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Balkan rivers threatened

Mail Online © AP

The environmental situation in the Balkans is critical. For several years, the impacts of coal fired power plants on air quality are regularly castigated. However, atmospheric pollution is not the only factor that disturbs the life of the populations. Rivers are also victims of pollutions that jeopardise their good health and, indirectly, that of the surrounding inhabitants.

Water under the waste

The waste extends to the horizon on Lake Potpecko, in western Serbia. About 8,000 m3 of wastes are concentrated on its surface and emit a nauseous smell. Further north, the Drina, the river forming the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, has fallen foul to the same problem. Islands of waste appear regularly and interfere with the operation of the hydropower plants of Visegrad and Perucac.

Despite their efforts to clean the river, the dam managers are overwhelmed. There is nothing new about these events, but observations made since the beginning of the year show that they have reached an unprecedented magnitude. The reason: strong floods that have carried all the detritus left in uncontrolled dumps located on the banks. Waste treatment is a structural problem in the Balkans. Ageing infrastructures fail to meet needs and the wastes are dumped in the wild. At Vardarishte, in North Macedonia, a former dump, officially closed nearly thirty years ago, covers 170,000 m². Plastic bags, electrical appliances and furniture are abandoned there, threatening ecosystems and human health.

Multiple pollutions that menace the health of populations

The responsibility for this situation can mostly be attributed to the failure of the waste collection system. In Kosovo, a government report stated that between 2017 and 2019, uncontrolled tips had increased by 60%, whereas only one inhabitant in two benefits from a waste collection service. Public authorities throughout the entire region shy away from the problem. At both the local and inter-governmental levels, the authorities fail to consult with their counterparts to find common, sustainable solutions, or else they blame each other.

The Save, Belgrade – Kite Aerial Photography (KAP)

These pollutions have direct impacts on water resources, all the more so since they are multiple. In Belgrade, the Save, a tributary of the Danube, is also in danger. The illegal construction of second homes on its banks directly affects its waters and the groundwater reserves that supply the Serbian capital with drinking water. This degradation is problematic in a country where, according to a report from the Public Health Institute, at least 50 municipalities supply water unfit for human consumption.

As for Kosovo’s rivers, they suffer from industrial pollution and inadequate wastewater treatment. In a report titled “The Black Rivers of Kosovo”, published last March, the Kosova Democratic Institute (KDI) stated that the water of the Sitnica, one of the most polluted rivers, could no longer be used to supply drinking water to households or even be used for irrigation. To the south of the capital, the Graçanka, which supplies the town of Gracanica and the surrounding villages with drinking water, is contaminated by the zinc mines. It contains high rates of sulphate ions that may be the source of diarrhoeas and dehydration. There are almost no sanctions against these blatant degradations of the environment and human health. In 2020, a report from the World Bank criticised in particular the weakness of the Kosovan authorities in applying the law.

Action by civil society


Faced with the inaction of the public authorities, civil society is gradually mobilising. Associations like Let’s do it Kosova and Eco Center group in Serbia, carry out cleaning, advocacy and activities to make the population aware. Legal proceedings have even been taken against a hundred companies in Kosovo to put an end to these pollutions.

© Let’s dot it Kosova

Furthermore, in Albania, civil society is stirring against another phenomenon that threatens the rivers in the Balkans. At the beginning of February, militant ecologists officially demanded the classification of the Vjosa as a nature reserve to counter dam construction projects and preserve one of the last wild rivers in Europe. The initiative received the backing of many actors around the world, such as NGOs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the actor Leonardo Di Caprio. The problem of hydroelectricity infrastructures does not only concern Albania. In Montenegro, the new government has questioned the policy of its predecessors who aided the construction of micro hydropower plants without taking into account their impacts on the environment. The need to respond to the energy needs of populations and commitments made to the European Union to produce green energy have led to a poorly controlled and harmful policy of developing hydraulic infrastructures. The same phenomenon is visible in Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Adopted in November 2020, the declaration of Sophia on the Green Agenda for the western Balkans provides a promising framework that should be concretised in the coming months.


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