April 21, 2006

Romania breaks Danube dike to save villages

By Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania breached a major dike to
divert floodwater threatening villages in the Danube delta,
while Hungary evacuated thousands of people as swollen rivers
spread more havoc across eastern Europe on Friday.

Almost 8,000 people have fled their homes in the Balkans.
Further north in Hungary, authorities evacuated 4,500 more from
three towns near the confluence of the Tisza and Koros rivers.

Authorities in Romania, the worst-hit country, tore a
40-meter (124-ft) gap in a dike on its coast to let Danube
waters -- swollen by heavy rains and melting snow -- flow into
the Black Sea and ease pressure on hundreds living nearby.

"Within hours, the level of water surrounding the villages
of Crisan, Caraorman, Sfantu Gheorghe and the town of Sulina
should fall by around 20 centimetres," Beatrice Popescu of the
Environment Ministry told Reuters.

The dike was built to retain water in the ecologically
sensitive delta during periods of drought.

Another 4,000 people from Rast, a poor village in
southwestern Romania, spent their fourth night in schools,
hospitals, tents or with relatives in higher-lying areas.

The army and volunteers tried to ease hardship with hot
meals and preparations for mass and improvised celebrations
ahead of Sunday's Orthodox Easter, said Mihaela Mocanu, a
spokeswoman in Dolj county.

"They now have more food than they had at home ... and
people are bringing them sweets and clothes," she said.

Environment Minister Sulfina Barbu said a new wave of water
was expected by the weekend to push the river to a century-high
flow of 15,600 cubic metres (550,900 cu ft) per second and
officials warned the Danube could flood several more villages.

"We are at war," said Waters Department official Madalin
Mihailovici near the flooded town of Bistret.


Waters from the Danube, Europe's second-longest river, have
flooded over 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of land in
Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. In Hungary, another 138,000 are
submerged by floodwater in various rivers.

Romania has tried to avert disaster by deliberately
submerging vast swathes of land along the river, which meanders
from Germany through central Europe to empty into the Black

But tens of thousands of people still face calamity as
rains push the water higher and waterlogged barriers threaten
to buckle under the pressure.

In Bulgaria, the mayor of Vidin said 2,000 of the Danube
city's 50,000 inhabitants had fled their homes and workers used
horse carts and heavy machinery to shore up leaky dikes in at
least four other cities and towns.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany interrupted his
last day of campaigning before a second round of general
elections on Sunday to rush to the scene of flooding, where 500
troops battled to hold back the floods.

Near the Koros, where cracks had appeared in a dam,
authorities also asked around 1,200 men to remain behind to
help out but said the mass evacuations were just a precaution.

"We are not talking about a catastrophe," said Tibor
Dobson, spokesman at National Disaster Management Authority.

"The water has not flooded the villages."