Balkans count cost of floods, brace for more

The flood-hit Balkans began counting the cost Wednesday (21/05/2014) of a devastating natural disaster that has killed at least 49 people and still threatens the Serbian capital Belgrade.

Water from the region's worst floods in over a century was receding in some areas, after the Sava and its tributaries burst their banks, causing widespread devastation and forcing almost 150,000 people from their homes.

But the situation remained tense in Belgrade and north-east Bosnia in the wake of days of torrential rains in south-east Europe last week.

"The river Sava is still threatening," said Blaz Zuparic, an official in the Bosnian town of Orasje pinning its hopes on a six-kilometre (four-mile) wall of sandbags.

"The damage is so huge that the region will take more than 10 years to recover," he said.

"Only God can help us to hold on."

In Belgrade, where the Sava flows into the Danube, volunteers have been working around the clock to erect a wall of sandbags 12 kilometres (seven miles) long.

"We are expecting a peak this Wednesday, and again on Friday. If that passes we will be able to say that we have protected Belgrade," mayor Sinisa Mali said.

Towns and villages in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia have been swamped, homes have been swept away by landslides, electricity has been cut off and vast tracts of farmland remain under water.

In Serbia, the worst hit, 1.6 million people have been affected while in Bosnia, a quarter of the 3.8 million population is without safe drinking water.

In Obrenovac, the Serbian town worst affected with more than half of the 20,000 population evacuated, the gruesome task of recovering victims' bodies continued on Wednesday.

"Nights were the worst. All you could hear was the howling of dogs unable to swim across the water," said evacuated local resident Marko Obojcic, 44.

In Bosnia, an added danger is that some of the estimated 120,000 unexploded landmines left over from the Balkan wars of the 1990s may have been dislodged.

"Some mines are made of plastic and they float like plastic plates," said Fikret Smajis from national Mine Action Centre.

Authorities have also warned of a risk of epidemics as drowned farm animals rot, and efforts by health experts and the army to recover the bloated carcasses have been hampered by landslides.

"We have to act quickly in order to avoid an even more serious catastrophe, that of infectious diseases," Serbian Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar said.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that it had sent an expert to advise on sanitation and ensuring safe drinking water. It was also sending medical supplies.

Nineteen European Union countries have offered assistance so far, with close to 400 relief workers from member countries on the ground and materials and humanitarian equipment on its way.

Preliminary estimates in Serbia alone indicate that the cost for cleaning up the mess will far exceed 0.64 percent of the country's total economic output, the level at which an EU member state can request aid.

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucics said this week that some analysts have estimated the cost to "rebuild a lot of roads, bridges and renew the infrastructure, which will not be easy", could reach a billion euros (1.4 billion).

According to Serbia's Infrastructure Minister Zorana Mihajlovic, 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) of roads would need to be repaired.

Kristalina Georgieva, EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response, said in Belgrade on Tuesday that the bloc would "immediately" make funding available.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was meanwhile due in Sarajevo on Wednesday. - AFP