Home Natural Hazard Management Mapping geohazards in the Balkans

Mapping geohazards in the Balkans

The Balkan Peninsula has the most complicated tectonics in Europe. Seismic activity has produced a succession of devastating earthquakes in the region, flattening entire villages and costing many lives.

A grant from the US Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), a small team of specialists from Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Romania has created a new map illustrating geohazards in their countries. The project represents the first ever attempt to produce a homogenous, composite geohazard map for the Balkans.

Until now, such work has been carried out separately by various organisations and agencies, often using different methodologies. But earthquakes and other risks do not respect national boundaries. Problems such as overcrowding, hasty and poor construction and inadequate preparation are found in many countries. Experts agree that a cross-regional approach is long overdue. The new project promises to pave the way for future co-operative efforts.

The first historical documentation regarding earthquakes in the Balkans dates to the 6th century BC. Many cities and towns have been badly damaged, or in some cases completely destroyed, by quakes over the years. On average, a 6.3 quake occurs every year in the region. During the last century alone, more than 80 disastrous quakes were recorded.

What causes such geological restlessness? The Balkans are affected both by the large lithospheric plates of Eurasia and Africa, as well as smaller units such as the Arabian plate and the Adriatic microplate. In addition, numerous active tectonic located inland contribute to stress accumulation, which from time to time produces major seismic activity.

As powerful as they may often be, earthquakes are not the only threat. Landslides are also common. Other phenomena include liquefaction processes, rockfalls, erosion, land subsidence and expanding soils. These can also pose risks to the environment, human life and the economy.

The map authors attend a workshop in Ohrid: (Back row from left): Mircea Radulian (Romania), Albert Avxhi (Albania), Bogdan Grecu (Romania); (Front row from left): Shyqyri Aliaj (Albania), Neculae Mandrescu (Romania), Marjorie Senechal (CRDF, USA), Zoran Milutinovic (Macedonia), Betim Muco (principal author and coordinator, USA), Defrim Shkupi (Albania), Zenun Elezaj (Kosovo). [Photo by courtesy of Stan Shirer]

While geohazards have long impacted life in the Balkans, recent socioeconomic and political changes make an adequate response even more urgent. Following the overthrow of communism, most countries in the region embarked on a hasty transition from totalitarianism to democracy. The abrupt development of a free market economy has given rise to uncontrolled movements of people, hasty construction of housing and facilities, and disproportionate concentrations of people in and around big cities.

Combined with the region’s tectonics, these trends point to future catastrophes in the making. It has become increasingly important to understand, study and map geohazard elements in order to be aware of the damage they could cause.

The new mapping project is innovative in a number of ways. To begin with, it was made possible through the internet, which enabled teams from different countries to communicate via the web. The teams also conducted a workshop in Ohrid, Macedonia at the end of March 2007, and held a meeting in Tirana at the end of August the same year.

The mapping also took advantage of GIS technology to achieve both greater breadth and precision. The result is a state-of-the-art tool which integrates many different data sets in order to give a broad overview of how a geological hazard may impact a community, area, or country. Cartography and map compilation were carried out by the Albanian Geological Survey, based in Tirana.

The project’s most novel contribution, however, may be its attempt to look at the problem regionally. In the past, organisations in the participating countries have pursued different methods and techniques for collecting, depicting, analyzing and assessing information on geohazards. Even within the same country, one can encounter surprisingly non-unified techniques and methodologies applied to the same phenomena.

The achievements of the project will not end there. The authors plan to disseminate their work through different conference activities and make the results available to decision makers and policy planners in the Balkans, by making the map known to the respective geological and environmental authorities.

The information could help the authorities make more effective use of scarce funds. While preventive efforts have been hampered by the administrative problems and resource shortages characteristic of transition nations, Southeast Europe countries hope the situation will improve — particularly in the context of EU enlargement. Three countries — Bulgaria, Greece and Romania — are already members of the Union. The others are at various stages of accession, ranging from formal candidacy to negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. A variety of pre-admission and member country programmes exist, offering joint and cross-border projects for improving road infrastructure and facilities.