Government agencies in Georgia are facing a chorus of criticism in the aftermath of an early August mudslide in the north-western Racha Region that left dozens dead and missing. Watchdog groups contend that officials ignored danger signs and failed to develop adequate response plans.
With parliamentary elections looming in 2024, the mudslide could have political repercussions for the ruling Georgian Dream party. The tragedy is feeding public perceptions of poor government preparedness and emergency response planning amid growing environmental challenges fueled by global warming.
The natural disaster occurred on August 3, when a torrent of mud and debris swept through the Buba River Valley and Shovi resort area, leveling summer cottages, roads, bridges and other structures in its path. At least 25 bodies have been recovered and eight others are still missing. The episode marked Georgia’s most serious natural disaster since a 1991 earthquake in the same Racha region.
Preliminary findings published by environmental authorities on August 6 characterized the disaster as a glacial mudslide triggered by the convergence of multiple “natural, geological, and hydrometeorological events.” According to authorities, the underlying cause of the tragedy was climate change and global warming: rapid glacier erosion, along with heavy rains, played a key role in triggering an avalanche and subsequent glacier collapse that initiated a mudslide. The government report argues that “predicting the exact time for the formation of this type of event is practically impossible across the world.”
Critics, including field experts and non-governmental organization watchdogs, assert the official version attempts to obscure potential shortcomings in the government’s disaster prevention and management framework. Activists of an environmental NGO, Green Alternative, cited various official reports over the past years flagging potential vulnerabilities to the Shovi resort area, which, the watchdog argues, should have prompted the government to implement more effective early warning and response mechanisms.
The lack of early warning capabilities has emerged as a sharp point of public debate in the mudslide’s aftermath. Some experts contend that the amount of water necessary to fuel the mudslide probably took time to accumulate in the mountains, suggesting the disaster was caused by a glacial lake outburst flood. An early warning and monitoring system could have detected danger signs, thus reducing or preventing deaths altogether, they argue. Others have questioned why officials did not impose stricter regulations over the development of holiday infrastructure in a known floodplain of a mountain river.
The loss of life in Shovi might have been lower if the government had been faster in embracing lessons learned from previous disasters, some critics assert. They point to the government’s lingering reliance on older Border Police helicopters as the primary emergency response vehicle for high-terrain rescue operations. These helicopters proved inadequate in the crucial hours immediately after the mudslide wrought havoc: they took nearly 3 hours to arrive on the scene and had to cease operations when it got dark or during rainy weather, due to the lack of advanced navigating systems on board.
Government officials faced additional criticism for declining to seek assistance from Turkey and Azerbaijan to speed up the rescue operation.
The rescue helicopter issue is not new: it gained attention last summer, when a helicopter crashed while responding to a paragliding accident in a mountain gorge, leaving eight dead. Authorities have reportedly procured three more advanced rescue copters after that incident, but the first of the three is not scheduled to be delivered until the end of 2023.
Opposition politicians have called for an investigation into potential government negligence. "Possible misappropriation of budget funds, illegal actions of relevant officials, and the failure to install monitoring system constitute a direct basis to create a parliamentary investigative commission," opposition leader Tina Bokuchava said during a press briefing on August 9.
Government officials reject the criticism, insisting that nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. Officials released satellite images on August 9 purportedly showing that a rockslide triggered the collapse of glacier ice covering roughly 60 hectares. The collapse then reportedly tapped into a sizeable pool of water trapped underneath the ice.
“The developments were so spontaneous, so complex that even in the most developed countries it is practically impossible to avert them,” Environment Minister Otar Shamugia told reporters on August 7. Officials also have argued that more active involvement of rescue helicopters would not have saved lives.
Meanwhile, government and ruling party leaders have been lashing out at critics, media, and political opponents, accusing them of spreading disinformation and capitalizing on the tragedy by deliberately "sowing panic."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.