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The Economist : Ark Wanted

Well known newspaper Economist responds to Tbilisi Flood.

After a flood and a plague of escaped animals, some blame God’s wrath. Others blame poor disaster-mitigation infrastructure.

Begi, a 16-year-old hippo, briefly became the most internationally famous resident of Tbilisi. After a flash flood had inundated the city’s Mziuri Park and most of its zoo late on June 13th, the dazed behemoth found herself wandering around the Georgian capital’s Heroes’ Square. Enterprising Georgians set up a Tbilisi Hippo Fund to raise money to rehouse her. But Begi, who was eventually subdued by a zookeeper’s tranquiliser dart, was among the lucky ones. The death toll in the floods has reached 15 people and hundreds of animals; seven people are still missing, while 60 families have lost their homes. A dog shelter and a school were also hit. The government is still assessing the cost of the damage.

Tbilisi is no stranger to flooding. A few weeks ago, a smaller section of Mziuri Park was submerged following heavy rains. Five people died after flooding in the city’s Ortachala district in 2012. But the flooding last weekend was the worst since the 1960s. Over a dozen lions, tigers and wolves also escaped from the zoo, and heavily armed Georgian special forces took to the streets to hunt them down. Dismayed and exhausted zoo workers lamented the troops’ readiness to shoot rather than capture the escaped animals—and to pose with the carcasses, as if on safari.

While hundreds of volunteers joined clean-up efforts, some public figures began pointing fingers. The Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country’s most trusted public figure, blamed the floods on divine wrath for the communist-era destruction of churches. (The zoo’s construction in 1927, he claimed, had been paid for by melting down church bells.) “This zoo should be shut down and a new zoo should be established elsewhere, as it has been created by sin,” he said.

 Irakli Garibashvili, the prime minister, announced a more secular investigation into the causes of the flooding. Attention is likely to focus on the environmental impact of the highway that runs between the zoo and Mziuri Park, which was built towards the end of the term of the previous government, led by the United National Movement of Mikheil Saakashvili. That makes it a politically convenient target.
Two zebras escaped from a flooded zoo stand on a hill inside the zoo in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. The discovery of the last of the missing lions and tigers on Tuesday as the waters receded eased fears in the capital of Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic, that some of the big cats were still wandering the hills of the city. (AP Photo / Pavel Golovkin)

But environmentalists say the deeper problem is Georgia’s weak disaster-prevention mechanisms. Although the country is rightly celebrated for its liberal reforms over the past decade, much of its Soviet-era water management infrastructure is antiquated. In recent decades the steep hillsides above the Vere river have been deforested, leading to mudslides during heavy rains that bring trees, stones and debris cascading down towards Tbilisi. During the weekend’s storms, the debris blocked the entrances to two Soviet-era tunnels, causing the water to overflow. Tbilisi lacks an early-warning system to alert residents to the potential for floods.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, storms and other environmental hazards over the past 40 years have cost the country over $14 billion in damages. Because of poor preparedness, severe winds and hailstorms in eastern Georgia in 2012 resulted in what the UNDP called a “disproportionate socio-economic disaster”, affecting 75,000 people and costing $123m in damaged crops, houses and infrastructure. With climate change predictions suggesting the problem is likely to get worse, the flooding should serve as a wake-up call.