Balkan Vital Graphics

BLUE - Water

Prior to 1992, there were only six international river basins in the Balkans, but after the break-up of former Yugoslavia, the number more than doubled. There are now 13 internationally shared river basins and four transboundary lake basins. Such a fragmented situation means that new international legal regimes specifically for water basins need to be worked out. Talks between the countries concerned are also essential to develop future policies on hydroelectric power generation.

Establishing international cooperation on water resources

Many bilateral and multilateral treaties concerning water resources in the Balkans were concluded in the second half of the 20th century. In particular, the former Yugoslavia was keen to develop such partnerships, in keeping with its position as a non-aligned country in a divided world and its commitment to peaceful co-existence and friendship between peoples. In addition, water treaties paved the way for further development.

The treaties established cooperation between national authorities responsible for water management, with a view to improving their ability to deal with challenges arising in shared river basins. Typical concerns included floods, drainage, the construction of dams and hydroelectric power plants, shipping and fishery. Water pollution was also an issue, often with the specific purpose of reducing the amount of pollution discharged into the water to protect fish or allowing fish species such as the Danube sturgeon to migrate freely. However, although legislation on pollution and migration existed, it was often not enforced.

The treaties generally set up joint commissions. Some of them are still at work. The Danube Commission, for instance, was established under the Belgrade Convention on the Danube Navigation Regime in 1948.

Apart from international waters, former Yugoslavia also had to manage its national waters divided between the various federal units – six republics and two autonomous provinces. Water compacts between these units had a constitutional and legal basis. A good example of this type of legal instrument is the compact governing use of the Trebižat River watershed, agreed by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. It remains an open question why such an excellent example of intra-state cooperation was not fully implemented.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of a divided Europe and a bipolar world. New activities led to several multilateral environmental agreements. Almost all of them concern transboundary waters in one way or another. Several new treaties were signed in Kiev in 2003 in an effort to introduce more detailed regulations.

Following the conflicts of the 1990s and the breakup of former Yugoslavia, six new countries emerged in the Balkans. In addition to creating new states, former national water resources now are of concern to several countries, creating the need for specific international rules.

Contrary to the situation in the 1950s and 1960s, there are now several internationally accepted policy and legal instruments such as the Stockholm Declaration (1972) or the Rio Declaration (1992). Alongside the UNECE international instruments mentioned below, they constitute an overall framework for new legal regimes between states, old and new, covering the management of international water resources.

Adapting to international rules

All the Balkan countries are now committed to the European integration progress, with the goal of joining the European Union. They must consequently accept the acquis communautaire and transpose it into their national legislation. One major challenge – and not just for new member states – is the Water Framework Directive, which introduces new rules for water management hinging on river basins.

On joining Europe, a country automatically accepts the terms of all international treaties to which the EU is part. In the case of the UNECE conventions, this means that Balkan countries must comply with them even if they have not actually ratified them. Serbia, for example, complies with the Espoo Convention and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Protocol without being part to either. The same is true of the Aarhus convention.

But Balkan countries would benefit by signing up to international treaties already ratified by the EU, particularly as doing so would strengthen their environmental policies and commitments at a national level and serve as a framework for transboundary cooperation on environmental damage and hazards. The UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is yet another case in point. To accept the principles underpinning international instruments protecting the environment and water resources, and to work within their framework would surely bring benefits, stability and security to the Balkans.

How Balkan countries go about complying with EU requirements in this respect depends on how successful they are in changing the national water management systems they inherited from the socialist era. This means accepting new, and in the most part very advanced, approaches to water management, which involve active co-operation with neighbouring countries sharing a river basin. Over the last 12 years, all Balkan countries, except Serbia, have passed new water legislation, replacing outdated water management methods and facing up to future challenges.

The body of EU legislation which candidate countries must adopt to become EU members.

Water-related multilateral agreements facilitated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (EIA, Espoo Convention, Espoo 1991)

Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (Helsinki 1992)

Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention, Helsinki 1992)

Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention, Aarhus 1998)

Protocol on Water and Health (London 1999)

Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA Protocol, Kiev 2003)

Protocol on Civil Liability and Compensation for Damage Caused by Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters (Kiev 2003)

Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTR Protocol, Kiev 2003)

Building a new legal framework

When developing new (bilateral) legal regimes for shared water resources, the new Balkan states must consider numerous international policy and legal requirements applicable to the region. Projects concerning international waters that are prepared unilaterally or disregard basic principles such as public participation in the decision-making process stand little chance of success. For example, a campaign by non-government organisations temporarily held up the construction of the Buk Bijela hydroelectric power plant on the Tara River in Montenegro (see page 57). But there is more to be learnt from this story. The governments of Montenegro and Republic of Srpska, who were directly concerned, discussed the scheme. But such projects also require the involvement of other basin authorities, in this case in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, as well as the Sava Commission. UNESCO is an equally important stakeholder because it recognizes the Tara canyon as a natural and cultural heritage site. When planning new hydroelectric power plants, any viable approach must be based on the clearly established principles of international water and environmental law.

All the new states in the Danube River Basin, except Montenegro, have joined the Danube River Protection Convention and concluded bilateral agreements on shared water resources (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia; Croatia and Slovenia; Croatia and Hungary). Collaboration is visible between Montenegro and Albania, as well as between Albania, Greece and Macedonia (the Prespa Lakes Basin) and Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine (Lower Danube Green Corridor). However, the most remarkable regional achievement was undoubtedly the ratification of the Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin and the protocol regulating the navigation regime on the Sava River and its tributaries (2002). The agreement established the Sava Commission to implement the treaties affecting the basin. Additional protocols that should “fill” the framework and enable implementation of the agreement are yet to be concluded. The treaty was signed and ratified as a river basin agreement between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Slovenia. It consequently does not apply to the parts of the Sava River Basin furthest upstream, in Montenegro, now an independent state and not yet a party to the agreement.

The scope of future action is increasingly clear, revising and replacing the old water treaties and establishing new relations. Cooperation hinging on the Prespa Declaration should lead to a trilateral agreement between Albania, Greece and Macedonia. Water treaties may also be needed to improve management of the Vardar River (Macedonia and Greece) and the Tisa River Basin (Serbia and other upstream countries).

Regardless of the final status of Kosovo, the sooner Serbia and Kosovo settle their differences on transboundary water issues the better. The Serbian population living beside the various rivers located downstream clearly stands to gain from a proper legal framework.

The Petersberg and the Athens Declaration Process

Recognizing that water is an opportunity for close regional cooperation from a global perspective, the German government and the World Bank launched an initiative called the Petersberg Process. Since it started work in 1998, the initiative has organized six round tables on transboundary waters to debate the specific issues involved and how to develop an integrated approach to solving them.

The process addresses issues from the point of view of development, the environment, and policy on security and the economy. The activities are closely linked with the Athens Declaration Process. That process, between the Government of Greece and the World Bank, was initiated in 2003 during the Hellenic Presidency of the European Union and focuses on actions to promote sustainable management of transboundary water resources in southeast Europe and mediterranean region.

National and international water management practice

When comparing traditional water management systems with today’s dynamic development of good water governance, it is clear that the practices inherited from the past in the Balkans are based exclusively on a centralized “top-down” approach. This does not allow public involvement in decision making and rarely addresses environmental issues (except in official statements). To make matters worse, this approach lacks the proper instruments to implement its stated commitments. Water resources are treated piece by piece, without an integrated approach reasoning in terms of an entire river basin and its ecosystem. Old institutional arrangements and their workings stay well out of the public eye.

With today’s approach to water management, not to mention global climate change, national authorities with various responsibilities must interact closely. Different government departments are in charge of protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems, supplying water for public consumption, and use by industry and the public sector. Others oversee navigation, hydroelectric power production or indeed measures to protect the community against water-related hazards. Each player has segmented responsibility in specific fields. Tomorrow’s water management systems need to be much more highly integrated at all levels (international, national, regional and municipal). This may also involve developing partnerships bringing together the relevant public authorities, the private sector and civil society.

If the Balkans are to achieve sustainable development in an increasingly global world, water management systems clearly need to change a great deal. But such change is possible if new concepts are accepted and implemented, backed by UNECE and EU policy requirements, which serve as the basis for cooperation between the international organizations to which all Balkan countries belong. Future action should embrace new approaches to water management. This involves joining the international treaties discussed above and replacing existing legal instruments, at a national and international level, with others reflecting current trends in the sustainable management of water resources.

Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (UNECE Water Convention) was signed in Helsinki in 1992 and came into force in 1996. Albania and Croatia are the two non-EU Balkan countries that are parties to the Convention. It aims to protect surface and ground water, preventing transboundary impacts on health, safety and nature, which in turn affect the quality of life. It also promotes ecologically sound management of transboundary waters, and their reasonable and equitable use as a way of avoiding conflicts.

Parties to the convention must agree on a common action plan to reduce pollution, in addition to accepting water quality objectives and waste-water emission limits. They are also required to cooperate on information exchange, monitoring and assessment. Early warning systems must be established to warn neighbouring countries of any critical situation such as flooding or accidental pollution that may have a transboundary impact. Parties are also required to inform the general public of the state of transboundary waters and any prevailing or future measures. Joint bodies such as the Sava or Danube commission implement these requirements.

Blue energy

The region’s political and economic instability has discouraged any substantial investment in the energy sector. Except for some places such as Kosovo, the Balkans have no fossil fuel deposits, which are significant on a global scale. The Balkan countries are neither big energy producers nor consumers, so the region can rely on renewable energy to cater for tomorrow’s growing electricity demand. Hydroelectric power covers a significant share of electricity consumption in the region (43 per cent in 2004). Hydroelectric power dropped noticeably due to lower rainfall in 2002 and 2003, but the increase in overall electricity consumption nevertheless seems likely to continue driving demand upwards.

Further development of hydroelectric power will depend on several factors, perhaps the most important being market deregulation. Specific measures are needed to encourage hydroelectric power. One specific measure would be to support new investment in production facilities, this being the best way of meeting environmental challenges and improving the stability of supply. It would also help to frame a regional energy policy, promoting more sustainable forms of energy production and consumption. Furthermore, to develop a free market in the region, it is vital to set up independent authorities to manage electricity generation, transmission and distribution.

Albania’s ongoing energy crisis

In the early 1980s, countries in southeast Europe, such as Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and the former Yugoslavia were facing an energy crisis that was seen as a “window of opportunity” by Albanian President Enver Hoxha, who was determined to boost the Albanian electricity industry and its huge hydroelectric power potential. In 1986, shortly after Hoxha’s death, Albania signed trade agreements for the export of electricity.

Albania has a long history of hydroelectric power, dating back to 1936 when the first small plant was built at Tithkuqi, in the southern Korca area. By 1984, Albania had 1.350 MW of installed capacity supplied by three power stations located on the Black Drin river in northeast Albania. That year total hydroelectric power output in Albania reached 3.220 GWh. This far exceeded local demand, leaving more than half of it to be exported. The future looked promising and work was underway to increase capacity. 

After the fall of communism in the early 1990s energy demand rapidly increased. But there was no substantial investment in power generation, leaving it unable to keep pace with rising demand. While hydroelectric capacity only increased by eight per cent in two decades the number of hydropower plants increased to 91 units including mostly small-scale capacities. Hydroelectric output increased at the same by 67 per cent covering about 90 per cent of the gross power consumption in 2004. Once the region’s largest electricity exporter, Albania today is unable to meet domestic electricity demand and needs to import electricity from its neighbours.

One of the major obstacles faced in hydroelectric power generation in Albania is the dry climate with sporadic low rainfall. This leads to falling water levels and a drop in generator output, with corresponding electricity shortages. 2001 and 2002 saw a dramatic drop in hydroelectric power output, with production down to 68 per cent and 59 per cent of overall national consumption, respectively. The massive power cuts triggered a social and economic crisis. The problem was aggravated by the fact that consumers did not reduce demand or make adequate use of alternative fuels. The government subsidized energy imports, diverting state resources from other critical programmes. In 2001, the subsidy amounted to US$31.5 million. To make matters worse, Albania can only import limited amounts of electricity because the national grid is in dire need of repair and upgrading to boost capacity. A similar incident occurred in the summer of 2007 forcing the government to take short-term measures, including a cut in public sector office hours to save power. Outages in some parts of the country lasted up to 16 hours a day.

As reported by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), “the Albanian power grid is estimated to need US$1.6 million million in investments to eliminate power outages.” KESH, the stated-owned electricity utility which has a monopoly of the market, is currently preparing an application to national regulators to raise prices in line with the higher cost of imports. To boost energy production capacity, the government is building a fossil-fuel power station at Vlora, in the south. The plant, funded by the World Bank, is slated to be operational by the end of 2007.

“I don’t want a swamp, I want the Tara”

This is the main message broadcast by the MOST non-governmental organization for its campaign to stop construction of the Buk Bijela hydroelectric power plant on the Tara river in Montenegro. A 144 kilometre stretch of the river runs through the country, joining the Piva river near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina to flow on towards the Drina river. The area was designated as the Tara river basin biosphere reserve in 1977 and, as a part of the Durmitor national park, became a UNESCO world natural and cultural heritage site at the beginning of the 1980s.

Local activists argue that flooding the canyon would completely change its microclimate and ecosystems. Additionally, it would impede increasing eco-tourism in the area. At the same time, they believe that the potential of other renewable energy resources in the country is underestimated and unexplored.

The idea of building the Buk Bijela facility on this river is not a new one. Leading energy generation companies in former Yugoslavia started taking an interest in the area in 1957. In 2004, the governments of Republic of Srpska and Montenegro agreed to build the Buk Bijela dam, with a hydroelectric power plant. Following several lively protest campaigns, at home and abroad, the plan was shelved the following year. But not for long. According to the Nezavisne Novine daily, a meeting of the Committee for Cooperation between Republic of Srpska and the Republic of Serbia in Banja Luka on 5 September 2007 (attended by the presidents and prime ministers of both countries Milan Jelic, Milorad Dodik, Boris Tadic and Vojislav Kostunica) recommended starting construction of plant. It was stressed that both governments should be involved as partners in the project. To make matters worse, under the master plan, drawn up by Montenegro in 1997 and still in force, several hydroelectric power plants could be built in the area.

The impacts that this controversial project might have on the environment were presented in an environmental study (Buk Bijela and Srbinje hydropower plants) published in Belgrade in March 2000. However, the document drew serious criticism from UNESCO and various non-governmental organizations due, among others, to the lack of a sound scientific basis.