Rivers have long been a source of life for communities—essential for commerce, energy, and transportation. But they are also a source of destruction. Our rapidly changing climate is making storms more ferocious and flooding more extensive, threatening lives, displacing families, and destroying homes, farms, and businesses.

Ermin Lipović witnessed this firsthand in May 2014, when the Sava River swelled beyond its bank, triggering flooding of proportions not seen in a century. The Sava flows from Slovenia through Croatia, along Bosnia and Herzegovina, and into the Danube in Serbia. The damage in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone reached 2.8 billion euros, roughly 15% of the country's GDP.

As a dedicated member of the Mountain Rescue Service in Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ermin believes his experience offers lessons on the dangers of climate change, managing the river, and responding to transboundary emergencies that arise. "Rescue services operate without regard for national borders," he says. "Our duty is to save lives."

Cross-border flood management

In Europe, climate-related risks in the Sava-Drina River Basins are making the need for transboundary cooperation more urgent, with peak floods projected to rise by 8% and droughts across the Western Balkans predicted to grow more prolonged and intense.

Before the tragic Sava flood in 2014, in 2010, the Drina River Basin saw its highest water levels in 100 years, flooding extensively, partly as a result of water spilling over from reservoirs built to generate hydroelectricity.

Years of World Bank engagement in policy advice, technical assistance, and investments have culminated in the Sava and Drina Rivers Corridors Integrated Development Program (SDIP), which combines the modernization of river ports; clean, green, climate change mitigation measures with plans for upgrading the navigability of the Sava waterway.

Gradually, action

The disastrous impact of the 2014 floods did in fact prompt collaborative action. Recovery projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia led to a consensus that a more ambitious approach in regional cooperation was needed, both in flood management and in new investments to prevent this sort of disaster from happening again.


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Photo: A resident gathering belongings from flooded house, Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina.  (Credit: Dan Ava, World Bank)

Using real-time data from several Western Balkan countries to inform decision-making in emergencies, the Improvement of Joint Actions in Flood Management project played a vital role in creating an advanced flood forecasting and warning system for communities living in the Sava River basin, using real-time telemetry data from several countries in the Western Balkans to inform decision-making in emergency situations.

"2014 was a wakeup call for us to improve cooperation on the transboundary level," says Mirza Sarač from Zagreb's International Sava River Basin Commission, which coordinates the activities of its parties to prevent risks or limit their consequences. The Commission gained the support of all countries in the region to establish the flood forecasting and warning system. "Transboundary cooperation is quite a complex issue," Sarač says. "Each country has its own interests and problems. But currently, we have ten organizations from five countries which are users of this system."

The system gives forecasters in each country's hydrometeorology services a valuable tool to generate accurate hydrological projections with telemetry data from hydrological and meteorological gauges. It helps them calculate run-off from river catchments, as well as river flows and water levels, ultimately improving disaster preparedness across the region.


World Water Day 2024: Water for Peace and Cooperation

With the support of the World Bank, countries in the Western Balkans are coordinating to build a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient economy for the millions of people living in the Sava-Drina Basin. As water scarcity and climate challenges intensify, prioritizing cooperative water management becomes increasingly crucial for peacebuilding and socio-economic development.

The World Bank recognizes the importance of water cooperation for peace and conflict resolution and has recently established the Global Facility for Transboundary Water Cooperation (GFTWC). By leveraging expertise, financial resources, and convening power, we will increase our work to facilitate dialogue, promote cooperation, and catalyze investments in shared water resources, ultimately contributing to lasting peace and development.

By 2030, the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition of governments, intergovernmental and regional organizations, international financial institutions, academia, and NGOs, aims to have raised the profile of transboundary water cooperation at all levels.

World Water Day 2024 gives us a chance to support it.

Lead Image: The city of Bihać, is situated on the banks of river Una in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Bosanska Krajina region. (Credit: Dan Ava, World Bank)