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Where were the authorities while the water swept away human lives?

Alisa Karović

poplave-400x300The catastrophic floods, unprecedented in our country, have exposed all the weaknesses of authorities on all levels of power in BiH, who have failed to provide adequate protection, or even a timely warning, to its citizens. There is little doubt about the reason for the lack of their timely and appropriate response – no coordination of civil defense systems, paired with lack of investments in flood protection in both entities, lead to the disastrous consequences felt by the traumatized people, both those directly affected by the floods and those outside the critical areas, who organized themselves to help those in need around the clock.

Few among them had time to follow the statements of local politicians these days. They had little reason to do so anyway, being that the officials didn’t provide them with any information that would be useful in overcoming the disaster that struck them. Their statements were not only uninformative – even in these disastrous times, they have somehow managed to give several highly inappropriate statements, showing complete lack of elementary humanity in moments when several hundred thousand people were facing a humanitarian catastrophe.

In this article, we will give a brief overview of what have the entity and state authorities (haven’t) done to prepare themselves for this catastrophe, how they reacted to it and what marked the statements of public officials in the past ten or so days of horror, panic and suffering.

The Federation of BiH

In FBiH, the Civil Protection has again demonstrated the lack of mechanisms for the protection of citizens even in the largest cities in the country which were not severely affected by flooding, while the rural and areas more difficult to access suffered a real cataclysm, and were waiting for help several days. The true extent of the disaster was evident only after the cessation of rainfall, and in flooded areas, as well as those affected by landslides after the flood , a large number of people remained without all of their assets.

The inefficiency of civil protection was witnessed by numerous cases that have been reported in the first days of the disaster . For example, the Sarajevo settlement Doglodi, in which 50 houses were flooded, was absolutely deprived of any assistance for nearly two days , while Maglaj was completely cut off from the rest of the world during precipitation, and citizens of this town were on rooftops waiting for help that never came.

Government and relevant authorities fully realised the situation on the ground and reacted to it when it was already too late.

”Situation in Maglaj is extremely difficult. More than 200 people were rescued , but many are still on the roofs of the houses. Armed forces are available to us and we are sending them to where we think it is most needed ,” said the Federal Minister of Agriculture , Water and Forestry Jerko Ivankovic Lijanović on May 16th, when the flood reached its maximum, and on this occasion said that sand bags were sent to a number of municipalities where they were needed to fight the flood. What Lijanović did not say, however, is that the number of people who have spent the night on the roofs of the houses would have been significantly lower, if the Council of Ministers responded to an offer of help from Slovenia timely, instead of staying silent for ten hours, and accepting the helicopter offered only at 10 PM. Meanwhile , the Armed forces decided that they will not fly to Maglaj overnight “due to unfavorable weather conditions ,” and silence from the Council of Ministers directly contributed to the fact that who knows how many people in Maglaj were on rooftops of their flooded houses overnight, although they could have been rescued during the day if BiH accepted the rescue team and the helicopter that was offered by Slovenians. At the same time, during the day and evening it was absolutely impossible to get through to the Ministry of Security’s “crisis ” phone established for this purpose, and it was practically impossible to inform the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina where the people whose life was in danger were. Situation was not better with the number of federal civil protection, and the communication with local Civil Defence Headquarters in Maglaj was already interrupted at the time.

According to the Assistant Director of the Federal Administration of Civil Protection Mirsad Teskeređić , 170 members of the Civil Protection operated on the ground and 50,000 sandbags were sent to the areas affected. These numbers testify to the powerlessness of Federal Civil Protection to deal with even minor floods, let alone a disaster of this magnitude. In comparison, neighbouring Serbia sent one million sandbags to Šabac in order to defend the city from Sava river.

Number of packages is FACP sent to the affected areas, therefore, was not sufficient for the defense of a small suburban town, let alone all the vulnerable areas that cover nearly a third of the country. Certainly , sending the bags to already heavily flooded areas did not make much sense, because at the time the CP was sending these bags, areas near rivers were already under water. In addition, even if this material was sent on time and in greater numbers , it is clear that such a small number of CP people on the ground who were severely lacking means to fight the disaster could do nothing to stop, or at least mitigate, upcoming disaster.

Federal Prime Minister Nermin Niksic dealt with visiting the flooded areas the same day, and on that occasion he said:

“We’re trying to get through to Živinice, and we’ll go as far as possible. I just spoke with the president of Republika Srpska , Milorad Dodik , and the situation is alarming there. Even the evacuation from Banja Luka has started. Conditions are what they are, we do not have a magic wand to change them, but it is very important and I want to emphasize and underline several times to thank the people of Civil Protection of the Ministry of Defence, police, rescuers who are making truly superhuman efforts to save human lives , said Nikšić on this occasion.

It is clear that no government in the world has a “magic wand” to halt rainfall and swollen rivers, but it is very evident that the Government of the Federation has not invested the minimum of effort to try to prevent the worst scenario that happened.

That almost nothing has been done on the prevention of floods, was already established by the Audit office of Federation in its report on performance of “Prevention of flooding in the Federation” which was released in early 2013.

In this report, among other things, it is stated that out of the 71.9 million KM in total funds collected from water charges in the period from 2009 to 2011, only 25 percent or 18.4 million KM, was spent on flood protection. Thus, as stated in the report, with current pace of investments, over 40 years to establish a system of flood protection is needed, instead of 23 years as provided in Draft capital plan for preventive flood protection. Also, the report argues that the water agencies for river Sava and the Adriatic Sea have have spent only 8.3% of the total money at their disposal on the investment and ongoing maintenance of constructed water protection facilities, and the funds allocated to the cantons for flood protection were mainly spent on the construction and reconstruction of water supply networks and sewage systems.

In addition, FBiH Government adopted a Decision approving the transfer of funds from special -purpose transaction account to the Federal Ministry of Finance on February 5th this year. This decision covered the funds for protection and rescue in the amount of up to 20 million KM. According to this decision, the funds are treated as a loan, which will be returned within six months, that is, in August this year.

Government of FBiH, in a time when snowmelt, river surge and abundant rainfall is expected took the money from the budget that was intended for protection of citizens, money that every citizen actually gives to the government for these purposes. We don’t have to assume what can Civil Protection do without these funds, we were able to see it ourselves.

After holding an emergency session of the Government of the Federation on 17th May , where the floods were the only issue, it was agreed that the Ministers of the Federal Government, within their own departments, will review the possibilities for reducing the transfers, or certain budgetary positions, in order to divert funds to help flood victims.

In an emergency meeting held on 21st May, government passed a supplementary budget and the decision divert 10 million marks for emergency aid to areas affected by floods and repair of damage . So, instead of 20 million, which should be invested in prevention and protection, citizens were given half that amount in order to help when the damage has already occurred.

We can also talk about unwillingness and unpreparedness of the FBiH government for floods of this magnitude through series of orders, decisions and recommendations that were made ‘ad hoc’ from 15th May until today, instead of being already defined and activated after the declaration of the state of natural disaster.

In the days after the flood , when all the damage came to light and when numerous accounts to help the victims were activated, the statement of the Minister Lijanović who said that there was no need for intervention from stockpiles was shocking, to say the least. According to him, it was not necessary because “the citizens themselves activated and gathered enough food for the affected areas .”

“Why didn’t we activate stockpiles before? They were at all times available to the Federal Civil Protection … So there was no need for intervention of the stockpiles, because there was enough food in the cantonal and municipal Civil Protection. We just listened in the news, thanks to our citizens enough food was ensured! Civil Protection of municipalities and cantons have given us their needs … No need to send something that is not needed. It will be ruined. So that was the reason. Stockpiles will be activated exactly in line with the needs because we do not want something to be ruined.”

It’s hard even to comment on this statement, given in the moment when citizens, due to lack of any kind of reaction from the institutions, were forced to organize and help each other because it was clear from the start that nobody else is going to do it. Ten days after this disaster struck tens of villages and cities, cries for help from people who lost everything are still coming. Food, water, basic hygiene are still inaccessible to a lot of people struck by the floods, and they’re relying on help from their fellow citizens in order to survive. At the time when Ivanković said he does not want to ‘ruin’ the stockpiles, while the biggest natural disaster recorded in this area was happening, the situation was incomparably worse, thanks to complete absence of state, entity, cantonal or any level of government which was supposed to protect its citizens. Level of arrogance displayed in this statement is something that is rarely seen even in our country, which is used to politicians not showing any respect to citizens who pay for their salaries.

Another statement of this type was given by the BiH Presidency member Bakir Izetbegović, who, while touring flooded areas said there weren’t many casualties given the extent of the flood .

“We will overcome this first attack . We didn’t have a lot of casualties so far. In Maglaj, three women drowned. These casualties could have been larger given the extent of the flood. Everything will be done to prevent new casualties during the night and tomorrow, and our solidarity will be on test in the following days” Izetbegović said.

Republika Srpska

From the highest entity level, from the mouth of the RS Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic, came perhaps the scariest statement that we could hear since the disaster struck BiH. Cvijanovic has, in fact, said that authorities knew that the floods were coming, and without restraint she attacked the local level of government, accusing the cities the lack of plans for flood protection. The responsibility of the RS Government was not even intimated at any time.

„Everybody at the local level knew from Monday, and even two weeks before, what is going to happen, but unfortunately plans were not made in places where they were supposed to be made.

I am asking you how much manpower was engaged from Monday to Thursday, how much mechanization was used, how many plans on what to do in case of flooding were made, how many people have sent these plans to the responsible officials for approval, how many demands was made, how many needs were communicated“, Cvijanović said when she visited Bijeljina four days after the floods, wearing white boots.

This statement, besides being utterly hypocritical, can serve as evidence that government in this entity didn’t do anything to alert the citizens of the upcoming disaster. If PM Cvijanović knew what was about to happen two or three weeks before, a question on why the government did not inform the public must be raised, as well as a questions why not a single siren alarm was sounded when the water in Doboj was rising at 20 centimeters per minute, why the CP services were not in full alert and why the state of emergency was declared only when it was obvious what is the magnitude of disaster that struck RS. President of this entity, Milorad Dodik said on May 16th there was no need to declare the state of emergency in RS. At this point, Doboj and other cities were already severely flooded.

Utter irresponsibility towards protection of citizens from natural disasters was shown even before these floods by the RS officials. If we look at the funds that this entity is giving for Civil Protection, it’s clear that in this entity the status is even worse than in the Federation.

In the RS budget for 2014 the funds for Republic Administration for Civil Protection are planned in the amount of 4.702.000 KM, but most of these funds are for salaries of staff and running costs, while the three items that can be interpreted as purchase of equipment are only 110.000 KM .

On the other end, it’s interesting how the RS Government adopted a Provision of accepting the debt of RS toward European Investment Bank on the Project of emergency help and protection from floods in the amount of 55.000.000 euros on September 23rd 2011. Although this provision was adopted in late September 2011, contract with the contractors was signed two years later, and the realisation of the project started recently, just a few days before the floods.

According to the action plan for this project, by the end of 2012 and 2013, numerous steps such as evaluation of the existing system for flood protection, creation of flood risk map, estimation of probability of future floods and other activities were supposed to be taken.

Warnings that a disaster could happen came from Gradiška, in February this year, when their officials wondered why the realisation of the above mentioned project has not yet begun. CP of this city warned the officials about poor state of Flood defense mechanism, and they also said that another problem is that the plumbing company which was doing maintenance of these systems stopped doing it.

RS Government made a disastrous move when it declared that all money for helping the victims must go through their accounts, and not the accounts on the local level, and it was also ordered that humanitarian aid is not delivered directly but to the central premises in Banja Luka, from where it will be shipped to the areas hit by the disaster. Of course, this decision was criticised by certain municipality presidents.

In addition to all the failures, there was no lack of arrogance by officials in the RS. Most illustrative example was given by the President of this entity, Milorad Dodik, when, during a visit to Bijeljina on May 18th, he practically physically assaulted the journalist from BN Television because of questions that she asked, accusing her of “creating discord in the authorities of the RS “and that she is “favoring one political party.” So, at the time the RS was facing a catastrophe of unprecedented scale, Dodik has managed to find time to continue the inter-party bickering between SDS – SNSD, while the Vice President of the Republic of Srpska Emil Vlajki took advantage of the current situation, and as always again tried to tighten relations within Bosnia, saying that the floods have shown that “Bosnia is an impossible state”.

Fact is that the coordination between state and entity institutions was non-existent, but it is also a fact that the RS officials behaved as if the floods are happening only in RS and that even Vlajki Himself didn’t try to change the situation he criticised. It is also a fact that in this situation, not only the state level failed, but also every other level, including the entity level. The above mentioned statements from Jerko Ivanković-Lijanović and Željka Cvijanović are more than adequate illustrations of that. Government, the President and the Vice-President of RS have put more energy into cleaning their own hands and accusations towards the state and local government, than in any tries to coordinate with other levels of government and establish a system which was necessary to protect the citizens during and after this disaster.

A question instead of conclusion – What do we need you for anyways?

When we summarize all of the above, it’s clear that the authorities in FBiH and RS, apart from the fact that they haven’t made even minimal efforts to stop this disaster from happening, haven’t even tried to show an ounce of dignity in this enormous disaster that struck BiH citizens. They all tried to take advantage of the situation instead, whether it was by sending hackneyed political messages in a moment when millions of people could only think about surviving and helping those in need, or by taking pictures in the flooded areas thus advertising their ‘humanity’ and trying to conceal the lack of any kind of system of defense, which was precisely their responsibility. It’s clear that no person can influence the rainfall, but it is also clear that the scale of the disaster could have been much smaller if all the problems in the defense system were addressed in the past few years. Finally, when citizens realized that state, entity, cantonal or local level of government are not going to provide any help, and a parallel system was established, the government didn’t even try and help in that process. Horrifying stories of looting and misuse of humanitarian aid are coming from the field, but the institutions are not reacting to them.

Although the examples of neglect, arrogance, politicizing the disaster and letting the people fend for themselves could be continued endlessly, we’ll stop here and finish the text with a question that was heard from tens of thousands people these days – if we ourselves collect aid, gather the information areas where help is needed the mos by ourselves, if we organize humanitarian convoys and volunteers by ourselves, if we clean people’s houses by ourselves – what’s the use for 14 governments and hundreds of ministries, countless bureaus and agencies, and the largest administration per capita, which we pay from our pockets?