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OPINION

Serbia: Don't Leave the Infrastructure Naked

Tony Verheijen, Country Manager for Serbia

B92 Blog

July 30, 2014

Amongst the latest thunders and downpouring rain, I am thinking of all the people whose lives were ruined by the floods in May. But I am also thinking about Serbia and its flood protection infrastructure. A big part of it was damaged during the floods in May.

What will happen if the rain continues with the intensity of last Monday afternoon? What will happen if my colleagues are correct when they say that the impact of climate change in Western Balkans is likely to exacerbate the flood potential and increase the risk of more extreme weather events? According to them, by 2050 the flood water volume on Sava at Sremska Mitrovica will increase by 10 percent and on Drina by 15 percent due to climate change alone.

So, what needs to be done? The first step is to assess and map the risk. The second is to reduce the risk. The third is preparedness, then comes financial protection and, finally, resilient reconstruction.

The first step means developing maps with areas that are under the risk from floods. The maps should be developed at the community level and must be accompanied by public outreach so that everyone is aware of the areas under the risk.

The second one – reduction of the risk – requires proper land use planning, infrastructure retrofitting, policies and regulation and many other things. For example, people should be banned from building houses in flood prone areas (which were identified in the first step).

In addition, Serbia can decide to do something Poland did: along the Odra River they use 25 square kilometers of land as agricultural land – in a normal situation. There is nothing there but plots. But when the floods threaten, this land is used to receive the excess water (so it becomes a “flood retention reservoir”) that would otherwise flood the city downstream.

The damage is minimal as everyone is aware how this works. Besides, the idea is to make sure the crops are insured against the flood. In addition to building new infrastructure (such as mobile flood barriers in the cities and fortifications of the river beds where necessary), Serbia must also pay attention to maintenance of the existing infrastructure. Let me again give you an example of how bad the situation here is.

A few years ago, under a World Bank financed project, the embankment of the Nisava River in Nis was rehabilitated. Several months after the work was finished my colleagues went to see how the system works. Well, no one in Nis cared to maintain the works so the situation was not good! It doesn’t even cost much to do it. It doesn’t cost much for Serbia Vode to check for fox holes in embankments at least once a year. You get the picture!

The third step - preparedness - implies that civil protection systems are in place, that emergency-response equipment is pre–positioned, that there is an early-warning system, and things like that. Financial protection implies that there is an ex-ante and ex-post plan and instruments to deal with liabilities. As for the recovery, people should know in advance who does what and how.

Serbia’s partners across the world gathered recently in Brussels at the Donors’ Conference and pledged significant financial resources to reconstruct the damage done in May. It is a good opportunity for the government to make one more step – to organize and prepare for the next challenge that high waters can bring.    

It’s not rocket science, is it? So, when will Serbia do it?