Waters recede in Western Balkans, but danger remains

  
Two men stand near a house tilted by floods in the town of Valjevo, southwest from Belgrade, 21 May
Two men stand near a house tilted by floods in the town of Valjevo. Southwest of Belgrade, 21 May.

The situation in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia is slowly stabilizing after last week’s devastating floods, though some areas are not completely out of the woods yet, and warm weather has brought with it the risk of infectious disease. EurActiv Serbia reports.

Landslides are a major issue in many municipalities in Bosnia and Serbia, as are ruined roads and damaged energy and water systems. More than 2,500 landslides, which are threatening people’s homes, have been recorded on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Tuzla Canton alone. Infectious disease is another threat in the areas affected by flooding.

“The biggest problem today is the large number of dead animals in the water and the contamination of drinking water, which is a very serious risk to the population in these areas,” European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva said in Sarajevo, on 22 May.

Georgieva, who also visited Serbia and Croatia this week, further underscored the grave danger of mines, a legacy of the war in Bosnia, which shifted from their known locations during the disaster.

Assuring the citizens of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina that they were not alone, she announced aid from the European Union, and congratulated Croatia on showing solidarity with its neighbors though that Balkan EU member is struggling with floods of its own.

Bosnia and Herzegovina now need to ascertain how far the floods have shifted the minefields -- it is even possible that mines have been carried downstream to Croatia and Serbia, Bosnian Mine Action Center assistant director Ahdin Orahovac said on May 23.

This risk is present across an estimated 45 of the total of 900 square kilometers that have been swept by floods in Bosnia.

"We get tips daily from citizens and reports from civil protection teams that unexploded ordnance has been spotted... based on which we make maps and remove the ordnance," he added.

Ban on going back

In most flood-hit communities in the region where the water has receded, residents are still banned from returning until teams working on the disposal of dead animals, the removal of debris and disinfection get their jobs done. As much as 200 tons of dead animal remains has been collected on the territory of Obrenovac, the hardest hit town in Serbia.

As flood water levels slowly drop in this Belgrade-adjacent town, the aftermath of the flood wave that devastated it is emerging into view. The town remains almost completely deserted.

While Obrenovac natives are not yet permitted to return, they have been allowed visits. Some denizens are slowly working to repair the damage inflicted on homes and cars in those parts of the town that the water has drained from completely.

One resident, Slobodan Isailović, said he had only come to fetch a change of clothes for the children.

"The streets are passable, except there is water in lower parts of the town that is beginning to give off a horribly unpleasant smell. I live on the second floor, so the water didn’t reach my apartment, but the apartments on the ground floor were completely flooded,” said Isailović, who was evacuated to Belgrade.

Several tens of thousand people were evacuated in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the face of the floods.

There is no definitive death toll yet, but the available data puts the number of fatalities in the region at several dozen, including 33 in Serbia. A three-day period of mourning was declared in Serbia from May 21 to 23, while Bosnia honored its casualties on 20 May.

On 23 May, the Serbian government lifted the emergency situation that was introduced, except in two towns and 17 municipalities which had the hardest time with the flooding.

Struggle for rebuilding and recovery

Now that the immediate peril has passed, the authorities of Serbia and Bosnia are striving to organize a rebuilding effort and collect relief. Many countries and international organizations, notably the EU, are actively assisting.

Owing to its candidate EU member status, Serbia will be able to use the resources of the EU Solidarity Fund. As Serbian officials have been stressing, this shows how much it will mean for the country that it has opted for EU membership.

Other aid mechanisms will be established for Bosnia, which is not a candidate member, and both countries will be able to draw on EU pre-accession funds (IPA).

After Georgieva’s visit, European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn is expected in Belgrade on 24 May.

Commissioner Hahn said in Brussels, on 21 May, that the EU relief Serbia would get would be commensurate to what it would receive were it already a member of the 28-nation bloc.

In order to qualify for Solidarity Fund aid, damage must exceed 0.6%, which in Serbia’s case means roughly €175 million. According to Belgrade, the damage is certain to exceed the EU’s threshold, while the collective international aid will cover approximately 25% of the damage.

"Financially speaking, we sustained the greatest damage along Corridor 10, far from the epicenter of the flood wave, due to the landslips that have left grave consequences, to the tune of ten and more million euros, outside Dimitrovgrad,” said Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić at a coordination meeting with international donors, attended by the ambassadors of 27 countries and the representatives of international institutions.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the destruction is being compared to that of the 1992-1995 war and, just like in Serbia, will by all accounts be measured in tens of millions of euros.

The presidents of France and Serbia, François Hollande and Tomislav Nikolić, agreed in a 22 May meeting in Paris that an international donor conference should be held to help Serbia and Bosnia.

Hollande said it could happen very quickly.

US Ambassador to Serbia Michael Kirby also voiced support for this initiative.

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