Weathering Disasters under the ‘New Climate Normal’

May 15, 2015

Ellen Goldstein Nezavisne Novine, Western Balkan outlets

One year ago this week, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia experienced the heaviest rainfall on record in the past 120 years, triggering massive flooding in both countries. In the immediate aftermath, I witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences of houses, roads, and power lines damaged and crops and livestock washed away.  

In just a few days, the floods caused damages and losses estimated at 15 percent of national income in Bosnia and Herzegovina and close to 5 percent in Serbia. They temporarily wiped out growth prospects in both countries, and pushed thousands into poverty.  

" Western Balkan countries need to think now about how to create more resilient societies going forward. "
Ellen Goldstein

Ellen Goldstein

World Bank Country Director for South East Europe

Other countries in the Western Balkans have been similarly at risk, and not just from floods. Too little water in summer months has also had hefty consequences for other countries: the 2012 drought in Albania reduced the country’s hydropower supply, exacerbating fiscal deficits to cover emergency power imports. Droughts and heat waves have resulted in severe agricultural production losses in FYR Macedonia in 2007-08 and 2011-12.

Western Balkan countries are not well-prepared for such disasters, and scientists are warning us that climate change will only make matters worse. These countries need to think now about how to create more resilient societies going forward.

With global warming of close to 1.5ᵒC above pre-industrial times already locked in, and a 40 percent chance to exceed 4ᵒC before 2100 if no further action is taken, the recent World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal, finds that weather extremes considered as occurring every 100 years at most may soon become the “new normal”.

The report delves into the climate prospects for the Western Balkans. Water extremes, both intense droughts in summer months and floods in winter and spring, are expected to intensify over the region, with repercussions on agriculture, energy, and population health and security. 

In a 4ᵒC warmer world, the Western Balkans would emerge as warming “hot spots”, with more frequent heat waves – spanning as much as 80 percent of summer months – and a 20 percent increase in the number of drought days. Added to that are concerns for water availability and human health, such as an estimated 20 percent increase in heat-related mortality. 

At the same time, winter and spring flood risks – including those on the scale of a 100-year flood – would increase along the Danube, Sava, and Tisa rivers due to more intense snow melt in spring and heavier rainfall in the winter months.

An upcoming World Bank publication, Europe and Central Asia Flood and Earthquakes Risk Profile, shows that the potential economic damages and losses from 100-year type flooding in the Western Balkans are likely to fall between 3 percent and 20 percent of national income depending on the country. The study also shows that the risk of seismic events, and resulting economic damages and losses, in these countries is ever-present, if not increasing. More than half of Albania’s and FYR Macedonia’s national income would be subject to damage and loss from a severe earthquake—as those with long memories in FYR Macedonia can attest.  

As a response to these threats, the countries of the Western Balkans need to shift from a reactive approach to emergencies toward a more proactive and forward-looking approach to managing risk before disasters happen. The recent launch of the Serbian National Disaster Risk Management Program is an important step in this regard.

Launched with initial funding from the European Union, United Nations Development Program, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, the Austrian Urban Partnership Program, and the World Bank, this Program creates a common platform in Serbia for reducing and managing risks from various types of disasters.  From floods to droughts to earthquakes, the Program provides an open and neutral space for coordination on disaster risk management across government agencies, sectors, and partners. 

Other countries in the Western Balkans, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, are taking initial steps towards building greater national resilience. Given the shared risks and close economic interconnections among countries, as well as common policy knowledge and capacity needs, regionally-coordinated approaches would enhance the effectiveness of disaster risk management in all Western Balkan countries. 

With the world watching and struggling to help as countries grapple with post-disaster relief and recovery in places as distant as Nepal and Haiti, smart ideas to develop some type of global disaster risk insurance are being discussed by the international community.  In the meantime, some Western Balkans countries have already established a regional catastrophic risk insurance facility Europa Re. Owned by the Governments of Albania, FYR Macedonia, and Serbia, Europa Re provides insurance for residential properties, small enterprises, and agriculture against catastrophic events triggered by floods and earthquakes.

Unfortunately, catastrophic risk insurance is not yet in high demand from households, business owners, and farms in the Western Balkans, meaning the next big disaster will once again produce devastating and uncompensated damages and losses for large numbers of citizens. The Governments of the Western Balkans might consider making catastrophic risk insurance mandatory — linked to property registration and transfer, for example. Countries like Turkey have done this, helping millions of households and small businesses to be protected from damage and loss when the next disaster strikes. 

It is important for Western Balkan countries to awaken to a changing climate and adapt to a world of more frequent and severe disasters. We at the World Bank stand ready to support your efforts to build more resilient societies.