“We Destroyed Nature; We Exploited It”

Waste and Water Pollution in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Josh Feng

In the land of blood and honey, rivers are arteries. But memories of relentless bloodshed are still painfully fresh, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this country rich with water resources, communities are rebuilding their livelihoods along the banks of rivers previously running red.

For Ružičić Nebojša and Andrej Zamoco of the Dajak Klub Banja Luka, a connection to the Vrbas River and its dajak boat tradition runs in their blood. Their families are among the few that still pass down the boat-making craft from generation to generation, adding to the thirty-five or forty dajak boats that exist worldwide, as estimated by Nebojša. It’s a pastime enjoyed by all. “My grandmother drives [dajak] too,” he notes. “She doesn’t have as much strength as she used to, but she’s known to go into the river and make circles sometimes.”

Dajak boating is a hyper-localized sport in Banja Luka, foreign to many living in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The boats resemble the gondolas one might encounter on tranquil Venetian canals, though they are constructed specifically for the shallow, fast-flowing Vrbas. A tradition as old as the city itself, dajak boats were originally used for transport across the Vrbas before the construction of bridges ruled their utility obsolete. Dajak soon became a sport, a tradition that continues today. Nebojša describes how each summer, many Banja Lukans who escaped the city during the Bosnian War now come back for a month or two to learn dajak. “People who were born in Banja Luka before the war, and raised here, really do think Dajak is part of their culture,” he said.

Yet a rapidly changing environment not only places dajak and the Vrbas in peril, but also threatens to mar Bosnia and Herzegovina’s waters and the livelihoods of those who depend on them. “There is a lot of pollution in the [Vrbas] river, especially this part,” says Nebojša. “A lot of sewers from the city are connected to the river.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina scored a dismal 3 out of 100 in the 2014 Environmental Protection Index Wastewater Treatment Index, which tracks how well countries treat both household and industrial wastewater before it returns to the environment. According to the metric, while 77 percent of Bosnians are connected to the sewerage network, only 4 percent of wastewater is treated.

“In terms of waste management, we are facing a big problem,” says Sanda Midžić-Kurtagić, executive director of the Hydro-Engineering Institute in Sarajevo. The Bosnia and Herzegovina Ministry of Trade and Economic Relations also identifies waste-related problems as “one of the most significant environmental issues in BiH.” Agricultural runoff and rapid deforestation coupled with inadequate waste management practices jeopardize Bosnia’s waters. If left unabated, a spiraling trail of aquatic degradation may result.

The effects are already visible. Midžić-Kurtagić explains that most rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina have “acceptable” levels of cleanliness, but the Bosna River and areas surrounding industrial centers such as Tuzla remain the most polluted. The Sava River Sub-Basin, which includes the Una, Vrbas, Bosna, and Drina rivers as well as some smaller tributaries, has much higher pollution levels than the Adriatic Sea Basin, Bosnia’s other major watershed.

This contamination can be traced back to pre-war industrialization in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a region that served as the principle supplier of raw materials and energy in the former Yugoslavia. During the period, heavy industry centered in the north created significant environmental pressures on water resources. However, wartime violence crippled Bosnia’s industrial infrastructure, along with any semblance of a waste management strategy. Destruction offered a brief respite from industrial pollutants. Yet the host of environmental issues that it created lingers on like a bad memory.

Unprecedented regional flooding in 2014 dug up physical legacies of war and industrialization, proving that environmental damages are hard to forget. Torrential rains unearthed undetonated mines and settled toxic waste from the bottom of riverbeds. “When the waters went back down, a lot of waste was left on the banks,” says Natasa Crnkovic, president of the Center for Environment Banja Luka.  The relentless tides served as a reminder of what was previously buried and forgotten—the work that still needs to be done.

The floods didn’t exist as an isolated catastrophe, but rather served as a confluence of many preexisting problems. Disaster resiliency and environmental conservation are not mutually exclusive, and institutional failures to respond to the disaster point to larger problems. “The whole process [of aid] was not transparent,” notes Crnkovic as she exposes government inaction on disaster response. “A lot of aid was waiting on the borders for days, and people were left without basic necessities.”

While times of emergency make bureaucratic gridlock more prominent, this same kind of red tape lies at the heart of Bosnia’s current waste management problems, Midzic-Kuratic explains. Because the War brought Bosnian industry to a halt, untreated human waste is now the chief pollutant of its waters.

Lacking a national environmental law or environmental agency, the Bosnian constitution gives national entities the primary responsibility for domestic environmental issues. But coordination across the highly centralized Republika Srpska and the relatively decentralized Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is easier said than done.  “Our government is not putting environmental issues on the agenda at all; it’s always the last thing, “ says Crnkovic.

Like many “transition” economies, most waste disposal in Bosnia and Herzegovina is completely unregulated. Dumping waste straight into landfills or bodies of water is not uncommon. According to an estimate from the Environmental Protection Strategy of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, at least 95 percent of collected mixed municipal waste is disposed of at non-sanitary disposal sites.

Yet as Bosnia and Herzegovina looks towards EU integration, environmental conservation may need to be bumped up on its task list. The European Commission even attempted to right the situation themselves, forming a waste management strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2000. It was based on a regional approach that required several municipalities to sign agreements of cooperation to establish regional landfills. Sanda Medina-Kurcic explains how, “that strategy failed because [Bosnian] waste management facilities don’t have the capacities to manage waste on the regional level sustainably.“  Low revenues for waste management companies coupled with inabilities to manage costs create operating deficits, she says. Crumbling infrastructure results.

Well-meaning foreign programs seem to be hardly making a dent in solving Bosnia’s waste management woes. According to data from the Environmental Protection Fund of the Republika Srpska, there are 250 registered illegal dumpsites in the entity and 340 in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only about 10 to 15 percent of these illegal sites have been closed in recent years.

Some of these landfills have been shut down with the help of local organizations such as the Aarhus Centar of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who are stepping in to address some of the environmental issues governments ignore. For instance, the organization recently launched a project focused on a dumping site about 10 kilometers away from the city of Livno, 300 meters away from the village of Grborezi. “Municipal authorities planed a waste dump without an adopted spatial plan,” notes the executive director of the Center, Sabina Jukan. Since the dump’s opening in 2008, it is “continually polluting the environment and endangering human health.” Rain and flooding create hazardous runoff from the uncompact trash. The Aarhus Centar is working to engage local policymakers through the rule of law to spark action on addressing this landfill.

Yet unless there is civil will to propel political action, many of these efforts may be done in vain. As Ružičić Nebojša noted, it is primarily those born before the War that still feel a connection to dajak boating, and subsequently the Vrbas. But despite this cultural disconnect to the rivers,  Natasa Crnkovic remains optimistic. “It [change] is coming from the bottom, the grassroots, the public. That can really bring hope.”

On this human level, preserving the environment can have impacts far beyond conservation. Marjana Valjevac, AID Project Management Specialist at USAID Bosnia and Herzegovina, found a silver lining within the destruction of the 2014 floods. Amidst a total state failure to adequately respond the crisis, citizens stepped in to fill in the gaps. Valjavec notes that neighbors reached out to help each other, regardless of their background. She terms it, “unintentional reconciliation,” the sort of post-war peacebuilding that may break down some of the staunch divides created between religious and ethnic groups during the war.

A similar mentality could be applied to environmental protection. Rivers connect people along streams, through shared waters, beyond socially constructed boundaries. Though groups of people use the waters for many different purposes, working to preserve the environment can be a source of unity. Those efforts may lead to meaningful, long-lasting results.  “Some systematic change really needs to happen,” says Crnkovic. “Of course the environment should be used and managed, but in a sustainable way.”


Josh Feng ‘18* is in Timothy Dwight College. He can be reached at josh.feng@yale.edu.
*Originally a member of the Class of 2017, Josh is taking a gap year in Taipei, Taiwan.

Photograph by Clara Mokri.