Co-operation, education can solve regional water problems

28/03/2013

Despite abundant water resources, secured by the dense network of surface basins and ground waters, Balkan countries continue to suffer from serious problems.

By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 28/03/13

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Countries in the Balkans share many of their natural water basins. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

Regional co-operation and public education will help the Balkan governments improve the quality and access to water resources, analysts said.

Countries in the Balkans share many of their natural water basins, which means that pollution can quickly spread. The same goes for natural disasters. Floods in one country often affect its neighbours and cause serious damage across the region.

Therefore, co-operation and a regional approach is necessary to address these issues, according to Vladan Bozovic from the University of Montenegro's biotechnical faculty.

People in the region should "harmonise national water acts and policies, improve development and implementation of legislation and regulations in accordance with EU directives and policies, co-ordinate management and protection of water basins including reservoirs for hydropower plants, irrigation and rehabilitation of degraded areas around water basins," he told SETimes.

"There are several common problems in the Balkans. We are all countries in transition, replacing an old system with a new one. The infrastructure we use is an inheritance from the old system [the communist regime which collapsed in 1989]...," Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Dobromir Simidchiev told SETimes on March 22nd, World Water Day.

He said authorities are working to gradually replace the aged facilities, but this is a time-consuming process that requires serious investments, which are difficult to come by, especially in a period of economic crisis.

The close connections and mutual problems of the countries in the region also create opportunities for exchange of experience and beneficial business contacts. "For the past 1-2 years, we have seriously strengthened our contacts in the Balkans," Ivan Ivanov, chairman of the Bulgarian Water Association, told SETimes.

He said some of the association's members are already successfully developing activities in Macedonia and Kosovo, offering their expertise and know-how in these countries, where reforms are still at an earlier stage.

On the other hand, members of the association are actively exchanging experience with their colleagues in Romania, where reforms are at a more advanced stage.

"We have common problems here and I believe there is great potential for our members to develop in the regional markets," he said.

One of the big regional initiatives in this direction was the 2011 memorandum for the joint management of the shared waters in the Drin River basin between Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and Greece. The Drin River basin serves the water needs of more than 1.5 million people who rely on its resources for drinking water, agriculture, fisheries, industry and hydropower.

Another important initiative is the International Sava River Basin Commission established in the end of 2008, which aims to promote trans-border co-operation for the sustainable development of the region.

The Sava River runs 944 kilometres through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and is the most important Danube tributary, adding almost 25 percent to the Danube's total discharge at their meeting point in Belgrade.

According to Simidchiev, another serious problem facing future water supply is people's mentality.

"People, especially those of older age, still live with the idea that water is something that comes from God and should be free, therefore should not be saved. But this is not the case," he told SETimes.

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Authorities should undertake measures to boost the people's awareness of the issue, including through measures such as higher price. "There is even an educational point in not selling water cheap, so that people can learn to value it," he said.

The reality, however, is there are many people in the Balkans who don't even have access to water, let alone waste it. Although in most places water services access officially reaches up to 90 percent of the population, it has deteriorated significantly especially after 1990s conflicts, which caused serious damage to infrastructure in the Western Balkans.

This, combined with inadequate facilities, results in some places still having access to water for only a few hours a day. In many states this access is unevenly distributed, being much better in towns and poor in villages.

Poor infrastructure and insufficient or completely lacking wastewater management facilities are the main reasons behind another serious problem -- water pollution and risks, hiding serious potential risks to human health.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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