HARSH LESSONS LEARNED?

by Curstaidh Hoppe; photography by Mihail Dragiev

Flood disaster in the village of Biser raises many uncomfortable questions

village biser flood 3.jpg

Before 2012 the village of Biser was known only vaguely to Bulgarians as the setting for the romantic poem "The Spring of the White-Legged Girl" by the Revival Period poet Petko Slaveykov. But in February 2012 harrowing images of the bucolic community were not only reaching the rest of Bulgaria but also the wider world. In a brutal winter, that will be remembered across Europe for years to come, Biser for a short time seized and surpassed all other headlines.

Unseasonably heavy rains and rapid snowmelt forced the Ivanovo Dam to breaking point. Breaching its already damaged wall, a threemetre wave surged down the dry riverbed, flooded the village, killing 10 people and severely damaging 147 houses.

Zlatka Angelova, the mayor, received a call around 7 am to say that the dam wall had collapsed. "I ran to the bridge to try and warn people and start an evacuation, but the water had already risen over the banks and was pouring into the streets," she says. Fatigued and working around the clock, she has been the liaison between the Village Committee coordinating the relief eff ort and the villagers. "When I saw the wave, I realised there was nothing I could do and ran into a nearby shop." Helpless and stranded, she watched horrifi ed as animals, vehicles and household debris swept past.

Since the tragedy, mystery and confusion surround the Ivanovo reservoir. It was built in the 1960s, but even in 2012 the government seems unable, or more likely unwilling, to say just exactly by who. Its architects and its supposed purpose remain veiled in secrecy. Bizarre theories explain its existence – from flooding Turkey and Greece in case of war with Communist Bulgaria to the possibly of a secret military submarine training facility. Responsibility for the poorly built and maintained wall is also unclear. There are rumours of illegal fi sh farming being instrumental in its collapse: farmers who refused to report dangerously high water levels for fear of detection or loosing fi sh stock through emergency water release. Whatever its functions, we are unlikely to know for some time, as documents will remain confi dential until the investigation is over.

These machinations offer cold comfort to the community more than six kilometres downstream, who, as Mayor Angelova says, "never benefi ted from the dam’s water either for domestic or agriculture use."

Boyan, an 88-year-old Biser resident, remembers the concerns the villagers had in the 1960s. A builder by trade, he is long since retired, but like most rural Bulgarians works his land and keeps animals to supplement his small pension. "My house has gone," he says, "my animals and farm machinery too, what am I to do?" He is currently staying with his son in Harmanli, a town near Biser, but returns daily to the village to sift through the ruins of his home and collect his allocated donations.

The Bulgarian Red Cross, the media, the Orthodox Church and numerous private companies have supplied donations, ensuring in the immediate aft ermath of the disaster villagers received food, clothing, household goods and fiиewood. Coordination has been via the Village Committee, a 28-strong group managing the continued infrastructure repair, water and sanitation, property assessment, medical care, veterinary care, firewood procurement and security.

Despite the efforts, a week after the tragedy the village still emanated a strong sense of disbelief. Pavements lined with broken furniture and sprawling masonry. Tumbled vehicles lying where the water deposited them. Tractors, their trailers filled with dead livestock. Emergency crews everywhere, welding metalwork, repairing broken electricity lines and setting up generators. The villagers however, appeared still stunned as they picked through what remained of their homes.

Flood of BIser Village

Helping them was six-year-old Izak. Hardworking and friendly, he showed no outward signs of the shock he experienced only days before. "As the water rose," his father Mitko said, "Izak vanished. We searched and we called then we wept, because he was nowhere to be seen." After three long hours as the family were about to give up hope, the boy was found hiding and terrified in a village house further up the hill.

Biser, a large village by regional standards, has 820 residents during winter, a school and numerous cafés and shops. It lies across the valley, straddling the Biserska riverbed then rising above the basin fl oor on the hills either side. It was these dwellings along the base of the valley, approximately 350 metres wide, which sustained the damage. Those on the hillsides were untouched.

Kalinka’s home and small café are situated directly where the water passed at its most turbulent. "It’s taken me 12 years to make my business," she says as her gaze hovers over the mud coated furniture and three generations worth of debris lying in the street.

When the flood hit, Kalinka and her grandmother were in the café. As the water surged down the streets it entered and filled her small coffee shop. "The water was almost two metres high," she says as she points above her head to the black water mark that runs the entirety of the room. "Furniture was smashed and thrown against the walls then bobbed against the ceiling. I knew I had to find my baba, or grandmother, and get her out, so I felt around in the water till I found her." Managing to haul the old lady to safety, she discovered only later that her grandfather had not been so lucky. He was asleep in the house when the water surged through it, the low ceilings and heavy furniture had blocked any escape attempt he might had made.

"It’s not only my livelihood that’s lost but my family’s and my employee’s family," Kalinka says, as she fights back the tears. "What can I do with no insurance or money to rebuild? How will we all survive this?" Kalinka is not alone. Nearly all residents of the village were uninsured. The proposed donor funding from the EU and the Bulgarian government is their only chance to rebuild homes and businesses. But few know if or when this will arrive.

Flood of BIser Village

The Post-Communism governments' policy was to allocate dams to institutions based on their purpose. For example, dams producing electricity are under the cloak of the Ministry of Energy. Domestic water reservoirs are the responsibility of companies, which in their turn are owned by local municipalities, the government, or the Ministry of Regional Development. The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for irrigation reservoirs, the fish farms are municipal business and some are under the hat of the Defence Ministry.

If reservoirs are multi-purposed, more than one institution can be responsible for them. This appears to be the case with Ivanovo. Since the disaster, documents have surfaced showing that Harmanli Municipality owns one third of the facility, while the other two thirds, including the dam wall, are state public property. However, this is yet to be proven and will only become clear during the investigation. Some in the city council claim that as the dam is located on the Koren military ground it is therefore the property of the Defence Ministry.

It was against this backdrop of ownership confusion that cracks in the Ivanovo dam wall had been consistently reported for over six years, and yet ignored.

After the tragedy the government was quick to react. With a further 3,000 or so small dams in Bulgaria, the condition of many unknown, the government assigned full control to the Ministry of Economy, Energy and Tourism. It also vowed to create a centralised regulatory body to resolve the situation. The first phase of this has been a rapid inspection of Bulgarian dams. So far 11 facilities have been identifi ed with serious problems. These are located in fi ve districts – Kardzhali, Smolyan, Montana, Pazardzhik and Sliven.

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