Money in short supply to clean Balkan rivers


Environmentalists warn of a likely ecological disaster if waste water remains untreated.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 17/09/12


Untreated sewage pours into the Vrbas River in Banja Luka. [Drazen Remikovic/SETimes]

More than 90 percent of the sewage in Bosnia and Herzegovina -- or 30 million cubic meters in Republika Srpska alone -- is released in the country's rivers without being sanitised, and citizens are raising an alarm about the environmental and health effects of the high pollution levels.

The once swimmable rivers are now a health hazard and, moreover, entire neighbourhoods along the rivers are affected by the stench of sewage flowing in.

Throughout the region, governments and residents are wrestling with the issue of water sanitation. Albania needs more than 500 million euros by 2017 to upgrade its water supply network and handle wastewater treatment, but lacks the funds. Serbia only treats 15 percent of its wastewater, and Croatia only cleans about 30 percent of its wastewater before it finds its way back into rivers and lakes.

Dragana Stankovic, 27, who lives by the banks of the Vrbas River in Banja Luka, explained there is an open sewage drain right next to her building that flows directly in the river.

"Summers are a disaster. The sewage stinks so much that nobody in the building opens any windows. Also, it is not uncommon to encounter rats at the entrance," Stankovic told SETimes.

Stankovic said the neighbourhood inhabitants have urged the authorities several times to address the problem, to no avail.

The obsolete water supply network does not help matters, according to Svetlana Grujic, director of Visegrad's water agency.

"The network was constructed during Austria-Hungary over 100 years ago and no one has invested in it. There are some plans to purify the water, but the municipality currently has no money," Grujic told SETimes.

The situation is critical and the authorities must act now to avoid an ecological disaster, according to Dzemila Agic, director of the Centre for Ecology and Energy.

"[I]ndustrial waters are compounding the problem because of the high level of toxicity. State-owned mines constantly dispose of coal dust in Lake Modrac. An estimated 15 million cubic meters of the poisonous dust is on the lake's bottom," Agic told SETimes.

The EU announced that every settlement with more than 2,000 inhabitants must have its own sewer system by 2016.

Some BiH officials, like Mihajlo Stevanovic of RS's agriculture, forestry and water management ministry, said EU candidate BiH can fulfill that condition but in the distant future. A third of the population is not currently connected to the sewage network.

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"It is expected the waste water-treatment system will be completed by 2035 at a price tag of about 1.4 billion euro. The biggest problem is the waste water flowing in the Bosna and Vrbas rivers," Stevanovic told SETimes, referring to two of the biggest Balkan rivers.

The state and entity concede the situation is very bad, but argue it is an issue for local government.

"The ministry has plans and has [undertaken] certain activities concerning water protection, but the main responsibility falls on the local communities' leaders who must take care of the rivers flowing through their towns," Jerko Ivankovic Lijanovic, agriculture, forestry and water management minister of FBiH, told SETimes.

Regardless of the division of labour among governments, "we appeal once again to the authorities to take urgent action," Agic said.

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