The Balkan Floods Aftermath: Have the Institutions Done Their Job? No, They Should Learn From This for the Future

Floods in Brcko, Bosnia

Photo: Floods in Brcko, Bosnia;

It has been over a month since the catastrophic floods that hit Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia.

The water has receded but it left behind many problems, some of them classic for big floods – such as destroyed houses and farms, risks of sewer contamination, lack of drinking water; and some of them specific to the region – such as fields full of landmines still left from the Yugoslav civil war where the water has potentially moved the mines or removed warning signs thereby putting people at mine danger[1]. Some of the problems, however, seem to be purely institutional.

First there was the issue of major Western media outlets not even reporting about the Balkan floods for the first few days[2], until Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic raised awareness about the issue by winning the Rome Masters tournament and then donating his entire prize of over 550.000 EUR to the relief efforts[3].

Then during the floods, it seems a number of alarming mistakes were made by both the national and local government units in all 3 countries. The meteorologists warned about cyclone Tamara’s potential to flood territories, but there were no orders to evacuate. In Obrenovac, Serbia, one of the hardest hit towns, the government admits that only one out of several emergency sirens worked at all, and few residents heard it at 5am; a few hours later it was already too late, and over 40 people died due to not evacuating on time[4]. Laura Tuck, World Banks’ VP for Europe and Central Asia also mentioned the flooding of mines in both Bosnia and Serbia as a key problem as they supply coal to their main power plants and being out of service for the coming months, the countries will have to import additional fuel and electricity from abroad at higher prices[5]. In Serbia the cash-strapped government will have to foot the whole bill, as neither the power plant nor the mine had been insured against flooding since 2012[6].

Finally, after the floods, different institutional problems are still coming to light on an almost daily basis. Just this past week 2 major stories have been published. In Bosnia, a convoy of help packages from the UNHCR has been stopped at the customs for over a month over an administrative problem[7] – UNHCR was not registered as a charity in Bosnia and would hence be forced to pay custom duties or work on the needed paperwork with the government institutions – so the displaced people have been waiting for humanitarian aid from the UNHCR for over a month. In Croatia, it seemed problems occurred on the side of the international public institutions – the Croatian Red Cross had been accused of complacency after photos surfaced of warehouses full of donated goods waiting to be given to the needy and news broke that the Red Cross put the donated money into an interest-bearing savings account until they decide what to do with it in cooperation with the government[8].

Not all institutional stories have been negative. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will extend 500m EUR to all 3 countries through its local partner banks in loans to MSMEs in the region[9] because small local enterprises need funds the most and cannot get them, e.g. in Bosnia only 22% of private sector credit is available to them at all even in normal times[10]. Croatia’s damage is at the moment estimated at 225m EUR[11], while Bosnia’s and Serbia’s stand at 2b EUR each so this is a very welcome amount of funds aimed specifically at getting the local economies slowly back on track.

Overall, however, it seems many institutions, from the media, to the government units and international agencies, did not do their job nearly as efficiently as they could have. The Balkan floods have thus proven, once again, how important institutional efficiency is in crisis situations, and in general. More efficient media reporting would increase transparency and accountability, more efficient government units would have contingency plans in place and reduced red tape for the future, and finally more efficient international agencies would be better prepared to deal with the local red tape as well as negotiate with the local government units. Hopefully institutional learning from this experience will lead to a higher institutional efficiency in the future. However, institutional learning, as any learning is an active and conscious process, and these institutions should be made aware of their short comings, or else there may be no learning after all.

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Ariel Salvaro

Ariel Salvaro has been involved with Model UN conferences in Europe for a number of years (including Vienna, London, Maastricht, Geneva, and Paris). After graduating his Bachelor of Economics summa cum laude from the University of Zagreb, and helping Croatia finish its negotiations to join the European Union, he has spent the last few years working in North America (Toronto, Washington D.C.) in banking and economic consulting. His main passion is the economic analysis of law, regulations, and institutions.

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