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FEATURE STORYMarch 20, 2024

Protecting Lives and Livelihoods Against Floods in the Western Balkans Through Regional Cooperation

Bihac Una River

The city of Bihać is situated on the banks of river Una in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Photo: Dan Ava, World Bank


  • The Western Balkans are vulnerable to climate-related hazards, with frequent floods posing a threat to lives, property, environment, and cultural heritage.
  • Countries in the region are actively seeking solutions to improve their ability to effectively manage water resources.
  • The World Bank is working with countries and partners to enhance regional cooperation and build climate resilience.

Rivers have long been a source of life for communities—essential for commerce, power, and transportation—but also of destruction. Our rapidly changing climate is exacerbating storms and flooding that threaten lives, displace families, and destroy homes, farms, and businesses.

Ermin Lipović witnessed this firsthand in May 2014, when the Sava River swelled to unprecedented levels, triggering flooding of proportions not seen in a century across the Western Balkans. In Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, the economic impact of the disaster totaled 2.8 billion dollars, roughly 15% of the country’s GDP. 

A dedicated member of the Mountain Rescue Service in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ermin believes his experience with the flood offers lessons for the region on addressing climate change and managing the Sava River, which after the dissolution of Yugoslavia now passes through four countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. “People's lives were at risk, and it was our responsibility to ensure their safety. Rescue services operate without regard for national borders, our duty is to save lives.”

Ermin Lipović, Mountain Rescue Service, Bihać—Working Together for Resilience and Economic Growth in the Sava and Drina Corridors

Cross-border flood management

The disastrous impact of the 2014 flood did in fact prompt collaborative action, which was bolstered by the analytical and financial resources of the World Bank. Immediate recovery projects were implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, leading to a growing consensus in the Western Balkans that a regional approach was necessary to promote cooperation for flood management and investment.

One component of the Improvement of Joint Actions in Flood Management in the Sava River Basin project played a vital role in creating an advanced Flood Forecasting and Warning System in the Sava River Basin, the Sava FFWS, utilizing real-time data from several Western Balkan countries to inform decision-making in emergency situations.

“2014 was a wake-up call for us to improve cooperation on the transboundary level, as at that time, a system of real-time communication and coordination among countries was not in place. Information was exchanged via emails, messages, and phone calls which was inefficient,” says Mirza Sarač from the International Sava River Basin Commission, which coordinates activities of its parties in undertaking measures to prevent or limit hazards and reduce and eliminate adverse consequences from floods. “Transboundary cooperation is quite a complex issue. Each country has its own interests and problems. Through the project with the World Bank, we gained the support of all countries in the region to establish the flood forecasting and warning system. Currently, we have ten responsible organizations from five countries, which are users of this system. Now we are more prepared to coordinate and take effective decisions which might help better manage risk.”

This system offers a valuable tool to forecasters in individual countries' hydrometeorology services, enabling them to generate accurate hydrological projections using different input data including telemetry data from hydrological and meteorological gauges. It aids in calculating catchment runoff, river flows, and water levels, ultimately improving disaster preparedness.

This work gave rise to the Sava and Drina Rivers Corridors Integrated Development Program which continues to support the region in improving flood protection and enhancing transboundary water cooperation.

Mirza Sarač, International Sava River Basin Commission—Working Together for Resilience and Economic Growth in the Sava and Drina Corridors

New investments for a new economy

As natural hazards in the Western Balkans continue to increase in frequency and intensity, it is crucial to prioritize preparedness and adaptation to climate change to ensure the region’s long-term prosperity. Despite these challenges, however, the rivers offer an untapped economic potential to enhance infrastructure and draw in tourists.

Samra Mehić, Minister of Economic Development and Tourism of the Una-Sana Canton, believes that the benefits of new investments as part of the Sava and Drina Rivers Corridors Integrated Development Program will eventually spill over to the wider society and help boost the local economy. “Our goal is to connect all these towns on the territory of the canton with a bicycle path of about 304 kilometers long. The floods at the end of last year and the beginning of this year may have created a bit of a problem, but we hope that the climate change-related infrastructure investments will work on our behalf and help us develop ecotourism."

As the World Bank has estimated while preparing its project, developing the tourism potential of the river basin is an opportunity to invest in rural communities, build up critical infrastructure across the region, and create jobs. For those who have lost their livelihoods to past floods, many of whom are women, gradually building up tourism along the river could offer careers in fields like customer service, hospitality, and environmental awareness and education.

Sava and Drina River Basin
Una river: water-based activities help unlock the tourism potential.

The positive impact of the project could be amplified by its upcoming phase, which will entail demining 40 km of land on the right bank of the River Sava in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This project falls under the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF), a collaborative effort between the European Union, financial institutions, bilateral donors, and beneficiaries, with the goal of enhancing the development opportunities in the region. Demining will also contribute to improving the river’s navigability, which will in turn support regional development and foster cooperation in various areas such as flood protection, eco-tourism, trade, and industrial development.

With the ongoing support of the World Bank, Western Balkan countries are working together to build a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient economy for the millions of people living in the Sava River Basin.


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