While preparing for the interview with PhD Nebojša Veljković, we have performed several experiments and easily made sure that the litre of water is more expensive than the litre of petrol. Continuation of the conversation is well-known, and that is a fact that water makes 70 percent of the planet and of our body. Serbia is rich in water resources but it is still limited and we do not have it in abundance. In the last 3 decades, much geopolitical yeast in the world happen due to drought and energy sources. Rivers and their flows are actually extremely important for life and work of people, so much that 40 percent of people on the planet live in the basins of rivers and lakes which include two or more countries. Even 90 percent of people live in the countries which have river basins. Therefore, water management represents a complex web of activities and measurements which are not only technical but also envisage the harmonization of supply and demand, management of services and purpose and what is more important the management of the resource itself. PhD Nebojša Veljković is the Head of the Department for monitoring of water quality and sediment in the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency and he shared with us some scientific findings and knowledge in the field of water management in Serbia.
EP: Available water resources for human needs are not abundant. What is the real situation and can we expect water scarcity in Serbia also?
Nebojša Veljković: The public in our country and unfortunately experts keep forgetting that we already live in a catastrophic century with all the characteristics that you have mentioned. It seems that we do not notice that the litre of bottled water in restaurants is more expensive that the litre of petrol. The war in Syria is most probably the first conflict in the 21st century which can be brought in the connection with the climate change and drought, that is water scarcity. More than a million people, refugees and immigrants have entered Western Europe with future serious socio-economic and political consequences for the continent. In most of the analyses and reports, especially in our country, the ecological factors of Syrian crisis haven’t been highlighted. The region has suffered a long period of droughts in the years that preceded the rebellion and the civil war. After 2009 in southern Syria, farmers haven’t been able to cultivate and preserve crops and cattle fund due to droughts, so they migrated from rural to urban areas. Protests began in Dara in 2011 and spread out under the influence of Islamic extremism which was joined by a foreign political factor and that is how the catastrophe was created. It is important to understand that the drought here is in the background of the problem and that unpreparedness on the impact of climate change is the key explanation. The Syrian government was neglecting the investment in water management during the decades-long period, and the shortfall of yield in the agricultural production during the period of drought has caused the lack of basic livelihoods and thus enhanced the existing social tensions and political instability. The lesson from the Syrian conflict is clear – water scarcity crisis is always connected to the other associated factors. Serbia is located on the European continent and generally on the world map it is outside the zone of water scarcity. However, as far as we are concerned, certain parts of Serbia have the same symptoms of the disease called ‘water stress’, like certain parts of Italy, France and southern Spain which are already in chronic shortage of water. We witnessed the disruption of water supply in Užice in 2014 and a three-month ban of water use in Požarevac from October 2015 to January 2016. In both cases it happened because of the sensitivity to climate changes. In the first case it was due to the development of toxic cyanobacteria in the accumulation for water supply happen due to favourable warmer conditions for their growth. What happened in the second case was the deficit of supplemental feeding of the groundwater source which deteriorated in quality and it was a direct consequence of reduced flow in the Velika Morava. These are individual cases which will certainly be increased if all the projections of climate change are accomplished, and it is something that even hydro meteorological data and climate mathematical models for this century are indicating.
EP: Bearing in mind the existing data, what are the projections for the following period as far as the availability of the amount of waters in our country is concerned?
Nebojša Veljković: Serbia has plenty of water, and it can be found on the European list in the group of countries with ‘medium affluence’. The disadvantage of our water resources lays in the fact that the largest amounts of these waters, even 92 percent, are transit waters, which flow by the rivers from the territories of other countries or make an international border – the Danube, the Sava, the Drina, the Lim, the Tamiš, the Tisa, the Begej. The basin of the Južna Morava, the Zapadna Morava and the Velika Morava, which we administratively call central Serbia, annually collects water, in the form of rainfall, which flows through the Velika Morava. Just before its confluence into the Danube on Ljubičevski bridge it has 22 times less water than this big European river, to which ‘our’ waters are handed in and thus together go to the Black Sea.
To make things even worse, the analyses show that the average flow of the Velika Morava at Ljubičevski bridge has decreased for 18 percent in the period from 181 to 2010 compared to the period from 1951 to 1981. We have less and less of our water resources, since the demographic projections show that in Serbia will live the same number of the population in 2050 as in 1950. The higher number of population does not necessarily have to mean the greater consumption of resources, but the increase of consumption per capita is more critical and that is the factor which represents the greatest pressure on the environment. A good example would be the irrigation system in Serbia. Statistical studies show that only 17 percent of arable land is irrigated in Serbia, while Hungary and Slovenia irrigate 50 percent of arable land, and Greece 82 percent in comparison to the entire arable land equipped with the irrigation systems. Such a low level of the resource utilization has led me to do one free projection of the necessary amount of water for irrigation and I will present it in a meeting of experts. I have started with the assumption that we will increase the irrigated area to 50 percent by 2020, and to 80 percent by 2030 in those areas which are now equipped with the irrigation systems. This increase is entirely in accordance with the strategy on agricultural production development, but this approach also takes into account the consumption of water. The increase from the current 17 percent of irrigated area to 80 percent in 2030 will increase the amount of gripped water for the required irrigation for a billion of cubic meters of water per year compared to the current need. This is the amount of water which corresponds to the average annual flow of the Južna Morava in May. In other words, for the increase of agricultural production, we need one more Južna Morava. This is a good and simple illustrative example of balance sheet and projections of necessary amount of water and it opens up a crucial issue on which we have to give an answer in strategic documents. What is the amount of water which we have at our disposal for what kind of production and consumption and how much of it will be satisfactory and when?
EP: What can you tell us about the water quality in Serbia, the systems for treatment and the fact that water flows were cleaner during the 90’s when domestic industry was destroyed? Since you are the author of the method ‘Serbian Eater Quality Index’, could you present to us the data from the last 15 years?
Nebojša Veljković: Serbian Environmental Protection Agency has developed the indicator for Serbian Water Quality Index for the assessment of the surface water quality. The indicator is designed for reporting to the public, experts, political decision makers and it has been adopted by the relevant by-law. Serbian Water Quality Index is a composite indicator which is made up from 9 physical-chemical and one microbiological indicator of a quality with whose aggregation the quality of water obtains the index water quality ranging from 0 to 100. The quality of water is depending on the corresponding index points classified in five categories: excellent, very good, good, bad and very bad.
In our reports, which we regularly submit to the Government of Serbia every year, the results of the analysis for large basins and rivers are presented in details and they also contain the overview of the quality since 1998. The best quality has the basin of the Sava with the Drina and tributaries whose 90% is in the categories excellent, very good and good. Waters of Vojvodina have the poorest quality, which include the water flows and canals of Danube-Tisa-Danube and in this are 44 percent of samples are in the categories bad and very bad. The river Danube, thanks to a huge receiving capacity and the possibility of self-purification, shows solid quality, since only 4 percent of the sample is in the category bad and non in the category very bad. Method Serbian Water Quality Index is suitable for comparative studies ad modelling and in that sense I have performed one research which is the continuation of my dissertation and it represents pioneer work in the field of so-called separation of economic growth from the environmental impact.
I would single out only the part which is related to your question from this voluminous work. Analysis of our watercourses quality as a recipients of municipal and industrial waste waters for the period from 1981 to 2010 shows three cycles clearly expressed. The first cycle, the 80’s with the trend of quality deterioration towards the 90’s; the second cycle shows the significant increase in quality up to 2000, and the third cycle after 2000 shows mild decline in quality. These three cycles are entirely in accordance with the industrial development of Serbia. The increase of industrial production scope follows the deterioration of receiving water quality and vice versa. This analysis can be supplemented with a comparative overview of the industrial development and coverage of the sewage system for the population with the treatment of waste waters. This comparative overview is given for Serbia and Finland and it presented the industrial growth in the last half of the century. The current level of population’s sewage system coverage is 60 percent and only 10 percent with the treatment systems which date back from the ‘golden’ 80’s and it indicates that in this comparative analyses we weren’t better than Finland even when we had larger scope of industrial production. From which funds will Serbia now finance the construction of the plant for wastewater treatment?
According to our by-law from 2016 which took into account the request of Water Framework Directive of the European Union, we are obliged to construct all the plants for wastewater treatment for settlements whose population is above 2,000 of equivalent inhabitants by 2040. Today, there are 26 communal plants for wastewater treatment in Serbia, and it is necessary to build around 200 for settlements which have from 2,000 to 5,000 equivalent inhabitants and around 100 settlements which have from 5,000 to 10,000 equivalent inhabitants. The total number of plants for settlements of all sizes is around 400. So, we need to build 300 plants by 2040 in settlements which have up to 10,000 inhabitants, and those are the poorest municipal centres. Can all these necessary capital investments be covered from user fees in those settlements? Now, certainly not, since all the public communal companies provide services above the economic price and that means that have operating losses. There are two ways for financing the construction and functioning of communal plants for wastewater treatment. The first one is the construction by using commercial loans at the expense of a local self-government with the state guarantee, where the final cost is shifted to the taxpayers. The other way is connected with the functioning of the built systems in which we have the increase of fee for the costs of the treatment incorporated into higher service fee, which represents direct cost of the consumers or it is shifted indirectly to tax payers, that is users through the subsidies of a local self-government. There is also the third way, which is now applied to some of the existing 26 plants for the treatment of wastewater; in this way the prices of the communal services do not increase because the plant is simply not operating. The terms of negotiation process for the accession to the EU within the Chapter 27, which are related to the environment, are very clear. Bulgaria and Romania have already been paying high penalties for failing to perform obligations.
EP: Statistics show that around 30 percent of water is lost in water utility systems. What can we do in this field in Serbia in order to improve business efficiency of water utility companies?
Nebojša Veljković: The indicator ‘water loses’ about which you are talking about reflects the reaction of society since it evaluates the efficiency of managing systems for water supply and it includes technical requirements which affect the condition of the pipelines, the price of water and the awareness of consumers about the importance of water as a resource. The characteristic of the present public drinking water supply is high losses, as you have mentioned around 30 percent and there is an increasing trend. In this way 230 million cubic meters of water are ‘lost’ annually, which corresponds to the equivalent of 45 MW of the installed hydro power plant which delivers electricity in order to engulf and deliver that amount of water. By reducing water loses in Serbian water utility systems only for one third, we would save the electricity which jointly produce HPP ‘Ovčar Banja’ and HPP ’Međuvršje’, that is 13MW of the installed power of these hydro power plants. Another indicator of resource efficiency of water utility systems in Serbia provides a special comparative picture. According to the previous ten-year statistics data the losses of water are increasing and at the same time the delivered amounts of drinking water from public water supply systems are decreasing. When you put the data on gripped amounts of water in ratio with the number of employees, you obtain the indicator which shows that one employee in German water supply produces 3 times more than his colleague in Serbian water supply. It is a measure of the business efficiency. It is enough to see clearly that the efficiency increase of the public communal companies in the field of water supply and sewage can be achieved only by improving the level of services, reconstruction and development of infrastructure which is not possible without the development of local economy and country as a whole.
Interview by: Vesna Vukajlović