Priboj, Serbia (AP) – Trucks and construction machinery parked on a river embankment in southwest Serbia but not for construction. Instead, jumbo cranes are being used to remove tons of garbage jammed at the foot of the power plant.
Serbia and the other Balkan countries are mired in societal waste after decades of neglect and a lack of effective waste management policies in countries aspiring to join the European Union.
Burnt dumps can be seen from the roads, plastic bags hanging from trees and garbage islands floating on the region’s rivers. The problem usually appears in the focus of attention in the winter, when swollen water sweeps up landfills, forcing garbage toward hydroelectric dams.
This was the case at Potpec accumulation lake near the power station after a bout of rain and snow in December and early January. The lake’s surface is covered in a thick layer of waste, ranging from plastic to rusty metal scraps, tree stumps and even a coffin.
The Lim River that feeds the Potbek Dam dredged waste downstream. The Lim River originates in neighboring Montenegro, and passes through several municipalities and their waste sites in both Montenegro and Serbia.
“Based on a recent study, we discovered that in these cities, in five municipalities in Montenegro and three in Serbia, about 45,000 tons of waste are collected (annually),” said Predrag Sabung, director of the hydropower plant system in Lim River. Looking at the lake full of garbage, he added, “Even if a small portion of that waste ends up in the Lim River, we get that.”
Environmentalists in the Balkans have warned that because most landfills are not managed properly, they cause toxic substances to seep into rivers, threatening ecosystems and wildlife.
Bosnia also reported a trash build-up threatening the hydroelectric dam on the Drina River, near the eastern town of Visegrad. Lim is a tributary of the Drina River, making its waterways – and garbage flow – closely interconnected.
Adventurers and water beams who enjoy the winding waterways and pristine nature, prefer the two emerald rivers – the Drina River flows along the border between Serbia and Bosnia – during the summer.
While the Balkan countries were struggling to recover after a series of wars and crises in the 1990s, environmental issues often come last for countries whose economies lag far behind the rest of Europe and where public funds are vulnerable to endemic corruption.
Yugoslav Jovanovic, of the state-run company Srbijavode in Serbia that is responsible for the country’s water system, attributed the waste problem to “our neglect and lack of care.” He warned that dumpsites are located near rivers and fill up too much over the years.
Of the cleansing, he said: “If we find ourselves compelled to do it this year after year, that is not really a solution.” “We must find common ground and solve this problem by joining forces.”
Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia held meetings on this issue but not much was done. The Balkan countries also face other environmental emergencies, including dangerous levels of air pollution in many cities.
Experts predict that the removal of Potpec Lake will take a few weeks, depending on the weather. However, all the waste from the water will once again end up in the landfill in Western Serbia.
Goran Rikovic, an activist from the nearby town of Pribuj, said raising public awareness about pollution is a major goal, along with “institutional and systemic” solutions. These are also required if Serbia and the other Balkan countries wish to approach EU membership.
This is not a commitment by the European Union. “We shouldn’t be doing this for them,” said Rikovich. “The reason we look after our environment is for our future generations.”
Jovanna Jake and Marco Drobnyakovic contributed to this report.
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