Balkans hit by extreme drought

 

After the harshest winter in decades, the Balkans region in the south east of Europe is now facing its hottest summer and the worst drought across the area in nearly 40 years.

Wildfires are destroying forests, rivers are being reduced to a trickle, crops are wilting on the scorched farmland and electricity supplies are running low.

The record-setting average temperatures - which have been steadily rising for years because of global warming, according to scientists - have ravaged crops, vegetables, fruit, and power production in a region that already is badly hit by the global economic crisis.

This year, farmers all over the Balkans are turning to the heavens for help.

"This is lost," Ljubisav Tomic, a Serbian farmer said, pointing to his corn field, yellow and dried out with cracks in the soil. "Only God can help us, only heaven can save us."

In Bosnia, Ajsa Velagic prays to Allah before offering potatoes at the market in the capital Sarajevo. The 64-year-old said, "There are no large ones, the drought is killing everything."

Adding to the troubles are dozens of wildfires, also fuelled by the extreme heat.

Blazes have destroyed hundreds of acres of forests and bush in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. Some of the fires raging on the border between Serbia and Kosovo are beyond control because of minefields left over from the war over the former Serbian province in 1999.

Potato crops and corn farms are among the worst hit by the drought as irrigation systems in the former Yugoslavia, built under communism, remain clogged and out of date, leaving most of the farmland at nature's mercy.

The drought in the Balkans is being compared to a similar disaster now under way in the United States, with the economies such as Russia likely to profit by exporting food, wheat and other crops to the Balkan states.

Because of the drought's effect on livestock, analysts forecast a sharp increase in the retail price of meat and milk, adding to the hardship of one of Europe's poorest regions.

"This year's damage from drought is 30-80%, in some areas even100 %," Tihomir Jakovina, Croatia's agriculture minister, said during a tour this week of his country's eastern farmlands.

In Serbia, the agriculture ministry said the corn and soya harvest - the country's main export items - will be halved compared to last year, triggering losses of more than one billion US dollars (£629 million).

In Bosnia, the heat has destroyed almost 70% of vegetables and corn, said Sead Jelec, an official at the Association of Agriculture Producers.

"The past six years have been very dry in this region, but this one is definitely the worst, we can say catastrophic," Mr Jelec said. People in the Balkans "should brace for a really bad year".

The region also had a very dry autumn, which emptied the rivers, including the mighty Danube - Europe's biggest waterway. That was good news at first because last winter was extremely snowy and cold in the Balkans, and there were fears of floods once the snow starts melting.

But forestry specialist Dalibor Ballian in Sarajevo said warm southern winds made the snow melt and evaporate quickly. "Therefore, we entered the spring with a deficit of water in the ground," he said. "Now this deficit has hit the record. We will suffer for several years to come."

Again, in less than a year, water levels of the Danube in Serbia and Bulgaria are below those required for safe shipping, officials said.

Bulgarian authorities banned ships with large loads from several stretches of the river. Recently, a cruise ship with 100 tourists hit ground near the Bulgarian town of Svishtov because of the low water level, and the passengers remained stuck in the shallow water until the vessel was towed.

In Romania, exporters of forest fruit - blackberries, blackcurrants and raspberries - in Transylvania have been hit by the dry spell, and small-time farmers have been unable to produce quotas they need to export the fruit to Germany and other Western European countries.

"We used to produce 100 tons. Now it's hard for us to collect 10 tons," said Adrian Parlea, spokesman for the Forestry Department in the Romanian county of Mures, a major region for forest fruit supplies.

The dryness is best seen in small rivers and lakes around the region, with the water levels dropping to only a few inches in some cases.

Hydropower plants in Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia have scaled down production because of the lack of water, and authorities say electricity will have to be imported as the result.

In Macedonia, officials have warned that even the supply of drinking water could be in jeopardy.

"The level of water in the lakes and rivers is very low, and it is possible that we'll be without drinking water," hydrologist Konstantin Ugrinski told local media. "That is why we call on people to use water extremely rationally, only for drinking and washing."

In Serbia, the Palic Lake in the north has been artificially filled with thousands of gallons of water from a river to save its fish and ecological system.

One of Bosnia's main rivers, the Bosna, has turned into a "drainage channel, and entire animal and plant populations have disappeared", said Mr Ballian.

In western Kosovo, the town of Prizren that is a UNESCO heritage site and the home to medieval Serb Orthodox Christian churches and Ottoman mosques, has seen the river Bistrica reduced to a trickle.

Abdyladi Krasniqi said, "In my 73 years, I do not remember the river being so low and the heat being as severe."

Back at the Sarajevo market, Nermina Hasanovic, 52, is selling eggs and a handful of vegetables from the small part of her garden that she has been able to water.

"They are so small and wrinkled. They look like they are already cooked. I'll probably end up feeding them to the cows," she said.

Somehow, as they did during the wars of the 1990s, Bosnians are using dry humour to keep their spirits up.

"We were wondering," Hasanovic said, "if the Americans will be able to grow something on Mars? Meanwhile, we will grow cactus. Can you eat cactus?"

AP

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