Deforestation and soil erosion has exacerbated flooding in Albania that has forced the evacuation of hundreds of families, the country’s prime minister has said.

Heavy rains have again been forecast for Friday, and prime minister Edi Rama, who has so far resisted calls for him to declare a state of emergency, warned of the potential for disaster.

“There are some critical hotspots where disasters can occur,” Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama told the Guardian at his office in Tirana. “We have had reasonable assessments that this will not happen but in the end it will depend on the weather.”

“We have an organic problem that is inherited because of soil erosion, deforestation and bad management of rivers,” he continued. “We could have very bad surprises. The dam reservoirs are old and have not been maintained. This is where the most dangerous part of this scenario is.”

Over the last two decades, many Albanian trees close to powerful rivers such as the Vjosa, Osum and Shkumbin have been chopped down by poor villagers desperate for wood, and by entrepreneurs clearing the way for buildings and dams in a construction boom that has largely benefitted foreign firms.

The trees had held soil in place for centuries – acting as a sponge during rainfalls – but without them, soil erosion has accelerated flood damage.

Fears that flood defences around the city of Vlore could now fail are especially acute. In just two days, 220mm of rain fell in nearby Gjirokaster – the usual amount for the whole of February.

In Novosela, where the Vjosa river burst its banks on Sunday, agricultural plains were still under water.

Besnik Kush, 32, a construction worker in the town said that at the flood’s peak, the mighty Vjosa river rose by 20cm an hour until it was a metre above normal levels, flooding roads, train tracks and then local houses.

“It was very scary,” he said, “I have three children and I was sleepless all night with fear. We were thinking of moving to higher ground where we would be safe.”

The town’s mayor, Loy Husar, 70, said that the deluge was the worst he had seen in his life. “If the rains come again like that, the Vjosa will rise by two-three metres and we will need helicopters to rescue us,” he told the Guardian.

The floods are Albania’s second worst on record – only a disaster in 1971 was worse.

“What we are experiencing, not only in Albania but across Europe, gives us very considerable food for thought about climate change,” Rama said. “There have been so many talks about it and so few real measures against it.”

  • This article was corrected on 5 February 2015. It originally stated that Albania had declared a state of emergency over the floods.


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