Voices: Turning the tide in flood-hit Serbia

“We have seen floods before in Serbia, but never anything on this scale. Within hours, the water had risen to roof level. Schools, homes and businesses were devastated, affecting thousands of people. Our response had to be efficient, effective and, above all, fast.” - Olivera Kostic, Sector Manager for Competitiveness ‘European PROGRES’/Acting Project Manager for EU-funded Flood Relief Project, UNOPS Serbia

​One third of Serbia was affected by flooding in May 2014. In some municipalities, the water didn’t recede for more than a month. In other areas, there were landslides, with houses turned completely upside down. One month later, many people were still living with no electricity or water, with over 600 housed in temporary shelters.

I’ve been working with UNOPS for 18 months and was seconded from my role as sector manager for competitiveness in the European Partnership with Municipalities programme, EU PROGRES to work as an acting project manager in the floods response. I am Serbian and have spent my entire career working here, but the shift from technical assistance to emergency response was quite a challenge—when you work with long-term development programmes there is no burden of needing to make things happen tomorrow. We also had to make sure we were prioritizing the most vulnerable with very limited resources. As one of the main implementing partners in the Serbian Government-EU partnership, we are focusing on a large number of construction sites: we have one year to rehabilitate up to 30 schools and hospitals, rebuild roads, construct at least 70 private houses and reconstruct an additional 300. This is a very tight timeframe considering the scale of the work.

 The school year in Serbia starts on 1 September, and there was a lot of pressure to make sure that the school buildings would be ready for local students. When we began, the windows of the school looked like aquariums; there was even water between the panes of glass. But what was incredible was the way everyone pulled together, both public and private sectors, to support recovery efforts. Teachers helped to salvage recyclable furniture and clear the mess on lower floors while the upper floors were being reconstructed. We managed to get the children back to school on time, using the classrooms on upper floors, while we worked on the lower floors.

Managing the expectations of donors and beneficiaries was challenging, as we were often faced with difficult choices: for example, in Obrenovac municipality, one of the worst-affected areas, over 5,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. We had the funds to address the needs of a far-smaller number of families with very stringent deadlines. Fortunately, we have experienced and capable staff and our donor—the European Union—is very flexible and supportive, which allowed us to share resources between the European PROGRES programme and the floods response project. This saved a lot of time, allowing us to procure vital equipment and sign contracts with local suppliers quickly.

We needed to overcome some unexpected obstacles, beyond the obvious ones: large quantities of mud and water had destroyed the paper records of local governments and utility companies, which complicated basic administration. The difficulties in meeting these challenges were certainly eased by the fact that we had developed an excellent working relationship with our partners.

A government office was created in response to the floods, and UNOPS is helping to develop local capacity by advising on public communication and outreach, and improving the functionality of their office and human resources. Though this office is temporary, in the event of future natural disasters, the Serbian Government will be better equipped to respond and, perhaps, won’t need UNOPS support. The ideal situation is that we eventually work ourselves out of a job.

One of the reasons I joined UNOPS is because I like the idea that we bring tangible change—we’re not just rebuilding houses, we’re reconstructing homes. UNOPS was chosen as a partner for this project thanks to our previous successes in the region, and our three key areas of expertise—project management, infrastructure, and procurement—were all vital components to the success of this project.