Friday, March 27, 2009

Slip Slidin' Away

Sure, getting snowed in can be unpleasant. Cold temperatures can threaten frostbite or death if you aren't properly dressed. But what do you do if your the land beneath your home slides downhill taking you and all your worldly possesions with you? Sometimes you die, as many of the articles in this blog attest to. Fortunately things haven't become that bad here, but the potential for disaster still looms.

Albania has all the ingredients necessary for life-threatening landslides. To call the terrain mountainous is a slight understatement. From the air, the country looks like it was crumpled up and tossed aside by the forces of nature. The geology of the area also contributes to the landslide risks. Sedimentary layers of varying materials, some volcanic deposits, and silt buildups are inherently unstable. Factor in the human elements of deforestation, neglect of infrastructure maintenance, and shoddy construction and the recipe for disaster is nearly complete. Just add rain.

Add rain we did. As I write, we enter the fifth month in a row where we've had more rainy days than not. Great for the trees and flower. Not so great for soil stability. Full reservoirs have a way of pointing out weakness in the dams that hold them back. Near Kryevidh local authorities rushed to drain a lake that was threatening to collapse the earthen dam that held it back. Today there was word of another reservoir under threat because of a "karstic sinkhole" developing below the dam. I don't know the difference between a karstic or non-karstic sinkhole, but I have seen pictures of sinkholes swallowing neighborhoods in Florida so I know it ain't good.

Those dams have held so far. Hillsides are another story. The most serious was a landslide at Synej near Kavaje. At last count, eight houses were destroyed or uninhabitable due to the movement of the earth. Looking at the video, you can see how all of the factors for landsliding are present. No ground cover, construction in obviously unstable terrain, loose soil, and buckets of rain. The same story is being played out across the country. Trebinje, near Pogradec, has seen the "reactivation" of a previous landslide that now threatens to destroy some homes. The mountain passes of Qafe Mali and Qafe Shllak have each been repeatedly blocked as mud and rocks cascade over the roadway.

Can we make the rain stop now? Please.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

When It Rains, It Pours

Since my arrival in Albania I have developed an unusual interest in rainfall, river levels, and snowpack. Some of my friends would classify my "interest" as an unhealthy obsession. To me it seems reasonable. Almost 90% of the electricity generated in Albania comes from hydropower. My ability to have lights, hot water, and elevator service depends greatly on how much precipitation lands in the Drin Valley watershed.

Over the years I've seen both ends of the spectrum. My first trip to Kukes let me glimpse the bottom of the nearly empty Fierze reservoir with the old house foundations of Old Kukes poking up out of the mud more than 50 meters below the high water mark on the mountainside. I suffered through several Augusts with no AC due to brownouts and shivered through dark February nights with only a candle and flashlights for light (and heat!).

Then again, I also saw the flooding of Lezhe during 2002. Water everywhere, reservoirs full to capacity with all turbines spinning flat out and still they were dumping excess water over the spillways. That year Fierze filled up to the top and excess electricity was sold to Kosova.

Once again, the pendulum of precipitation has swung to the wet side. In fact, this is one of the wettest winters I can recall here in Albania. It's been raining more or less daily since late December. You would think this would make me, and all 3 million water-obsessed Albanians happy as clams at high tide. You would be wrong.

With this bounty of water comes a price. The first price was snow... a lot of it. The high mountain villages here are no strangers to snowbound winters and the Army has experience heli-dropping food and medicines to stranded people and forage for isolated farm animals. This year it started the same with news reports of villages near Has snowed in. Shishtavec made it's usual appearance in the list of places blocked by snow. Other places had their first snow in decades. Some people even managed make the snow in March around Kukes look attractive through the addition of music.

When major passes like Qafe Thane closed, people started to take notice. For weeks it was on again, off again with closures and mandatory tire chain orders creeping lower and closer to Tirana. Qafe Llogara made the list in January and then Himare actually woke up to snow on the beach.
This was not going to be a normal year! And so it continues. Today, the news talks of villages still isolated by snow. Some of these places have recieved over two meters of snow in the past two months. Last week we got hammered by a late season storm that inundated Tirana and brought snow to the outskirts. Qafe Krrabe, between Tirana and Elbasan, was blocked, re-opening after three days to the delight of these folks:

The government had to call out the heavy equipment to clear this road.

Farther north, Kolin in Shkoder reported snow on the ground in this northern city which is nearly at sea level. I shudder at the though of what driving conditions were like. Oh, wait! Who needs to imagine when, through the magic of YouTube, you can experience the insanity of Albanian driving in the snow first-hand. It's guys like this who don't have the sense to stay home that lead to things like the 200-car traffic jam on Qafe Mali between Kukes and Puke last week. Four buses with women and children ended up spending two nights stranded in the snow. Over 100 other cars were trapped on the remote Qafe Buall pass when the front-end loader sent to clear the pass ran out of gas in the middle of the road. Classic!
Despite these travails, those who paid the price for precipitation in the form of snow got off lightly. The heavy rains brought more serious problems in the form of landslides.
To be continued......

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Joke Is Only Funny When It's Not True

A while ago I wrote about some of my Albanian friends giving me a hard time about the emerging financial crisis in the U.S. They had jokingly offered to send "experts" from Albania to advise America on what happens when a pyramid scheme goes bust. We all had a good laugh. I never thought I would live to see the day when a serious analyst would look back to Albania in 1997 for insight into the U.S. condition.

That day has come. This blog post entitled "Albania's 1996 Ponzi scheme frenzy: So, what's America's excuse? is an interesting look back at what happened here and how the Western Capitalist World "tut-tutted" at the naivete of Albanians. Who's laughing now?