Swollen Danube River Overflows, Forcing Thousands to Flee

BUCHAREST, Romania, April 21, 2006 (ENS) - The Danube River, filled to overflowing by heavy rains and melting snow, has risen to its highest level in more than a century, and thousands of families have fled their homes across the Balkan countries and in Hungary.

Some 8,000 people across the region are sheltering in public buildings, in tents and with friends and relatives on higher ground, and authorities warn that thousands more may have to be evacuated.

Floodwaters have rolled over some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of land in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, according to government estimates - destroying homes, roadways and bridges.

Farther north and west in Hungary, officials evacuated 4,500 residents of three towns as a precaution after a crack appeared in a dike near where the Tisza and Koros rivers meet, Tibor Dobson, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority said today. Historically, the Koros Valley floods every spring.

About 138,000 acres in Hungary are inundated by floodwaters, while in the Balkan countries, over 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) are affected.

In their attempts to avert further disasters, officials in different countries are using widely varying techniques.

Romania today breached a dam on its Black Sea coast to let the Danube flow straight into the sea. In periods of drought, the dam is intended to hold water for emergency release into the environmentally fragile Danube Delta.

At a techncial meeting called in Bucharest Thursday by Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, ministers decided to breach the dam to allow the controlled flooding.


Romanian ministers consider the Danube dam breach at a meeting with Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu (in white shirt). (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
The prime minister has tasked three government agencies to rapidly evaluate further areas to be considered for controlled flooding. Teams of specialists left for the countryside Thursday afternoon.

"The evaluation aims at investigating the dams' situation," said government spokesperson Oana Marinescu. The experts were asked to determine if interventions were made to these dams, what would be the functioning state of the dams and whether they can retain water inside, she said.

Nearly 6,700 people have been forced to flee their homes over the past few days, Romanian Interior Minister Vasile Blaga said Wednesday. Another 10,000 people in the area surrounding the southwestern village of Bistret also might have to be evacuated.

In Bulgaria, all Danube ports, with the exception of east Rousse, are flooded and have closed, officials said. Five of Romania's nine Danube ports are shut down.

In Hungary, more than 23,000 people, including 500 military personnel, are battling the floods by strengthening the dams and dikes. The highest flood alert status currently applies to almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) of waterways. The government says floods and standing water are threatening a total of 330 municipalities.

Hungary, an EU member state, can expect financial help from the European Union to cope with the floods, Foreign Affairs Minister Ferenc Somogyi told a meeting of government ministers Thursday.

The high water levels, which have surpassed all historic records, and the great length of the rivers affected will turn this flood into "a serious and protracted problem for the whole region," said Dr. Somogyi.


High water in the Koros Valley (Photo courtesy U. Iowa)
On a visit to Slovakia on March 10, European President José Manuel Barroso expressed his support for drafting a new law that would facilitate easier access for member states suffering from flood damage to the EU funds set aside in the event of natural disasters.

Government spokesman András Batiz told the press that the flood protection budget will remain uncapped until the end of August. The Ministry of Environment and Water Management will be able to use the funds freely not only for its own spending but also for the spending of other ministries, authorities or other organizations participating in the protection effort, Batiz said. This will allow prompt payment of overtime for the soldiers working to strengthen the dams.

In Serbia, the floods forced the Djerdap 2 power plant on the country's border with Romania to stop generating power.

Serbian Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management Ivana Dulic-Markovic said that according to first estimates, nearly 220,000 hectares of land and 3,000 houses are reported flooded.

The water level of the Tisa River in Hungary is rising, and dikes along this river are being reinforced by 50 centimeters so that they can resist higher waters, the minister said.

She warned that the Sava River is on the rise near Sabac and there is a danger of flooding. The damages caused by floods in Serbia amount to over 3.1 billion dinars, the Serbian parliament’s agriculture committee said yesterday.

In Vienna, the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) promised that international efforts to prevent and reduce flood impacts in the Danube River Basin will be strengthened by the end of the year.

A new international flood warning system is being developed. Overseen by the ICPDR, the new flood warning system will supplement national systems and give up to 10 days warning of expected floods.


Water levels rise at Rousse, the biggest Bulgarian port town on the bank of the river Danube. April 17, 2006. (Photo courtesy Martin Tsachev)
The system is being developed by the European Union Joint Research Centre based in Italy. Trials for the system will be introduced by end of the year.

"The floods currently ravaging countries in the Danube Basin, as in 2002 and 2005, are again providing lessons that greater international efforts are needed for the long-term,” said Philip Weller, the ICPDR’s executive secretary.

Following the disastrous Danube floods of 2002, Danube countries agreed to strengthen their flood prevention and reduction efforts through the ICPDR. Earlier efforts were coordinated at national and bilateral levels.

In December 2004, Danube countries adopted the Action Programme for Sustainable Flood Protection for managing the risk of floods to protect human life and property. The plan was developed by the ICPDR’s Expert Group on Flood Protection with members from every Danube country.

Key elements of the Action Programme include the development of the new flood warning system, mapping high flood risk areas, giving rivers more space such as creating new water retention zones, and an end to new building in natural floodplain areas.

"The ICPDR and the Danube governments began a process in 2002 to better manage floods,” says Weller. "We will now accelerate that process and the implementation of the Action Programme, including development of the new flood warning system.”

In June, the ICPDR will review how Danube countries responded to the current floods. The assessment will determine how the Action Programme should be accelerated and revised, if necessary. A priority international activity list, agreed by all Danube countries, will then be finalized in December.

Sulfina Barbu, Romania’s Minister for Water and Environment, said, "We are convinced that peak flood prevention can only happen in Romania if upstream countries in the Danube Basin are also helping to implement an effective Danube flood action programme agreed to by all Danube states."