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Macedonia: A storm of deadly negligence

Boris GeorgievskiAugust 25, 2016

This year the annual WorldRiskReport published by UN agencies focuses on logistics and infrastructure. Recent floods in Macedonia are a good example of failed disaster prevention and neglected infrastructure.

Flood in Macedonia
Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Atanasovski

Almost three weeks after 22 people were killed in a rainstorm that battered the northern outskirts of Skopje, one question remains unanswered: How could this have happened? The Macedonian capital has been hit by natural disasters during its history, including a huge earthquake in 1963 that almost destroyed the city and killed more than 1,000 people. However, this time the loss of life and widespread damage could and should have been prevented.

"People have died from the lack of an adequate infrastructure," Sanja Radjenovic-Jovanovic, the president of the Association of Architects of Macedonia, told DW.

"The storm was heavy, but there are no supporting walls," Radjenovic- Jovanovic said. "Look how landslides occurred. There is no proper sanitation. The sewers are overwhelmed. This is a disaster."

The disaster has highlighted another controversial aspect of government policy. While rescue and relief efforts were underway for thousands of people affected by the storm and a day of mourning was proclaimed for those killed, a bulldozer was slowly pushing dirt in the center of Skopje on August 8. Over the next few days, it would become the most photographed piece of heavy machinery in Macedonia - and a catalyst for public anger on social media. The work indicated that, despite the tragedy, construction work was continuing on a controversial Ferris wheel - just part of the government's plan to give the city a facelift.

As Macedonia ails, the government is moving forward with constructing the Ferris wheelImage: DW/P. Stojanovski

There was public outrage that the government was going ahead with the wheel, which is costing taxpayers almost 19 million euros ($21.5 million). The wheel is just a small part of the Skopje 2014 project - a controversial revamp of the city involving the construction of dozens of new neoclassical buildings, museums, bridges and monuments - with costs totaling over 640 million euros.

The project has received widespread criticism since getting underway in 2010, but the disastrous floods have brought the issue to the fore again, revealing the dire state of the capital's infrastructure.

"We constantly warned the authorities about this, but apparently no one wants to hear and understand that," Radjenovic-Jovanovic said. "Or maybe it suits them that way."

'One horse statue less'

Skopje, a city of more than 600,000 people, has 1,335 kilometers (800 miles) of roads, but only 260 kilometers of sewers. The situation in the other parts of the country is far worse. Many communities have no paved roads, sewage systems or even electricity.

Floods that hit the town of Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia in August 2015 killed six people. Mayor Teuta Arifi said her administration needed 25 million euros to solve infrastructural problems and protect residents from future natural disasters, but the government has ignored the problem.

"One horse statue less in Skopje would solve our problem," Arifi said during a press conference on August 4, referring to the monuments erected as part of the Skopje 2014 project.

The government, led by the nationalist-conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, seems unmoved by the criticism directed at its projects and the perceived lack of investment in infrastructure. VMRO-DPMNE spokesman Ilija Dimovski insists that the government has invested "many times more than ever before" over the last 10 years since his party took office.

"It would be uncivilized and irresponsible to talk about somebody's responsibility right now," Dimovski said. "We should talk about helping the people in need."

A new catastrophe

Opposition parties and experts have called for construction work to stop on the Ferris wheel, buildings and monuments so that the money can be invested in more practical schemes. Instead of repurposing existing resources for the affected areas, the government has mulled taking out a new loan. Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told DW that the "financial obligations made in the past should be respected."
"We should think about investments in the future," Poposki said. "We should not look back and talk about the money we spent."

The financial consequences of Skopje 2014 have raised eyebrows in a country where the dire economic situation has led to 30 percent unemployment and the average salary is about 350 euros per month. Furthermore, environmental groups and architects are warning that the government's policies might lead to an even bigger, man-made disaster.

Historically, building on the banks of the Vardar river had been considered too dangerousImage: DW/P. Stojanovski

Most of the Skopje 2014 construction work has been done around or even inside the bed of the Vardar river, which flows through the city. It's the country's biggest river, and in the past building on its banks was usually forbidden because of the dangers it could pose for the city.

"Each newly constructed facility in the riverbed of Vardar only reduces the bandwidth of regulation," the architect Miroslav Grchev told DW. "They undermine the most solid guarantee for the security of Skopje and the Skopje basin."

"This destructive construction will bring a new catastrophe one day," Grchev said.