EU committed to helping flooded Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

  
Flooding in Bosnia. Slovenian helicopter photo, May 19. [European Commission/Flickr]

The European Union is providing urgent assistance to Serbia and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two Western Balkan countries being hit by the worst floods in the last 120 years. In addition, Serbia, in its capacity as an EU candidate country, qualifies for financial assistance, Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said.

Bosnia said yesterday (19 May) that more than a quarter of its 4 million people had been affected by the worst floods to hit the Balkans in living memory, comparing the "terrifying" destruction to that of the country's 1992-95 war.

The extent of the devastation became apparent in Serbia too, as waters receded in some of the worst-hit areas. Since May 14, Serbia has been fighting catastrophic floods that have endangered a large number of inhabitants, damaged houses, road and energy infrastructure, and destroyed livestock and crops, primarily in the west of the country.

The regional death toll reached more than 40, after the heaviest rainfall since records began 120 years ago caused rivers to burst their banks and triggered hundreds of landslides. So far, 20 of those deaths have been recorded in Serbia.

The governments of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia, decided to proclaim 20 May a day of mourning, for those who lost their lives in the flooding.

"The consequences ... are terrifying," Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdžija told a news conference. "The physical destruction is not less than the destruction caused by the war."

Lagumdzija said more than 100,000 houses and other buildings in Bosnia were no longer fit to use and that over a million people had been cut off from clean water supplies.

"During the war, many people lost everything," he said. "Today, again they have nothing."

His remarks threw into sharp relief the extent of the challenge now facing the cash-strapped governments of both Bosnia and Serbia.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said the cost in Serbia would run to hundreds of millions of euros. President Tomislav Nikolić appealed for outside aid.

"We expect huge support, because not many countries have experienced such a catastrophe," he said.

Even as the crisis eased in some areas, a new flood wave from the swollen Sava threatened others, notably Serbia's largest power plant, the Nikola Tesla complex, 30 km southwest of the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

In Bosnia, Assistant Security Minister Samir Agic told Reuters that up to 35,000 people had been evacuated by helicopter, boat and truck. As many as 500,000 had left their homes of their own accord, he said, in the kind of human displacement not seen since more than a million were driven out by ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian war two decades ago.

In Croatia, which is also struggling with unprecedented floods, 2 people have lost their lives, and several villages and towns along the Sava have been evacuated.

Georgieva stated in Brussels on 19 May that Croatia and Serbia can use up to 1 billion Euros from the EU Solidarity Fund, to help recover from the flooding. She explained that discussions were being held as to the possibility of including Bosnia-Herzegovina, within the broader framework of EU aid.

Georgieva will arrive in Belgrade on the evening of 20 May, while Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić will meet with the European commissioner for regional policy, Johannes Hahn, who is charge of the solidarity fund, in Brussels, on 21 May.

Power plant

At least 25,000 people have been evacuated in Serbia, but many more are believed to have fled the flooding.

Hundreds of volunteers in the Serbian capital filled sandbags and stacked them along the banks of the Sava. Police issued an appeal for more bags.

Soldiers and energy workers toiled through the night to build barriers of sandbags to keep the water back from the Nikola Tesla complex and from the coal-fired Kostolac power plant, east of Belgrade.

The plant provides roughly half of Serbia's electricity. Parts of it had already been shut down as a precaution, but it would have to be powered down completely if the waters breached the defenses.

Flooding had already caused considerable damage, estimated by the government at over €100 million, to the Kolubara coal mine that supplies the plant.

Landmines

Authorities in Bosnia issued a fresh warning about the danger of landmines left over from the war and now dislodged by the flooding.

In the north Bosnian region of Maglaj, barely a single house was left untouched by the waters, which receded to leave a tide of mud and debris.

In the village of Donja Polja, where Muslim Bosniaks returned in 1995 to homes burned or shelled during the war, Hatidza Muhic swept the mud from the hallway of her house. Dark lines on the walls indicated the water had reached some 3 meters high.

Half of the EU already helping

Speaking to the press yesterday, Georgieva said the EU was providing coordinated assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism which was activated at the request of Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Georgieva said that Serbia's urgent request for high capacity water pumps and operational teams has been chanelled through the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) and was answered positively within a matter of hours by Bulgaria, Germany, Slovenia and Austria. Thirty six hours after the Serbian request was made, the number of member states offering assistance reached ten, with the Czech Republic, France, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joining the relief efforts. Arrangements are currently underway for the deployment of rescue boats, high capacity pumps and operational teams in Serbia. Most of the aid will have arrived by tomorrow.

So far, Slovenia, Austria, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Belgium and Germany have responded through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to the request of Bosnia and Herzegovina, offering helicopters and motor boats to support the evacuation of residents and transportation of water, medicines and food. The assistance is underway and transportation costs are being co-financed by the European Commission.

A seven-member EU Civil Protection Team is being deployed to Serbia today to liaise with national authorities and the EU Delegation in the country and to facilitate the delivery of the incoming assistance. An EU team of civil protection experts will be deployed to Bosnia & Herzegovina tomorrow.

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