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For decades, Serbia has been facing major problems with preserving a healthy environment, a large number of unsanitary landfills, the problem of wastewater, air pollution, shrinking forest areas, all these are challenges that make our everyday life. The good news is that in December 2021, the EU opened Cluster 4 in the accession negotiations with Serbia, which also includes the former Chapter 27 – Environment and Climate Change. Bearing in mind that it can often be heard that the most significant part of the costs from the former Chapter 27 will be borne by local governments (70-75% of costs), at this moment it is necessary to look at the initial situation from which some large cities in Serbia enter this process. Niš, Smederevo, Sombor, Bor and Zaječar are the central points of their districts, and each of them faces specific challenges on the way to an environment suitable for the healthy life of their citizens. It is important that the key challenges are recognized first, and then that all of us, together with the decision-makers, contribute to opening a wider discussion about them in order to reach the most effective solutions.

When it comes to environmental protection, the city of Niš faces several problems. Unregulated systems for wastewater collection and treatment and air pollution can be singled out as priority issues. The sewage system is of the so-called combined type, which means that wastewater and atmospheric water are collected and evacuated together. It is necessary to separate the sewage system, which means the construction of separate networks for wastewater and atmospheric water. The sewage system is quite outdated, and today there is no municipal wastewater treatment plant. Sources of air pollution are mostly artificially and superficially distributed. A large number of vehicles on the streets, as well as individual fireplaces, industry and illegal dumps are the biggest air pollutants in this city. According to the Air Quality Plan from 2020, the pollutants are the boiler rooms of the City Heating Plant and those in public institutions and companies, such as the University and the Faculty of Medicine, noting that it is difficult to influence the type, quality of energy and the combustion process in these furnaces.

In addition, the existing landfill does not meet the criteria of modern municipal waste management, the complex is not adequately equipped with infrastructure, capacity (for the applied landfill technology) is exhausted, environmental protection is not provided. The Institute of Public Health emphasized that it is necessary to achieve the required level of safety and turn the current waste disposal process into a waste management process.

The burning problem in the field of environmental protection that Smederevo is facing is air pollution. One of the biggest, but not the only polluters in that Danube city is Smederevo Ironworks. In addition to the Smederevo Ironworks, other important sources of air pollution are the city’s fuel oil boilers, traffic, as well as home fireplaces. According to the estimates of the Institute of Public Health “Dr Milan Jovanović Batut”  and the World Health Organization, 223 people die in this city every year as a result of air pollution. According to the report of the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Smederevo is categorized as a city with category III air, which according to the Law on Air Protection of the Republic of Serbia, obliges the competent institutions to numerous activities, including the development of the Air Quality Plan. The current Air Quality Plan was adopted in 2020, while the next one is expected to be adopted this year. It is necessary to open a transparent dialogue in public among all stakeholders, with the significant participation of public health experts, in order to realistically consider the possibilities for improving the public policy for the treatment of air pollution in Smederevo. The data of the laboratory analysis showed that the presence of serious pollutants and dangerous compounds, primarily heavy metals such as Nickel, Lead, Cobalt and others, was detected in the dust in the settlements around the Smederevo ironworks, ie everything that should not be in the air in large quantities.

One of the significant problems that threaten the environment in Sombor is the battery factory. The problem that arises is the contaminated land in the factory complex as well as the deterioration of air quality. Contamination of the land has been confirmed, which requires remediation, ie the procedure of excavation, relocation to a safe location and solidification of that material. Thus, the land around the battery factory is contaminated with lead, arsenic and accompanying carcinogenic salts, copper, nickel, cadmium and zinc. Another important issue is the issue of illegal landfills, as well as the pollution of the Grand Bačka Canal.

The problems of the environment on the territory of Zaječar are the management of municipal waste and the management of municipal wastewater. Also, the level of air pollution in the winter period due to heating is of great importance, since a large number of individual fireplaces and boiler rooms emit soot. When it comes to protecting the air from pollution, it is necessary for the coming period to expand the heating network and connect to the district heating system of households with individual fireplaces, as well as switch to cleaner energy sources – gas or biofuel instead of fuel oil and coal.

Land quality is another important issue that affects the lives of the citizens of Zaječar, and needs to be further analysed. It is also important to consider the use of funds from the Environmental Protection Fund in order to ensure efficient and purposeful spending of funds.

Although it is surrounded by well-preserved natural resources and mountain massifs, Bor is a well-known black ecological spot of Serbia due to the influence of economic branches such as mining and metallurgy. In 2018, the mining company Zijin Mining Group took over the majority ownership of the Bor Basin, when it concluded an agreement with the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Bor Mining and Smelting Basin (RTB). This agreement brought the state a capital investment of about a one and a half billion dollars, which will be invested by 2024, and to Bor, the expansion of production, but also additional problems of air and water pollution.

Official data show that the air is often excessively polluted, mostly with sulphur dioxide (SO2), which is very toxic when inhaled. A new desulphurization system was supposed to solve this problem, but excessive air pollution continues. Citizens and representatives of civil society present key challenges, but also possible solutions in this area. In addition to the challenges of air pollution, there is also the problem of lack of energy efficiency, for which the use of waste heat from industrial consumption is mentioned as one of the possible solutions. Also, in the absence of a sufficient amount of industrial water, drinking water is increasingly used for these needs, which is why there is a danger that there will be a shortage of drinking water in the future.

Involvement of local parliamentarians in overcoming challenges:

In order to contribute to a more efficient solution to these challenges in these cities, the BFPE Foundation for Responsible Society initiated the establishment of the informal Green Local Assemblies Groups within the project Increased engagement of local parlamentarians in 5 cities in Serbia in dealing with green policies through the transfer of knowledge from Green Parliamentary Group of Parliament of Serbia, following the example of the informal Green Parliamentary Group of the RS National Assembly. The goal of forming Green Local Assembly Groups (GLAG) is to build a network of local parliamenterians dedicated to environmental protection, so that topics in this area are given priority and are high on the political agenda in the mentioned cities. This type of local parliamentarians gathering around the issue of environmental protection is an indicator that the domain of “green” policies does not know party divisions. On the other hand, the formation of GLAGs will help councillors to more effectively deal with the challenges in the field of environmental protection in their cities, as well as to present concrete results of their political work to their fellow citizens.

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