Albanian flood catastrophe

Published: 30 September 2002 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Budapest

The worst flooding in years has hit the Albanian lowlands after a week of torrential rain, and the Albanian Red Cross has warned the consequences could be catastrophic for thousands of rural people in one of Europe's poorest countries.

Homes, crops and infrastructure have been destroyed, remote communities isolated, water and electricity supplies disrupted. Around 26,000 hectares of arable land are under water and a state of emergency has been declared in six prefectures around the country. As its relief operation widened today, the Albanian Red Cross said the devastation was so great that people would need help to survive the coming winter.

"Nothing like this has been seen for decades," said head of programmes Ylli Alushi. "So many people have lost all they had, including their livelihoods. Houses have collapsed, livestock has drowned, food reserves for people and animals have gone. We are always prepared for disaster and can deal with the initial emergency. But we will have to appeal to international donors to cover needs beyond October. A horrendous winter awaits us."

The rains began on 22 September and brought a repeat of the floods which swept much of Central Europe this summer. Neglected river defences, the reduced capacity of lowland drainage stations and power cuts that shut down pumps exacerbated the problem. Lezha prefecture, 65 kilometres north of Tirana, and Berat, 150 kilometres south of the capital, have suffered the greatest damage and Red Cross assessment teams found 3,300 families in serious trouble there. Among other overwhelmed prefectures are Shkoder to the north, Durres to the northwest, and Fier and Gjirokaster to the south.

Mountain regions have not escaped impact either. Bridges have collapsed, landslides have occurred and roads have been blocked, leaving communities cut off and the relief operation struggling to get through with food and essentials. Wide areas have suffered power cuts as electricity stations have been flooded, sanitation problems have been reported and water supplies have been disrupted. Towns such as Lac and Milot have no water.

Through its branches, the Albanian Red Cross has already distributed almost four tonnes of wheat flour, along with canned meat, oil, sugar, blankets, soap and washing powder. Its greatest concern is for Lezha, where distributions occurred over the weekend, and Berat where they began this morning.

Lezha's problems are in part man-made. Over the past decade uncontrolled migration to low-lying areas has created flood-prone settlements, and the inhabitants are paying the price. Across the prefecture five municipalities and 22 villages have been inundated, Ylli Alushi said this morning the Red Cross had reached more than 2,800 desperate families.

The floods in Albania are about more than water. Officially, a quarter of the 3.1 million population already lives below the poverty line, there are high levels of endemic unemployment and malnutrition is growing. Devastating floods washing out livelihoods are a dramatic episode in a worsening scenario.

Albanian Red Cross efforts from November to March will be critical. Coordinating within the national disaster management structure, the Red Cross plans to deliver monthly relief to those worst affected. "Things were hard already," Alushi said. "These people cannot make it without outside help."

An appeal will be launched within the next few days.

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