Bosnia Herzegovina struggles to recover from devastating floods, landslides

June 13, 2014


“Water and fire are wonderful servants but terrible masters” – Bosnian saying

“The physical destruction is not less than the destruction caused by the war”  – Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnian Minister for Foreign Affairs

On June 18th the World Bank will issue its preliminary damage assesment of Bosnia Herzegovina one month after torrential rains flooded much of central and northern Bosnia and triggered some 2,400 landslides.   Damage to buildings, public infrastructure, and agriculture is conservatively projected to exceed two billion dollars.   Damage to private property of every conceivable kind—cars, furniture, household appliances, and other personal items—certainly amounts to several hundred million euros and may run into the billions.

Three months of rain in three days

Between May 15 and 18 Central Bosnia received three months worth of rain in three days. Not since precipitation records started being kept 120 years ago has Bosnia received so much rain – over 100 litres per square meter – in so brief a period of time. Settlements along the banks of the Bosna and Vrbas rivers draining central Bosnia were completely flooded, as were towns and villages situated on the southern bank of the Sava river forming the northern border with Croatia.

Standing at the confluence of the Bosna and Sava rivers, the northern Bosnian town of Bosonki Samac was completely flooded as both rivers rose to their highest level in recorded history.  According to the deputy mayor, an area of twenty square kilometers was flooded for seven to ten days.  As flood waters receded they left low lying areas filled with putrid water.  Fortunately, German and Polish emergency crews were able to restore electricity and pump the water back into the Sava.  Just north of the spot where the headwaters of the Bosna and Sava converged, an enormous temporary municipal dump has been created featuring mound after mound of furniture, carpets, flooring, and anything else destroyed by flooding.

“The situation is desperate”

Further downstream the town of Orasje was completed flooded, as were villages lying to the north of Brcko.   In addition to cleaning up their own homes and businesses, local officials are desperately trying to attend to the needs of some 4000 families who have essentially most, if not all, of their earthly possessions.  “The situation is desperate” says the canton’s minister for agriculture and forestry, Mato Brkić.  “People have lost everything.  In addition to drinking water and food, people need disinfectant, paint, flooring material, household appliances, furniture”.  Driving around town he stops to show us two man made levies, each several kilometers long, consisting of millions of sandbags piled one on top of the other to a height of one meter. There the Bosnian army working side by side with thousands of volunteers managed to protect local schools and other essential public buildings by deploying over a million sandbags in 24 hours.  Elsewhere a recently built municipal medical center, retirement home, and kindergarten were badly flooded.

Risk of landmines

In Brcko district to the south, clean up efforts are complicated by the fact that flood waters dislodged landmines left over from the Bosnian civil war of 1992-1996 that left up to 500,000 Bosnians dead or missing.  A large number of Bosnia’s 9,400 minefields containing some 120,000 mines have been affected.  In many cases warning markets have been washed away.

Ahdin Orahovac, director of Bosnia’s Mine Action Centre, told the BBC that their work had been put back years. “All of our mine warning signs have been moved. We have to warn our local population that they shouldn’t hurry back to their homes because there are many locations where landmines are now in new places”.

Supersaturated earth, dislodged mountainsides

In the mountains of central Bosnia fast running mountain streams became torrential rivers that swept away roads and buried entire villages.  Throughout the country the ground became supersaturated with water. A month later spontaneous, ever shifting creeks and riverlets continue to drain the mountainous areas despite the absence of rain.  Entire mountainsides became dislodged, forcing the evacuation of entire villages.  In many cases it remains questionable whether the inhabitants will be able to return.  In some areas it is already clear that they wil not.

Sarajevo spared, but environs hit by floods and landslides

Although the capital city, Sarajevo, was spared, Ilidza to the northeast was flooded and Vogosca (pop. 16,000) to the northwest was wracked with 133 landslides.  There 23 locations have been identified as “high risk landslide zones” according to the Mayor, Edin Smajic.  Fortunately, only 15 homes were badly damaged or destroyed.  An additional 27 homes were damaged and had to be evacuated.  There preliminary damage assessments puts the damage at a mere 2.5 BAM (roughly EUR 1.25 million).  “Our damages are modest in comparison to areas north of here” say mayor Smajic.


In the central Bosnia village of Topcic-Polje, where a fast flowing mountain stream, the Orahovacko, flows into the Bosna, half of the villages 200 homes were buried in a massive landslide – some up to their roofs.  The landslides smashed through windows, patio doors, even solid wooden tours , filling the stuctures with earth and carrying everything in their path down the mountain side.  Miraculously, there were no fatalities. Emergency crews have been working virtually around the clock.  A temporary water purification system sent by the Swedish government provides the inhabitants of Topcic-Polje with a source of fresh drinking water.

The mayor of the municipality, Huseijin Smajlovic, says it is a race against time to get the houses dug out so the inhabitants can begin the process of repairing their homes and rebuilding their lives.  “Otherwise the people will simply move away and never return”.  Topcic-Polje has issued an appeal for heavy construction equipment and crews to operate them.   With the ten or so pieces of heavy earth moving equipment currently at their disposal Mayor Smajlovic estimates it will take excavation crews over three months to remove some 3 million cubic meters of earth.

“We are running low of essential foodstuffs”

At the top of the valley drained by the Orahovacko, two village were evacuated for fear that landslides might cause the upper village to slide into the lower one.  According to Mirsad Heleg, the engineer responsible for overseeing clean-up and reconstruction efforts, it remains to be seen whether the mountainside can ever be sufficiently stabiliized so as to allow the people to return to their homes.  In the meantime some 850 families are being housed at a nearby refugee collection center.  “We are running low of essential foodstuffs” says Arma Oruc, secretary of the Zenica chapter of the Bosnia Red Cross.

North of there the picturesque towns of Zepce and Maglaj were badly flooded.  In Maglaj raging floodwaters damaged buildings, uprooted hundreds of trees, and washed away most of the topsoil from the left bank.  In Maglaj alone damages to buildings and infrastructure is estimated at EUR 100 million.  Fortunately, the historic mosque and old town situated on the right bank of the river were spared.  Regretably, same cannot be said of the beautiful, modern mosque built on the left bank as a gift from the people of Turkey.

“Unbearable hardship”

To the north of Maglaj in the Serbian Republic, the city of Doboj (pop. 35,000) was completely flooded to a level of 6 m (17 feet).  In addition to some 400 street level shops and offices, some 3,500 residential units were flooded, including 1,700 homes.  Three weeks after the flood water receded, only a handful of businesses have managed to reopen for business.  Doboj’s deputy mayor is worried about the spiritual and psychological impact of the flooding.  “It’s bad enough some 10,000 people have lost their homes.  But to have no income and no place to go because one’s workplace has been flooded creates unbearable hardship”.

Many refugees have temporarily moved in with friends or relatives living int he hills to the west of the city or in nearby towns or villages.   Others are taking shelter at a nearby military barracks.  “We would like to avoid having to reopen the refugee collection centers” says the deputy mayor, referring to refugee camps set up during the Bosnian war to accept Muslims and Croats refugees fleeing Serbian militias.

The decision largely depends on whether the city’s central heating station, a 2 x 29 megawatt, coal burning district heating plant that heats most of the city’s apartments and shops.   “We do not know at this time whether it can be repaired and winters in Bosnia can be very cold and very long”.

Tuzla wracked by 1,900 landslides

In Tuzla, where some 1,900 landslides were recorded, 850 homes were partially or completedly destroyed.  An additional 4000 homes were evacuated for fear that ground slippage might cause the buildings to slip into the earth at any time.   There twelve teams of structural engineers and geologists have been working round the clock to assess the damage. Mayor Jasmin Imamovic estimates damage to buildings and infrastructure exceeds EUR 240 million.

“Between two seats one sits on the ground”

In the parts of Bosnia belonging to the Serbian Republic, a highly centralized state, clean up and reconstruction efforts are being largely organized and directed by the capital, Banja Luka.  In the Muslim-Croat Federation, which is organized into municipalities and cantons, most of the clean up and recovery efforts are being organized on the municipal level.   In Brcko district, a multi-ethnic city-state situated in the northeast corner of Bosnia, municipal authorities (who double as district authorities) are quickly discovering that, in the words of the Hungarian member of our delegation, “between two seats one sits on the ground”.   According to the Nenad Kojic, the Federation as been slow to make resources available to Brcko district.  Affected by both flooding and landslides, Brcko suffers from a lack of qualified engineers needed to properly assess the damage.

Mr. Kojic says that under normal circumstances they would bring in experts from other parts of the country, and even from neighboring Serbia or Croatia.  However, as hundreds of bridges and roads across central and northern Bosnia, eastern Croatian, and western Serbia have been damaged or destroyed, experts are kept very busy assessing damage in the areas where they live.  “Tuzla was able to provide us with an geologist” Kojic says, “but we lack experts qualified to assess the damage to the district’s ten bridges”.

“We are missing 10,000 people”

Further upstream in the Serbia Republic, Bosonki Brod, where embankments reinforced with millions of sandbags prevented the Sava from flooding the city, the local government lacks  experts capable of assessing damage to its sewer system and the embankments.  “We got lucky this time” says Mayor Ilija Jovicic.  “But the sewer treatment plant was destroyed and the embankments were structurally weakened.   They need to be strengthened if we are to avoid a disaster”.  Mayor Jovicic expressed his gratitude to the people of Slavonski Brod across the Sava in Croatia which provided its southern neighbor  with temporary electricity.  Mayor Jovicic, a jovial, impecabbly dressed man in his early sixties of Serbian heritag, with a sharp mean and firm command of all the relevant figures and statistics said it was a tragedy that the city’s Croatian habitats forced to flee during the war have elected not to return.  “Many of them continue to own homes and businesses in Bosanski  but prefer to live in neighboring Croatia” says Jovicic.  “We are missing 10,000 people”.

Thanks to the rapid response of municipal, cantonial, and state authorities, and, of course, the Bosnian army, the loss of human life was kept to a minimum.  Among the 36 Bosnian reported killed or missing were people who insisted on remaining with their animals.   In addition to millions of acres of crops, hundreds of thousands of animals perished in the flooding.   In Savac an entire heard of milk cows drowned.

Official corruption serious obstacle to reconstruction

The World Bank and the European Union are likely to make billions of euros of assistance available to Bosnia Herzegovina in the form of grants and loans.  However, there is genuine concern on the part of the people and local officials alike that little, if any, of the money will find its way to the municipal level where it is most needed.  Corruption on the part of national and regional leaders continues to be a huge problem in Bosnia.  Competition for funding among the country’s constituent entities—the Serbia Republic, the Muslim-Croat Federation, and Brcko District—may add to centripetal nationalist forces already causing the fragile binds holding the multi-ethnic state together to fray.

Three nations under God

The Dayton peace accord brokered by the United States under President Bill Clinton, Bosnia Herzegovina serves as the country’s constitution.  In the Serbian Republic it is considered bad taste to display the state flag.   To judge from the standards and relief maps on display at the state house in Banja Luka, the Serbian Republic is a sovereign nation that includes the Brcko district in its entirety.  At a recent national public event, the Serbian Republic prime minister actually left the stage and sat down during the playing of the national anthem.

A blessing in disguise?

On the other hand, to the extent all three entities were badly affected by flooding and landslides, the natural disaster may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise as predominately Serbian, Croat, and Muslim settlements extend a helping hand to one another.  On the first day of the flooding, Bosnian town of Gradacac was the first to come to Samac’s aid.  Cut off from the Serbian Republic, Samac gratefully accepted it.  “There will always be nationalist politicians prepared to exploit people’s ignorance and incite hatred, especially before elections” says Topcic-Polje mayor Smajlovic over a lunch of cevapi, a Bosnian speciality “pooly copied in Croatia and Serbia” consisting of finger-sized sausage made from minced meat served with a fluffy pita, onions, and kaymac, a cross between butter and cheese.  “However, on the level of municipal governments and even ordinary people we are starting to see signs of greater tolerance and acceptance”.

Referenced in this article:

Balkan floods: ‘Quarter of Bosnia’ without clean water,, 19 May 2014