have failed to provide any explanation as to what caused the flooding and what measures are in the pipeline – if any – to prevent further future deluges causing similar upheavals.

The floods that have so afflicted Bosnia in recent years are not caused by more rainfall, experts say, but the same amount of rainfall over a shorter space of time.

Enes Alagic points out that water flows in May 2014 were much higher than normal. “We witnessed a huge amount of water,” Alagic said, “at levels not previously remembered.”

He points out that in the northern town of Maglaj for example levels of water were experienced that only appear once in 500 years.

Likewise, people living near the Sava river experienced “millennium waters” of the kind not seen over hundreds of years.

That is why experts like him argue that ultimately no-one in the world can defend themselves against such deluges.

If that is the case, argues Almir Prljaca, perhaps the best strategy for Bosnia would be to consider the possibility of “sacrificing” some areas in order to save more economically significant parts of the country.

After coming through a devastating civil war, Bosnia is now in a protracted battle against flooding.

Semir Mujkic wrote this article as part of the project “Investigative Stories: Reconstruction After the Floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina" implemented by Mediacentar Sarajevo and Transitions. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Mediacentar Sarajevo or Transitions.

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