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Filed under: Climate change Development Disaster response Environment

Helen Clark and Cihan Sultanoglu

Building back better: Helen Clark and the author surveying the damages in Smederevska Palanka

Last week I accompanied UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark, on a trip to Serbia.

We went to see for ourselves the damage wrought by the floods that struck in May. The most catastrophic natural disaster in the Balkans in over a century, the floods led to over 50 deaths, with thousands displaced and left homeless.

Even now, long after the waters have receded, large numbers of people remain in shelters, unable to return home.

To make matters even worse, much of the infrastructure in the affected areas – roads, hospitals, bridges – has been completely destroyed.

We visited the town of Smederevska Palanka, about an hour and a half from Belgrade, where residents are still reeling from the storm’s impact. Their water and sewage systems were severely damaged, creating serious health risks for the population.

I spoke with city residents, Dragan Antic and Milos Novakovic, about how they have coped without access to water and sanitation. It has not been easy.

Novakovic was with his family when the waters hit. In just ten minutes, their lives were changed forever:

“I was able to save only a few things as everything was happening so quickly. Luckily, my house has two floors, so I was able to protect my wife and children. We had water shortages for a whole week, but luckily the local self-government came to help soon.”

For Antic, being alone compounded the difficulties of the storm:

“It was hard and unbelievable. I live on my own and was in this situation alone; but the municipality helped a lot, both with cleaning and fresh water. However, nothing is left, everything is ruined: my fridge, cooker, all the dishes, the furniture…”

flooded town

The cost of the flood’s damages is estimated to be in the billions (Photo: Djordje Novakovic)

UNDP is committed to helping build back better: We’re fixing ten large water wells, and improving them by installing new pumps which will ensure regular water supply. We’re also cleaning two major sewage pipes, 293 private wells, and 61 septic tanks.

Altogether, we’re restoring water access for 50,000 people in this town – we’re doing similar work in six municipalities in Serbia, benefitting 240,000 people. We are also undertaking similar efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A few reflections on seeing this experience up close

First, the governments of both Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina responded quickly and efficiently to the floods. They deserve a great deal of credit for this: although the damage was severe, it could have been so much worse.

This really illustrates the importance of being prepared, and having an appropriate plan when disaster hits. We cannot predict the future but we can, through forecasting, help ensure that we aren’t caught unawares when it strikes.

We are working to help governments with this kind of preparedness all over the Europe and Central Asia, and despite everything, it is gratifying to see that it works.

Second, community resilience is key.

In Smederevska Palanka, and in similar communities all across the flood-affected areas, local authorities worked hand-in-hand with local residents to minimize damage.

Important as it is to work at the national policy level, it is at the community level that our impact is felt. The two have to be linked.

This means working with local organizations and local authorities to set up early warning systems, systems of communication, evacuation plans, and a plan for getting back to normal.

It also means looking into new ways in which open data and foresight methodologies can be used to help communities prepare themselves for the worst.

food survivor in Serbia

Read how UNDP is working to ensure people like Dragan Antic are better prepared for natural disasters

Finally, UNDP has been working in Smederevska Palanka for years, carrying out a variety of development projects. We’ve forged a relationship predicated upon trust, mutual respect, and the experience of working jointly towards a common goal.

When disaster strikes, our staff respond immediately – we know the situation, who to call, and how best to help. Our on-the-ground presence is one of our greatest assets.

We were here before the floods and during the aftermath – and we’ll be there long after, helping to ensure the men, women, and children of the Balkans are fully prepared to weather the toughest of storms.