April 18, 2006

Danube threatens Romanian villages

By Bogdan Cristel

BISTRET, Romania (Reuters) - Ten thousand Romanians faced evacuation on Tuesday as rescue workers raced to fix a broken dam on the Danube before the swelling river could flood their low-lying villages.

The Danube continued to rise in southeast Europe after reaching its highest level in more than a century over the weekend, fed by heavy rains and melting snow.

Thousands of hectares of farmland, as well as several ports and villages across the Balkans were already under water and torrential rains were expected to start in Romania late on Tuesday.

Romanian authorities said the situation was critical in the southern village of Bistret where villagers helped the army to carry sandbags in their horse-drawn carts to fix a breach in a nearby dam.

"I remember how hard I worked to build this dam in the 1960s, and I thought this dam was never going to break," 80-year-old Dumitru Bratan said. "I am so glad that the army is helping us. I hope everything will be fine."

Rescue teams prepared to move 10,000 people from nine villages in the area, including Bistret, to hospitals and schools in higher-lying settlements if the dam-fixing failed.

The Danube receded slightly where it leaves Serbia to enter Romania, but water levels were on the rise further east as the flood wave traveled to Tulcea and Constanta counties where people hurried to reinforce dykes.

"Another rain shower and the whole town will be flooded and there's little we can do to stop it, because water will come from the sewers," Cernavoda deputy mayor Gheorghe Hemes told Antena 3 TV station.

TV footage also showed that most of Galati port in the southeast of the country was underwater with some 1,500 workers and volunteers trying to build a 7 km (4 mile) barrier to protect residential areas.

More than 1,000 people were evacuated in Romania overnight, mostly in southern Dolj county, taking the total up to more than 4,700. Around 600 houses were flooded and 170 destroyed.

More than 31,000 hectares (76,600 acres) in southern Romania, a fertile region for wheat and maize farming, are underwater and officials said they would continue to submerge farmland to help protect populated areas in the east.

Much of the Balkans is still reeling from floods last year in which scores of people were drowned and houses, farmland and infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of euros (U.S. dollars) were destroyed.


In Serbia, flood waters reached the top of defense barriers on the Tisa river in the northern province of Vojvodina around the town of Titel, which is expecting a new water wave from Hungary later this week.

"The question is whether the barrier will endure, it has never been tested with this much water," said Branislav Radanovic, head of the Vojvodina Water company.

A second defense line was built but some 6,000 hectares of arable land would be inundated if the barrier breaks, he said.

In Bulgaria, the Danube's level rose slightly, and workers filled in gaps in dykes and reinforced places where water leaked through the soaked barriers.

Patients and personnel were evacuated from a hospital in the town of Nikopol, northern Bulgaria, and authorities said swarms of mosquitoes threatened to spread disease.

Upstream in the village of Dolni Tsibar, the river hit a 25 year high of 9.63 meters (nearly 32 feet), flooding 140 houses.

Officials were preparing to evacuate a prison on the island of Belene, while in the port of Vidin, 2,000 volunteers filled sandbags and reinforced embankments to withstand waters which were expected to remain high for at least a week.

(Additional reporting by Marius Zaharia, Beti Bilandzic and Kremena Miteva)