Seasonal spring rains may make crops grow and fill reservoirs, but Bulgaria could have done with a little less of a good thing last week. Torrential rains beginning early in the week, and runoff from the melting snow conspired to cause severe flooding throughout northern and southern Bulgaria.
Although no serious injuries were reported, damage to property and infrastructure was widespread. Towns went without basic utilities or were evacuated, houses were flooded, livestock was washed away, and roads, bridges and railways were rendered impassable.
The crisis began in the southern part of the country when three large artificial lakes fed by the bloated Arda River in the region of Kardzhali began overflowing, causing downstream waters to swell to dangerous levels.
The Haskovo, Plovdiv and Smolyan regions near the country's southern border with Greece were also among the worst hit. Nine municipalities declared states of emergency and some were cut off by mudslides and flooded bridges, as the plentiful precipitation precipitated mudslides that swept away infrastructure, farm equipment and livestock.
Northern regions of the country were also affected when the Danube River bordering Romania reportedly rose a full metre in 24 hours. During the disaster, thousands of homes throughout the country were inundated by floodwaters, and more than 100 communities in the affected regions lost power and water services.
The floodwaters have also affected Bulgaria's neighbours to the south, with the northern Greek region of Evros declaring a state of emergency. The Bulgarian-Turkish border at Kapitan Andreevo/Kapikule was also closed after the Maritsa River flooded the highway, stranding numerous vehicles.
In Turkey, after parts of the city of Edirne were flooded, the provincial governor accused Bulgaria of letting dangerous amounts of water through the floodgates of the dams on the Arda River. The Turkish government reportedly urged the Bulgarian authorities to close the dams immediately.
The flooding brought back painful memories for the region, which was devastated last year when river banks and dams were unable to contain a massive deluge of water in April and May and again in July and August.
The catastrophe affected 2m Bulgarians, caused an estimated Lv1bn ($625m) in damage and claimed at least 20 lives. Huge amounts of farmland were submerged by floodwaters and landslides, contributing to a year-on-year drop in agricultural goods output in 2005 of 7.3%. Critical infrastructure was also destroyed, including significant portions of the national railway system, which created havoc in the transportation industry.
Following the 2005 crisis, the government was criticised for not having any plan in place for dealing with such catastrophes. In response, the new Disaster Management Ministry and national crisis headquarters were hastily created to deal specifically with these types of unforeseeable events. Compensation for flood victims of Lv1000 ($625) per family was distributed directly from state reserves.
The regions hit by these much more severe floods in the summer of 2005 are still in the process of recovery, but should get some relief soon, as the European Commission announced on March 10 that it would provide 106m euros for flood compensation. Bulgaria is set to receive 14.8m euros and Romania 71.2m euros.
The money will come from the EU's solidarity fund, which was set up in 2002 to provide financial aid for natural disaster recovery. The money is to be used to compensate the country for money spent on emergency services during the floods. Because Bulgaria, as well as Romania, is an accession country, it is eligible to receive money from the fund, which has dispersed 860m euros to EU and accession countries since its inception.
The extensive damage, casualties and disruption of infrastructure were severe enough to be deemed a "natural disaster" by the commission, and thus eligible for assistance.
According to the Solidarity Fund, the May 2005 floods caused 222.28m euros direct damage for which it will be compensated 9.72m euros. The direct damage incurred by the August floods of the same year amounted to 237.45m euros, for which the fund will distribute another 10.63m euros.
In addition to Solidarity Fund compensation, a PHARE project worth 12m euros has been earmarked for the rebuilding of infrastructure in up to 187 eligible municipalities. The investments will be distributed in three separate categories - restoration of small local and regional transport infrastructures, environment revitalisation, and community service support. Each town is entitled to between 66,667 and 400,000 euros.
While the rebuilding from last year's floods continues, the full extent of the damage incurred over the last week has yet to be determined. Although losses are not expected to be anywhere near the scale of the 2005 catastrophe, the government and especially the Disaster Management Ministry still have plenty of work to do in preparing for the next potential emergency.