Floods, earthquakes, forest fires and long periods of drought have all occurred in 2016 in various Western Balkan countries, including Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia. All Western Balkan countries, in one way or another, are facing the challenge of how to cope with such extreme and sudden events. In most cases, high casualty numbers and severe economic damage reveal that communities in the region are ill prepared to cope with these crises. August flooding in and near Skopje claimed 22 lives -- all from local communities -- while flooding of the Vjosa River in southern Albania in February 2015 caused estimated damage of EUR 20 million. But even beyond the numbers, families and communities suffer a number of other negative consequences.
In addition to the magnitude of the damage, authorities were slow to respond to families, and the return of essential services such as water, electricity, and access to medical care was hampered by poor coordination and limited available resources. Chaotic situations, during which attention is focused more closely on urban areas, brings additional stresses, not only to people, but to public infrastructure such as schools, and to the physical environment. Flooded areas with floating plastic waste or wastewater are common sights long after events have transpired.
Preparedness and the building up of local resilience was the main objective of a regional workshop held in Ohrid, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, on October 11-14, 2016. The event took place within the CRESSIDA project "Building Local Community Resilience for Sustainable Development in International Watersheds". The REC is implementing the project with support from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).
Representatives of 18 communities in the two main river basins in the Western Balkans, the Drini and Drina, met at the workshop to discuss and share experiences, both among themselves and with US EPA experts, on how to address challenges and achieve preparedness for events such as floods, earthquakes and fires. Issues related to waste and wastewater were also discussed.
“In most cases, solutions can be found within the communities and can be addressed with limited resources", said Gordana Kozhuharova, the REC's regional director for the SEE region. "The sharing of experiences between communities will help to advance measures to increase preparedness at the local level. The network of CRESSIDA communities is a good model for channelling wisdom and nurturing regional cooperation.”
In 2016 alone, 14 pilot actions supported by the CRESSIDA programme are being implemented in the region. The main focus is on community mobilisation to address river basin challenges such as waste management, biodiversity, risk reduction, clean-up events, infrastructure support, and education and training for students and authorities. In July, the BioBlitz day in Mojkovac, Montenegro, attracted more than 60 students and biodiversity experts interested in exploring the rich values of the Drina Valley and National Park. In October, the cities of Gjakova, Istog, Kukes and Peshkopia mobilised approximately 200 volunteers to help clean up tributaries of the Drini River -- work that continues through the use of the Marine Debris Track app that is available in the local language.
“The initial dilemmas and difficulties were soon left behind when we got so many energetic students getting around and supporting this initiative”, said Eltjana Shkreli from the NGO GO2, the implementing partner for the pilot action in these communities.
As of July, riverbanks in the Bosnia and Herzegovina communities of Gorazde, Novo Gorazde and Foca are equipped with 150 waste containers. Students from these multiethnic communities experienced memorable visits to each other's schools to participate in joint clean-up efforts. The Ljubovija and Mali Zvornik communities in Serbia received technical support from the US EPA in July 2016 on methodologies to assist in proper stream management -- not only to improve water quality but also to prevent flooding by establishing buffer forestry zones along riverbanks.
New tools, such as the Resilience Index and green infrastructure solutions, were shared and discussed during the regional workshop in Ohrid. Such tools facilitate vision for new opportunities for future work and cooperation.
“I see Ohrid as an ideal place where these new ideas for green infrastructure are becoming a reality", said Georgie Trpeski, CRESSIDA focal point for Ohrid Municipality. "These new ideas will not only help to address challenges, but will make the city more environmentally friendly for local citizens and tourists alike."