Calming The Waters: Why The Balkans Need To Adopt To Climate Change

Two weeks ago, the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Albania met in Belgrade to talk about issues that threaten the stability of Southeastern Europe. The fragile relations among the former Yugoslav members, rise of nationalism, and migration were identified as some of the most important challenges that could destabilize the region. However, the prospects of future crises stemming from global warming and consequent regional climate changes were not included in their agenda. With the most recent climate change reports warning about the adverse impacts of global warming on regional water sources, these leaders, together with their regional counterparts, may want to reevaluate and direct their policies to understand, mitigate, and adapt to the predicted environmental risks. Failure to respond to the growing climate related crisis will lead to a shortage of clean water for the region, and render futile any of the international or domestic stability efforts in the region.

Decade of wars in former Yugoslavia, which engulfed Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, left the region in ruin. Postwar development concentrated its efforts on a "return to normalcy." This meant rebuilding destroyed homes, roads, electric grids, and similar destroyed infrastructure; attracting much needed foreign investment; and establishing governing institutions rooted in the rule of law. The newly established governments and international development efforts gave very little, if any, consideration to water and sanitation infrastructure, and related issues. These two issues, together with agriculture, are the most vulnerable elements of a national socio-economic system in light of predicted climate change trends. Consequently, this left the former regions of Yugoslavia with outdated information, decaying infrastructure, and no national and regional water, sanitation, and agriculture strategies. Due to the recent global warming and climate changes, these countries will experience a "threat multiplier," exacerbating these climate related threats in already unstable regions.

Dr. Kiril D. Hristovski, Arizona State University professor and a leading authority on water and sanitation in these former Yugoslav republics, has been studying the long term impacts of climate change on water and sanitation trends in the region for more than twenty years. "In the next few decades, the region will encounter serious water, agriculture, and sanitation crises that necessitate an urgent response. There are three factors that impede the government from developing any immediate and sustainable solutions: lack of national or regional water plans, lack of data, and the lack of political will." Simply speaking, the region does not have any reliable data to develop management plans for issues related to their surface or groundwater balances, water quality, and pollution generation. Kosovo was left out of the study for lack of data. Dr. Hristovski warns that governments need to adequately characterize their available water potential and begin to better monitor the fluctuations in existing water resources and their quality if they want to create appropriate strategies to prevent an economic and social crisis in the near future.

The situation is most dire when it comes to water quality. The region's water supply is seriously polluted, especially in the downstream river segments with exceedingly high fecal matter or nutrient concentrations, which often results in mass destruction of aquatic life. For example, only about 5% of the sewage is adequately treated before being discharged into the surface waters; and this often represents an overestimate. To minimize aquatic pollution, Dr. Hristovski warns the region needs to update and expand its water quality regulations. "Existing regulations that ensure water quality are antiquated or mix from former Yugoslavia and EU regulations. These are full of inconsistencies and do not provide clear protocols, personnel, or funding that ensure proper water quality monitoring and protection."

Beyond regulations, the deteriorating water infrastructure, which was built more than 30 years ago during Yugoslavia's industrial heyday, is the primary cause for potable water losses. It is estimated that over 50% of treated potable water is lost during transport from the water treatment plants to the end-users due to deteriorating infrastructure. These losses are an order of magnitude higher than ones reported for Germany, for example. Assuming a realistic price for treated water of $0.3/m3, Hristovski estimates that the annual dollar value for this loss of potable water in Montenegro is about $19 million, in Macedonia is about $43 million, in Bosnia is about $53 million and in Serbia is about $62 million. "The water loss problem could not be easily resolved by simply fixing the leaking pipes because there is an absence of accurate underground cadaster that describes the exact locations of the buried pipes." says Dr. Hristovski.

Dr. Richard Rushforth, a researcher who studies the global food-energy-water system, warns that with such high levels of potable water losses, and with the vast majority of non-potable water devoted to power generation, the former Yugoslav republics need to work in together to prevent a regional crises. Failure to do so can lead to crop failures, power outages, further deterioration of water quality thereby increasing tensions, not only between the countries for water access, but also intersectoral tensions between power generators, farmers, and cities that need water for its residents within each respective country. In addition to developing national water resource plans, Dr. Rushforth recommends the region, "develop transboundary river basin plans, that promote regional coordination, prevent high amounts of water loss, and account for climate change scenarios, could prevent the loss of millions of dollars to the economies of Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia."

But as Rushforth notes, " they [the former Yugoslav Republics] also need to focus on building hydro-economic security by rehabbing or rebuilding failing infrastructure, establishing robust hydrological monitoring networks, and moving toward more water efficient forms of power generation, which are cleaner and less polluting" Dr. Rushforth believes the former Yugoslav members can then utilize the water savings to improve public health, restore and conserve threatened ecosystems, increase agricultural production, and ultimately develop new sectors of the economy that produce greater value to society per liter of water.

To successfully implement these changes, the former Yugoslav republics may need to reconsider their old motto "brotherhood and unity" and address water security as the current regional threat it is rather than relegating water planning to future generations.

Fron Nahzi specializes in international development and sustainable solutions. The views expressed here are his own.