Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
Back in what remains of Tbilisi zoo, Begi – who by now may be the world’s most famous hippopotamus, lies down in the elephants’ pen watered and fed by Goga, his exhausted carer. Images of the 16-year-old mammal went viral on social media as he wandered around one of Tbilisi’s main squares following floods that hit Georgia’s capital and washed away his pen.
As Begi attracted global attention, closer to home the flash flood highlighted the poor state of Georgia’s crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure and its disaster prevention mechanisms clearly do not match the country’s stellar track record in undertaking liberal reforms to its economy.
On June 13, heavy rains transformed Vere, an unremarkable city creek, into a raging river that swept away houses, roads and cars, and flooded the lower section of the zoo. 15 people died, nine are still missing and 60 families are homeless, hosted in temporary shelters across town. On June 15, Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri said that the damage will be “much higher” than the initial estimate of GEL40mn (€15.9mn).
The flood affected a vital road – built under the previous government led by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili – and a key square: their closure are causing major gridlocks in the already congested traffic of the capital.
The flooding is among the worst the capital has seen – Tbilisians have to go back to the 1960s to recall a similar disaster. But for the Vere river, it is not the first time: according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the stream has burst its banks repeatedly, in 1960, 1963, 1972, 1995 and 2012.
As the sun shines again over Tbilisi the clean-up has started, as well as the inevitable finger pointing. Environmentalists and urbanists say that calls for in-depth environmental assessment ahead of the construction of the highway went unheeded in 2009 and the river was sealed in a “sarcophagus”.
However, while the road increased the impact of the flood, it was not the main problem. “This was absolutely predictable, but is the result of high rain precipitation, human impact and poor infrastructures dating back to Soviet times,” explains Nana Janisha, director of the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN). “Georgia lacks a mechanism of risk assessment, disaster prevention and early warning system, and the failure to set up a system is to be blamed on various governments.”
In 2000, the capital was taken out of the control of the Ministry of Environment’s agency in charge of monitoring and preventing natural disasters, the plan being to develop an ad-hoc department covering the capital. “It has never been done,” says Janishia. “For the last 15 years the capital has developed without any prevention mechanism. Now houses built along the river have been washed away and pits have opened in large roads, signalling that there are urgent geological issues to be addressed.”
Georgia is highly prone to natural disasters, as a UN Development Programme document spells out. Government data indicates that 70% of the country has experienced problems over the last 40 years, killing over 1,000 people and costing the country over $14bn. In the period 2000-2014, Georgia was much more affected than its neighbours in the South Caucasus – and climate change predictions suggest the problem will only get worse. For Janishia, the flood is “a wake-up call and I fear it will not be the last.”
Animals in danger
In 2012 the zoo was partially flooded and a proposal to move it from the location where it was built in 1927 was considered by the then-government for a while. But the zoo’s fate ended up depending on the ups and downs of Georgia’s economy. “There is a project to move near Tbilisi Sea, on the outskirts of the city,” zoo spokesperson Mzia Sharvashidze explained to bne IntelliNews. “The area has been identified, there is already a project, but there is no budget to cover the cost which is set at $500mn.”
Parts of the capital turned into an urban jungle as bears, lions, tigers and wolves roamed around town for hours – a man encountered a hyena on his balcony, a leopard climbed up a tree in a leafy square, and a bear was found clutching on to an air-conditioning unit half-way up one building. The hippo was cornered in a mud-filled square, sedated by a tranquiliser gun and ushered back to what remains of the zoo. Most of the carnivores drowned, others fled and were later found by law enforcement officers. But zoo staff and activists voiced criticism at police officers who were spotted taking selfies near dead animals and were said to be acting like they were “on safari”.
Three zoo workers who lived in the zoo area also lost their lives. Among them is Guliko Chitadze, the 56-year-old zookeeper who had just returned to work after losing one arm following an attack by one of the tigers last month. Her husband, Makho, and a third worker, Givi Dvali, died with her. “It is such a tragedy,” said an overwhelmed Ghiorghi Darchelashvili, the zoo’s lead animal curator. “Our colleagues could not escape and drowned alongside the animals they have been looking after,” he added with teary eyes.
For the zoo, which is a candidate to join the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the first priority is clearing up. “We’ve been working round the clock to locate missing animalsand look after them,” explained Darchelashvili. Animals like the six surviving penguins, out of 17, need special attention to prevent overheating.
School of tomorrow
On the other side of the highway that skirts the zoo, a one-storey building sits in what remains of Mziuri Park. Affixed to its wall is a sign that says, “School of Tomorrow”. Butsurrounded by a sea of mud and debris, with a blue van sticking out of the wreckage, not much remains of the 250 pupil-strong institute. “Water covered the building, the guard survived as he managed to reach the roof,” said Nutsa Koreli, the English teacher who serves as deputy director.
Teachers and students have been working tirelessly to save registers, books, and furniture, but none of the 1,600 books in the library survived. “We’ve been building that library book by book since we opened in 1992, now everything is gone, gone,” she repeated, gazing at the pile of students files covered in mud.
As helicopters hovered over Tbilisi to assess the scope of the damage, Georgia observed a day of national mourning on June 15 to remember the victims. The PM spoke of an “unprecedented solidarity” from volunteers and foreign countries and relief efforts gathered hundreds of volunteers to dig and clean up mud and rubble. “I personally vow that not a single family will be left without attention,” stated the PM.
Georgia’s biggest banks have opened accounts for private donations and relief groups set up online contributions while crowd-funding is hitting the web. Begi has become a symbol – the Tbilisi Hippo Fund is selling purposely-designed T-shirts and cotton bags and proceeds will be given to displaced families and the zoo management.
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