Big freeze aftermath threatens Europe

Published: 31 January 2002 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Budapest

Central Europe's big freeze threatens more disaster, the Red Cross warns. The hardest winter and heaviest snowfalls in years have isolated villages, blocked access to remote regions, cut power and water supplies, and brought more death in weeks than is normally reported throughout the season. The thaw could bring fresh perils - floods, landslides and avalanches - across the region.

In mountainous north-eastern Albania, where the Kukes branch of the Red Cross has used helicopters to bring 95 tonnes of food and relief to remote settlements, its head, Ilmi Cena, said today, "The emergency isn't over. We have had snow up to three metres high and temperatures as low as minus 25 centigrade and there are still people out there depending on us. But along with efforts to cope with the present we must prepare to respond to the aftermath. We know from the past that when it warms up, avalanches and landslides pose a very great danger to the population."

Villages like Shtiqen, Nujaj and Krenze lie in harm's way at the foot of mountains. There in 1985, when Albania last underwent such a winter, 23 houses collapsed beneath avalanches, 11 people died and 23 were wounded. In 1994, landslides destroyed homes in the region.

Albania has already been badly hit and the government declared a state of emergency in four north-eastern prefectures: Kukes, Diber, Shkoder and Lezhe. A region with 125,000 people was cut off from the rest of the country. The full picture is still emerging but several people are known to have died and houses have collapsed under the weight of snow on their roofs.

The weather caught the population unprepared. For years there had not been a hard winter, and widespread poverty with a shortage of productive land had kept food stocks to a minimum. Wheat flour, stored in summer to make bread in winter, was almost exhausted when snow came. The poorly nourished population could not have been more vulnerable, and the disruption snow and heavy storms wrought worsened a desperate situation. Reported Ilmi Cena, "The phone lines and the electricity were cut, the roads were blocked and the water pipeline froze and broke. Our infrastructure is far from normal in summer so you can imagine what has been happening."

Wheat flour has been the greater part of Red Cross relief flown into stricken areas by government helicopters, and it continues to be a major need, along with blankets, mattresses, clothes and emergency health care. So far, the Albanian Red Cross has provided 83 per cent of all relief distributed in the country - some 155 tonnes delivered to 10,000 people, mostly by air but also by Red Cross truck until, one by one, snow blocked the fleet in.

The Red Cross response has been vital but its permanent relief stocks - enough to meet the needs of 8,000 people at any time - have now been exhausted, and there is urgent need to replenish them. "Who knows what lies ahead," appealed Ilmi Cena today, "and this population, vulnerable even before the crisis, will need our assistance for months to come."

The Polish and Romanian Red Cross share concern for the near future. Both anticipate flooding as the snow melts, and the Poles fear landslides in the mountains. The Bulgarian Red Cross is also prepared for possible flooding.

Said Sune Follin, acting head of the International Federation's Central Europe Delegation, "Romania, Poland and Hungary are now "flood-watch" countries for us. We need to remember what happened last year when we had rapid snow melt and heavy rain in the Carpathians. The Tisza river and its tributaries rose to record levels and north-east Hungary, north-west Romania and Ukraine suffered very serious flooding. The snow then was nothing compared to what we have today."