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Slovenia under water

For a whole week, large parts of Slovenia, mainly Carinthia (Koroška) and Styria (Štajerska) as well as the Gorenjska region, were (and partly still are) under water. The flood has already been hailed as the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Today’s heroes are the firefighters, paramedics and police officers who have been working non-stop in the past week doing their best to save the lives of those threatened by the raging disaster. 

August 14, 2023 - Nikodem Szczygłowski - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Severe flooding in Slovenia. Photo: Flystock / Shutterstock

Slovenian firefighter Sandi Zajc saved the lives of children while his own home was destroyed by flood. Among those he rescued were 22 children from a kindergarten in Mengeš, just 14 kilometres north of the capital Ljubljana. Zajc and his fellow firefighters carried the children through the raging water from the flooded kindergarten. Later, the firefighter found out that nothing was left of his flat and his family was left homeless. Despite the despair and sadness, there are also positive feelings these days: the family of Sandi Zajc, like many other Slovenians hurt by the floods, is receiving help from governmental agencies, volunteers and non-governmental organisations.

The flood that started here last week quickly covered large parts of Slovenia. First there were some torrential rains, which came after a heatwave and some heavy storms. The mountain rivers in northern parts of the country quickly swelled, above their banks and began to spill into the valleys. Within just a few days, the disaster intensified and more towns and villages were under water, while many impassable roads cut access to some settlements. The government announced the evacuation of people from flooded areas, however hundreds of people were left homeless and many lost their entire life’s possessions.

The inhabitants of Celje, the third largest city in the country and the historical seat of the Cilician region were evacuated. The overflowing of the Sava River also threatened the capital Ljubljana, whose suburbs were also under water.

Elemental blow

The flood took place during the peak holiday season, when thousands of people usually go through Slovenia to reach their summer holiday destinations at the Adriatic Sea or go through the Slovenian mountains and relax in the country’s famous spas. Already at the beginning of last week, the Government of the Republic of Slovenia appealed to all automobile travellers going to or returning from Croatia and Italy to avoid travelling through the territory of Slovenia, due to the flooded roads.

One of the country’s main motorways, the A1 which connects Ljubljana to Maribor, was closed to traffic for a long time. Other roads parallel to this motorway were also impassable. The water from the flooding rivers destroyed road surfaces and bridges and flooded many tunnels. As a result travellers had to take alternative routes, either through Hungary or along the coast towards Trieste and to further on go through northern Italy.

For a whole week, large parts of Slovenia, mainly Carinthia (Koroška) and Styria (Štajerska) as well as the Gorenjska region, were (and partly still are) under water. The flood – already hailed as the worst natural disaster in the country’s history – vividly demonstrated that even in a such a mountainous country such as, the Slovenia floods of this magnitude are possible as a result of climate change.

The irony of this situation is that Slovenia is one of the countries where both the government and society take environmental challenges very seriously. The country’s current government – a coalition formed by the Svoboda (Freedom) movement and led by Prime Minister Robert Golob – which came to power as a result of the 2022 elections – during the election campaign stressed the need for environmental policies and promoted a vision of the country’s economic development based on conservation laws.

Zelena, aktivna, zdrava (green, active, healthy) is the official slogan for the promotion of Slovenian tourism. These are not just empty words, as majority of Slovenians (78 per cent in a 2022 poll) admitted that they truly care about the proper protection and sustainable development of the country’s natural resources.

A water referendum

On July 11th 2021, a referendum was held in Slovenia … about water. More specifically, it was held after the government then led by Janez Janša announced plans to introduce amendments to the Water Act which were highly criticised by environmental activists and experts for their potentially negative impact on the environment. They argued that the new law would allow industrial facilities and private buildings to be built near rivers and lakes, thus creating a risk of drinking water pollution and industrial waste getting into the rivers and lakes.

Following the publication of the amendments to the water law, environmental organisations collected 52,230 signatures demanding a referendum, and mass protests were held across the country demanding the repeal of the amendments.

Indicatively, during the referendum campaign, both sides – the government and the protesters – claimed that they wanted to protect clean water and access to it. Andrej Vizjak, the then minister of environment, emphasised that the law would prohibit the construction of factories and private homes on the coast, which is already enshrined in the existing law. The new law would also improve flood management and prevention. On the other side, environmental groups and parts of civil society, organised in the “Drinking Water Movement”, pointed out several loopholes in the law that would effectively allow precisely such facilities, including restaurants and hotels, to be built on the coasts and banks of rivers and lakes, thus preventing general public from accessing them, increasing the risk of flooding and destroying water resources.

Opponents of the bill included water experts, opposition political parties (including the current ruling Svoboda movement), as well as research organisations, the faculty of civil engineering at the University of Ljubljana and the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

In the referendum, which became popularly known as “For Water”, the turnout was over 46 per cent. The Water Act was rejected with over 86 per cent of voters saying no to the proposed bill. Thus, we can say that water united Slovenians and was the first step towards the fall of the Janša’s government. The high turnout was also seen as a result of the involvement of younger voters, as the Water Act addressed several environmental issues.

A story of a firefighter who saved children

Now water is back in the public debate. However, this time it was caused by a huge tragedy that has once again united Slovenians. That is why, in this small country inhabited by just over two million people, today’s heroes are the firefighters, paramedics and police officers. They all have been working non-stop in the past week doing their best to save the lives of people threatened by the raging disaster. 

“There were a lot of calls, but we had to manage,” admits Sandi Zajc in an interview with the public broadcaster, RTV Slovenia. “People’s lives, of course, come first and we went wherever the situation was out of control, one place after another, to save people. Then came the call that children were trapped in a kindergarten,” he says poignantly. His story shocked everyone in the country: while he and his colleagues were rescuing young children from the flooded kindergarten, his own house was destroyed by the elements and his family became homeless.

Even worse, one of the walls of the house collapsed, under the pressure of water, on top of Zajc’s father-in-law. The old man’s leg was trapped and he barely managed to free himself, diving under the water to pull his leg and then climbing through a window as the water rose further. The contaminated water also caused complications to his wound which required a medical intervention and a surgery.

Amidst all the horror, sadness and destruction all around, Zajc and his family are grateful to all who have helped them and continue to do so. This is especially true for the volunteers who are working in and around Mengeš as well as in other Slovenian towns. “I would like to thank everyone who helps in any way they can, each according to their abilities. Some people come and work, some give donations, some bring sandwiches. Everyone is a piece of the jigsaw that creates a beautiful picture at the end,” Zajc said at the end.

Let us not be indifferent

Slovenia is a small country, one that some people do not even bother to place it on the map. However, it is certainly not the size of the country that determines its importance and true greatness.

“The fate of Lithuania is also the fate of Slovenia. Europe, about which we talk so much in Lithuania, Slovenia and other small Eastern European countries, should know that this is also its fate,” wrote the well-known Slovenian writer Drago Jančar on January 13th 1991, when Soviet tanks were standing in the streets of Vilnius in his essay Memories from Yugoslavia.

Slovenians are a hard-working and very organised nation. No doubt they will manage to cope with this disaster, which has already been called the worst natural disaster in their state. Yet let us also not be indifferent. Let us help them and show our solidarity; like Ukrainians whose convoy with aid for flood victims has already arrived in Slovenia. Also more than fifty Ukrainian rescuers have set out to help their colleagues in Slovenia as was announced by Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko. Earlier, Ukraine also offered to send a helicopter to Slovenia to take part in search and rescue operations.

Nikodem Szczygłowski is a writer, essayist, translator, and traveller. He is fluent in English, Lithuanian, Slovenian, Ukrainian, and others. He is the recipient of the award for achievements in journalism from the ministry of culture of the Republic of Lithuania and a graduate of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Łódź as well as MBA in Central European Management Institute in Prague.

How to help

Donations can be made here to help the flood victims: 

Adra Slovenija
Address: Njegoševa 15 1000 Ljubljana
IBAN: SI56 0284 3026 3945 425
Reference: SI00 2023
Code: CHAR
Purpose: NEURJA

PayPal donation

For more resources on donating to Slovenian flood victims visit: https://sloveniatimes.com/39407/charities-accept-donations-for-flood-relief

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