21.06.2015 Author: Henry Kamens

Noah’s Ark Torpedoed in the Middle of Tbilisi

7546322This story could have been written as a takeoff of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with all the escaping zoo animals who feature in it, but out of respect for the dead, both human and animal, I have decided not to go there. The Tbilisi flood isn’t about escaped animals, it is about the reason everything else goes wrong in Georgia, and will continue to do so.

The flood has been a giant wake up call for Georgia, especially Tbilisi. The body count is still adding up, at least 16 so far. Some expect it may go as high as 35, as most of the bodies have not been recovered as yet and may never be. We can even add a few more for safe measure, to take account of the three killed by escaped animals in the last few days.

I personally visited the flooded area the day after the banks burst, climbing over a wall to get into the zoo. What I saw there certainly made it look like Noah’s Ark had run into a perfect storm, a natural disaster which could have happened at any time. But there is more to it than that.

All at sea

There is no excuse for the immediate reaction to this flood. The public began shooting the surviving animals, who were roaming the streets frightened, and even emergency personnel were joining in. Some, including a hippopotamus, have been tranquilised and returned to the zoo. However, zoo spokeswoman Khatia Basilashvili said that four lions, three tigers and two jaguars had been killed, either in the flood or on the loose, and four more lions, three tigers and one jaguar were not yet accounted for.

A young white lion cub named Shumba, one of the zoo’s most beloved attractions, was found shot in the head on zoo territory on Sunday, said zoo head Zurab Gurielidze, who has had to plead with the public not to shoot on sight any animals they find. The flash flood also killed about 60 homeless dogs, a common sight in Tbilisi, when the waters inundated an animal shelter near the zoo.

The government declared Monday a day of mourning, which also served to keep people off the streets in the interests of their own safety and in the hope this would make it easier to round up some of the missing animals and find dead bodies. This did nothing to calm public safety fears however. As most Tbilisians have visited the zoo, they know the animals and why they are kept in cages, and until they have all been recovered, and have been seen to be recovered, people will continue to both take matters into their own hands and look for someone to blame.

Who did what?

The combination of illegal construction in environmentally sensitive areas and a road being built in a ravine, with no proper calculations for where storm water would go in the worst case scenario, was the external reason for this tragedy. When the storm came, it had nowhere to go. As far as we can tell, the natural river course had been altered and funneled through concrete channels and tunnels to allow for the road to be constructed, effectively eliminating the river’s natural means of overflowing to allow it to transport a higher than normal volume of water. The river then backed up causing it to flood over the Vake Saburtalo link road towards the top of the valley. The rushing headwaters created a landslide which pulled down a number of houses. These and other blockages then created a tipping point which led to the results seen all over the world on news broadcasts.

This was not the first such flood in Tbilisi, but it was the worst since records began. The last time this area got washed away was about 50 years ago. After that the city planners should have known better, but nobody wanted to listen.

All the mistakes which led to that flood occurring had been made in Communist times. Therefore the independent state had nothing to do with them, and would be immune to the consequences of doing the same, so the thinking ran. When countries are determined to make their mark in the world they are tempted to think this way. But it doesn’t do any good, and it often takes several generations for any new state to get over trying to be the opposite of what it was before for the sake of it.

This is what has led to the Potekim village Tbilisi now is having a multitude of problems, disregard of urban planning principles for political reasons being one of them. Three years ago there was a big flood in the Ortachala district in which a storm drain was again blocked, this time on the Krtsanisi Street hill area. This diverted a tributary of the river Mtkvari, which flowed down the main road in a torrent. But that incident was dismissed as a one off, probably because it only made the regional news.

Millions have been siphoned off from building projects that were illegal to start with by a variety of hands, generally belonging to those in various layers of government, contractors and criminal elements. Projects have been approved on the basis of the size of these backhanders and how well they can be hidden, rather than how appropriate the project is. As a consequence, the main transport hub, connecting all parts of town, has been closed by a flood in a city which every planner worth his salt should have alert to the severely increased risk of a disaster taking place following the water flow restrictions imposed by the construction of the new road.

It is ridiculous to suggest that Georgia does not have qualified civil engineers or environmental managers, as it has an abundance of universities and a population desperate for any qualification which might get them a better life. All this has been done deliberately, in defiance of the available expertise and in fundamental disregard of human life.

Theoretically plenty of people can be blamed for this “natural disaster” which could and should have been prevented. The trouble is, this is Georgia. Any analysis of anything, and any apportioning of blame, has to be made into a party political issue. Each of the four regimes Georgia has had since independence has its supporters, and each will say that the other three were responsible, simply because they think differently.

Consequently the only solutions considered to any problem are political ones. The answer for everything is either to change the government or remove holdovers from the previous one, whether these are people or regulations, regardless of what the practical needs are.

This is already happening. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM) quickly organised a protest about the government spreading false information – announcing that the predator threat was over the day before a man was killed by a loose tiger. The government says it was merely relaying information released to it by zoo officials, and the head of the zoo has confirmed this. It was an unfortunate error made during a time when key staff from the zoo had also died, and many of the animal compounds were still under several feet of mud and water. It was premature to make the statement, for sure, but it was made based on the information which was made available in the midst of a nightmarish situation.

Meanwhile the Georgian media have got hold of what they say is a phone discussion between Saakashvili and one of his gang, in which Saakashvili says he would enjoy seeing a crocodile eat somebody in the street. Such a conversation is so implausible that in a country like Georgia it is very likely to be true. But simply removing all Saakashvili appointees from public positions, and changing the regulations of that era for the sake of it, won’t actually solve any problems.

Where next?

Some of the hard questions being asked by journalists and the Georgian public are:

1. Will a proper root cause analysis be made which will identify and, if necessary, prosecute anyone who has contributed to this disaster occurring?

2. At this stage the problem seems to have been caused by the Vere River flooding down the new road which the UNM stalwarts President Mikheil Saakashvili and Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava opened by proudly driving a pair of Grand Prix cars along it. As the valley it is in has flooded before, was the required storm drainage taken into account when the road building contract was awarded?

3. How was excess storm water designed for when this road was built, presuming there was any? Who approved the designs and the completed work?

4. Were corners cut during the road construction which contributed to this disaster?

In order to answer these questions the first thing we need to do is find out who actually built the road. As always in Georgia, this is easier said than done. The banner erected at the time said that the project was being implemented by Georgian Road Science Ltd. It is impossible to find any information about this company and it has no website. Despite this, it has participated in a number of competitions in Georgia and been awarded public contracts.

If this is how tendering was conducted at that time, what hope is there that regulations of any sort were followed in a transparent, accountable way? Shoddy construction has become so common in Georgia that nobody comments on it much, or asks where the money that should have been spent on the project, which would have seen it properly constructed, has actually gone. If they did ask, they wouldn’t get answers.

The flood has made it clear that something was not right somewhere. It is not unknown for engineers in any country to make mistakes. For example, in Western countries highly respected engineers, who won transparent contracts and fulfilled them legally and properly with work independently assessed at each stage, have built major road intersections out of materials which rot away when exposed to salt, the main ingredient of the “grit” used on roads to keep them drivable in the winter.

But we know that happens in other countries because we can trace who built those roads, who they consulted and what they did. You can’t do that in Georgia because too many people involved in any contract have too much to hide, and no one has the resources to follow the whole trail of deals made and pockets illegally lined. Unless that changes, such practices will continue with impunity, no matter who is in charge and who has been declared ideologically tainted.

The one root cause everyone knows

The Tbilisi flood was preventable, and it was not solely a natural disaster. It was the consequence of ignoring basic principles, of planning and safety and of transparency and accountability, in order to gain personal advantage and make ideological points.

Such disasters will keep occurring unless Georgia accepts that there are ways of doing things which are not political, and that principles of accountability and transparency transcend politics. That won’t happen any time soon because each Georgian government has based its credibility on supposed ideological superiority. Promoting principle over politics would have opened up too many wounds within the country, and caused too much embarrassment to its Western “friends”.

Staff members of various foreign missions and NGOs are now helping to clean up the flood damage; it is about time something real is provided in way of assistance to Georgia. They might reflect on the fact that in their countries ideologies compete within a basic framework of principle. They might then ask themselves why their countries continue to support the overthrow of Georgia’s first president in 1992, and understand that the filth they are wading through is part of the consequence.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.