Flash floods from sudden heavy rains in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina caused evacuations and extensive property damage, raising fears of a repeat of the destruction that swept through a third of the country in 2014.
Dozens of people were evacuated from their homes on Friday in the Sarajevo suburbs of Otes and Rajlovac and in the town of Konjic, some fifty kilometers further south.
The rising waters are the result of uninterrupted heavy rains since Thursday evening, causing problems in municipalities mainly located near the Bosna and Neretva rivers and their tributaries.
The floods caused several electrical substations to malfunction, leaving much of the outskirts of the capital without electricity.
Residents of the most affected neighborhoods, such as Otes, Vojkovići and Rajlovac, have since remained off-grid.
Local media and social media users reported that the Miljacka River, which flows through the middle of the Bosnian capital, also reached unprecedented levels on Friday. At least one pedestrian bridge had to be closed to traffic.
Heavy rains also inundated a number of local and regional roads, cutting off traffic and threatening to destroy buildings along the riverbanks.
On Saturday, rising levels of the Bosna River – which flows north from Sarajevo – blocked traffic and destroyed vehicles in the town of Zenica and the towns of Visoko, Kakanj and Breza.
The floods also caused significant damage to local businesses and farms. In the town of Trnovo, about 30 kilometers south of Sarajevo, a sheep farm owner lost all of his flock overnight, local television channel N1 reported.
With homes and roads in jeopardy in some municipalities, local schools have also canceled classes.
A retirement home for the elderly and a factory filling oxygen tanks for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients were also evacuated.
Forecasts indicate that precipitation is expected to continue through Sunday, with new rains projected to continue again on Monday.
Climate change meets government neglect
Water levels in some rivers have reached or exceeded those recorded in May 2014, when the country experienced devastating flooding, forcing authorities to declare a state of emergency lasting several weeks.
The 2014 floods claimed 21 lives, and two people remain missing to date. Thousands of people had to be evacuated, while damage to property, infrastructure and agricultural products was estimated at around several billion euros.
One of the major consequences of the 2014 floods was the displacement of soil in areas where anti-personnel mines remained from the 1992-1995 war in the country, altering previously mapped locations or moving them closer to densely populated areas.
Vjekoslav Bevanda, prime minister at the time, claimed that the damage to the country’s economy amounted to around 15 percent of Bosnia’s GDP.
But little has been done since 2014 to prepare for future flooding, especially as projections show it may become a more common occurrence in the future due to climate change, says Mirza Novokmet, natural disaster analyst.
“Heavy rain showers have intensified over the past two decades, and in particular over the past two years,” he said.
“As we have observed in recent months in Germany, Italy and the Balkans, the amount of rain that typically falls on average in a few months or more, now falls in a single event which can last from a few minutes to a few hours or days. “
“I think people still have the floods of 2014 in their memory, and for people it’s not unexpected,” Novokmet said.
“But the country has done nothing major to at least mitigate some future floods or the catastrophic consequences of those floods.”
“They did not take it seriously. They somehow see it as something that will pass, which will not be as catastrophic as the major floods of 2014,” he explains.
While Bosnian local authorities have come under the most criticism for what is seen as an inadequate response by citizens, Novokmet believes the responsibility lies with the country’s main political leaders.
“Local communities have their own responsibility – for example, even a single household has its own responsibility for implementing certain measures.”
“But these plans are usually developed at the highest level of government, or in the case of Bosnia, at the cantonal or entity level. I think the coordination between all levels is lacking. And the citizens are the worst off. because they are the most vulnerable, ”he explained.
Bosnia has one of the most complicated systems of government in the world, a legacy of the 1995 peace accord to end the war in the country, designed to distribute power fairly among its ethnic groups.
He saw Bosnia divided into two sub-national entities or units, the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosnian-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The northeastern town of Brčko was declared a district, a separate and distinct administrative unit.
Each entity has its own assembly and government, overseen by a parliament and a council of ministers at the state level. The entity of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is further divided into ten cantons, each with its own government.
Although the management of natural disasters and other emergencies is supposed to be done primarily at the entity level, the respective 14 governments, each with varying degrees of responsibility, form a dizzying maze of blame-denial and sluggish decision-making, says Novokmet.
“In Bosnia, you shift the responsibility from one jurisdiction to another in order to avoid any responsibility,” he explains.
“If you point the finger at someone, they can say, ‘Oh, it’s not our responsibility, you can speak at the cantonal level, at the entity level, at the state level’, or even pretend that it’s not in their hands because climate change is a global problem, and it concerns big countries like Russia, China, Western Europe, the United States. “
“I think that’s the main problem – if no one can be blamed for it, no one can bear the consequences,” Novokmet concluded.