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Taking a proactive approach to climate extremes in Serbia

Darko Milutin's picture
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A severe and prolonged heat wave stifled much of Central Europe this summer, buckling train tracks in Serbia and forcing at least 10 countries to issue red alerts for health concerns and water conservation. Once a rare nuisance, extreme weather events like this are becoming more commonplace throughout the region – and more dangerous.

Climate extremes – a new normal?

The extreme weather system – earning the name ‘Lucifer’ for its blistering temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius – prompted a special investigation by leading international climate scientists. The experts found a clear link between the high temperatures and the effects of climate change, while another study warned that 350 million Europeans per year could be vulnerable to similar extremes by the end of the century, especially in southern areas like the Balkans.

Unfortunately, headlines like these are hardly news for development partners working in the region. A recent World Bank report found that summer temperatures in the Balkans could average 7.5°C higher than in pre-industrial times, with water shortages and extreme weather events becoming far more frequent and severe.

This growing climate risk is already threatening Serbia’s recent socioeconomic progress. In 2014, the country suffered its worst flooding in over a century, which pushed more than 125,000 people into poverty and caused upwards of €1.7 billion in damages.
 
A thermal map of the historic 2014 floods in Serbia. Photo credit: NASA
Moving from response to resilience

These challenges have prompted the government of Serbia to take a proactive approach to building resilience to climate and disaster risks over the last few years. Five initiatives stand out from these collective efforts:
  1. Institutionalizing disaster risk management (DRM) – Several countries in the Balkans are frequently exposed to hazards and do not necessarily benefit from critical DRM capacity, resulting in under-preparedness and slow recovery from disasters. 

    In late 2014, Serbia became the first country in the Balkans to move towards a comprehensive DRM framework, establishing the National Disaster Risk Management Program (NDRMP) and raising more than $70 million to build capacity for the country’s disaster risk reduction and crisis management systems. 
     
  2. Assessing risk and recovery needs – to accurately gauge the impacts from major flooding in 2014, the government sought support from the World Bank, the European Union (EU), and the United Nations to perform a detailed recovery needs assessment to streamline recovery and reconstruction processes. This effort helped inform a generalized risk profile for the country to guide decision makers in priority zones. 
     
  3. Securing financial protection – building on this momentum, Serbia secured a $66.1 million loan to ensure accessible recovery funds in the wake of a major disaster. The loan’s Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option (Cat DDO), the first of its kind in the Europe and Central Asia region, gives the government the flexibility to invest in strategic, long-term resilience planning and is informed by a comprehensive financial protection strategy.
     
  4. Building a comprehensive strategy for resilience – policy makers realized that in order to make DRM sustainable, long-term and multi-sectoral investments that have well-defined targets are vital. In 2017, the government launched its National Disaster Risk Management Action Plan (NDRMP), outlining a robust, four-year plan to scale-up and mainstream resilience building activities, avoid and reduce risk, and respond more efficiently to disasters - aligning specific goals with the newly-established NDRMP.
     
  5. Leveraging technology – alongside building capacity for leveraging resources and knowledge within Serbia, the government also partnered with the European Union (EU) to take advantage of cutting edge LiDAR technology in the development of detailed Digital Terrain Models of areas that are significantly flood-prone. Supported by the World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), this effort will be the basis for the production of flood-risk maps that can be integrated into national information systems, and will align with the EU Flood Directives for pre-accession requirements.

    Together with the strengthening of the national hydrometeorological monitoring network, these terrain models will help the country better plan for climate impacts and improve its forecasting capacities.This multipronged approach to disaster risk management can help Serbia mitigate risk in ways that no single program could achieve. From ensuring effective recovery from disasters to building the resilience to withstand future shocks, Serbia now benefits from one of the most comprehensive disaster risk management strategies undertaken by a government to date.
Importantly, Serbia has worked closely with a number of partners to help build capacity and bring these efforts to scale, including the EU, the GFDRR, the Switzerland State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the United Nations, and the World Bank.

Partnerships like these will be crucial in addressing the growing nexus of risk brought about by rapidly growing cities and a changing climate.

For Serbia, and the rest of the Balkans, now is the time to better prepare for the shocks of climate extremes. Many lives – as well as the prospect of a better future – depend on it.