OBOT, Albania – Villagers in northwestern Albania are running out of patience after their homes have been surrounded by floodwaters for a month.
They blame their ills on the operators of major hydropower dams that discharged vast quantities of water to keep levels manageable, and said Thursday the government has done little to ease their plight.
"They get millions of euros selling the electricity produced by this water you see in my yard," farmer Hil Gjocaj said in Obot village, 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana. "But not a cent of that money has come here to protect me and my business from the water."
The 51-year-old pointed in disgust to a water-covered greenhouse. Inside, his pepper plants — in which he has invested about 1,000 euros ($1,300) — lay under waters as placid as a lake's.
Submerged orange and lemon groves stand around, while dry pockets that rise above the water here and there are covered in parked cars.
A month after heavy rains started, more than 700 houses in the Shkoder district remain surrounded by three feet (about a meter) of floodwater, although their residents stayed on as most buildings are dry inside. About 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) of land are waterlogged, and rafts or small boats are the only mode of transportation.
Obot lies five kilometers (3 miles) from the national road. To cover that distance now takes half an hour by small boat. Most of the houses are two-story constructions, many built in the past two decades by returning immigrants — more than 1 million of whom left the impoverished Balkan country after the fall of Communism in 1990, to seek a better future in the west or neighboring Greece.
Their choice of a site may not have been the best. The area has experienced severe floods three times in the past four years, and serves as a basin for surrounding regions.
Pellumb Dani, an official at the Shkoder prefecture, said Thursday that the area is prone to flooding whenever there is heavy rain, particularly as the country's three main hydropower stations that cover 95 percent of domestic electricity needs are built on the nearby Drini River.
When it rains a lot, operators are forced to discharge water to lessen the load on dams that could otherwise crack. That goes downstream and floods the surrounding countryside. Dani said the volume of water entering the area in recent days was at times nearly twice as much as can be naturally absorbed or carried away by rivers.
But farmers in Obot alleged that power authorities tried to stock up a lot of water in the dams during the summer, and the sheer volume of winter rain took them by surprise, quickly bringing reservoir water to near-dangerous levels.
"There has never been flooding in spring," 83-year old Pjeter Gjocaj said from a verandah on his water-surrounded house. "Me and the women have been imprisoned here for a month."
Power company officials weren't immediately available for comment.
Authorities have been sending food and drinking water to flood victims, but farmers say their main concern is food for their livestock.
"Flooding came at a time when we were to cut the grass (for fodder). Many cows or sheep are on the brink of death," said Denard Franja, a farmer who has started a side business as a boatman. "Authorities have compensated us only for the first floods in 2010. This time they have not come at all."
Regional authorities have promised around 600 tons of fodder imported from Montenegro will arrive in the next few days.