Deadly floods recede to reveal Balkan desolation

Floodwaters crept lower in the Balkans Thursday after the region`s deadliest natural disaster in living memory, revealing widespread devastation as governments sought outside aid and warned of major damage to their economies.

Belgrade: Floodwaters crept lower in the Balkans Thursday after the region`s deadliest natural disaster in living memory, revealing widespread devastation as governments sought outside aid and warned of major damage to their economies.

As thousands of relief workers began an immense clean-up operation, the first of some 150,000 people evacuated over the past week were allowed to return to their towns and villages to pick up the pieces.

But many places as well as vast tracts of farmland remain swamped by muddy brown water, large areas are without power, and those returning -- if their home still exists -- were greeted by scenes of desolation and a noxious stench.

Fifty-one people were confirmed to have died, but the toll could still rise. There is also a risk of epidemics from rotting livestock carcasses, while dislodged landmines from the 1990s Yugoslav wars may be lurking in the mud and debris.

On Tuesday one such device exploded in northern Bosnia, the national Mine Action Centre said, although no one was injured. There are estimated to be more than 120,000 potentially lethal mines in the country.

With temperatures approaching 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), in Serbia around 200 tonnes of dead farm animals have been recovered so far, the agriculture ministry said. Health officials were also spraying to try to prevent a plague of mosquitoes.

"We need international aid. In this first phase alone people need clothes and food," Igor Radojicic, parliamentary speaker in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, told AFP. "Lots of people are not going to have a home any more."

The deluge began last week when record amounts of rain lashed south-eastern Europe, turning the Sava river and its tributaries in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia into raging torrents that burst their banks, laying waste to large areas.

In scenes reminiscent of the chaos of the 1990s conflicts, more than 1.6 million people across the Balkans were affected.

In Serbia more than 30,000 people were evacuated, with some 1,750 buildings destroyed and 2,250 flooded -- not counting the town of Obrenovac, the worst affected. 

In Bosnia 100,000 had to flee, while in Croatia, which escaped the worst damage, authorities said 38,000 people have been affected, with some 2,000 houses and 199 farms destroyed.

Visiting NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Sarajevo on Wednesday that the members of the military alliance "remain ready to respond in any way that would be needed".Aside from the human tragedy, the Balkans` worst floods since records began more than a century ago are also set to deal a heavy blow to the region`s economy.

"It seems clear to me that the damages are going to run into hundreds of millions of euros (dollars)," Serbia`s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told a meeting in Belgrade of international donors including the World Bank.

"We are looking at lower economic growth, with a drop in agricultural and industrial production."

Thirty-nine Serbian towns and villages have been hit, 80 bridges have been destroyed and another 200 damaged, while 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) of roads will need repairs, he said.

The railway line linking Serbia to the Montenegrin port of Bar, of major importance to Serbia`s economy, will remain unpassable for at least a month, making life difficult for a Fiat factory at Kragujevac.

In Bosnia, Ahmet Egrlic, head of the chamber of commerce, said Thursday that the floods could slash economic output by 30 percent and that hundreds of jobs were at risk.

"Exports are definitely going to fall because of this catastrophe. Revenues are going to plunge, which will hit tax receipts," Egrlic said.

"We will do as much as we can to help this region... The first thing is to have a good sense of needs in terms of reconstruction," said Suma Chakrabarti, head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERBD), attending the Belgrade talks.

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