The Waters of Bosnia

By Olivia Burton

Local legend says that if you drink from the Sebilj Fountain in the middle of Baščaršija Square, you will return to Sarajevo.

The Sebilj is one of several public drinking fountains throughout Sarajevo. Constructed by Mehmed Pasha Kukavica in 1753, the wooden, Ottoman-style fountain is a photo opportunity for tourists, a meeting place for friends, and a cultural icon of the city.

Almost all of Bosnia’s public fountains are safe for drinking and their water is cool, clear, and sweet. Public fountains tapped into mountain springs line the road from Sarajevo to the small village of Umoljani on the Olympic mountain of Bjelašnica. Thirsty travelers can simply stop the car and take a drink using their hands or an empty bottle.

Fellow Globalist reporter Caroline Wray and I went to Umoljani in search of a stream supposedly carved by the trail of a dragon. According to folktales, a dragon terrorized the village until the local Muslim imam confronted the dragon while the villagers prayed on a nearby hillside. Because of the prayers of the imam and the villagers, the dragon was turned to stone. The winding stream and a rock formation that looks like a dragon’s tail remain as physical evidence of the story.

Although we had traveled to the village in search of the stream from the folktale, others make the trip to Umoljani for its fresh drinking water. In the middle of the village, a fountain with two large troughs supplies clean water for the village. We met an old couple from Sarajevo who had brought nearly 20 large plastic water bottles to fill with the water from Umoljani. They said that they regularly drive up the mountain to collect what they believe to be some of the freshest, sweetest water in the world.

Although Bosnia only has about 12.5 miles of coastline on the Adriatic Sea, it is famous for its springs and rivers. The Neretva River, flowing through the Dinaric Alps and Mostar in southern Bosnia, is famous for its bright blue color. Divers in Mostar leap into the river from the Stari Most, an Ottoman bridge 24 meters above the surface of the water in a centuries-old tradition. In Banja Luka, whitewater rafting draws professional rafters and tourists from across Europe.

Today, pollution due to war damages and the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations pose a threat to Bosnia’s water resources. Even though water plays an integral role in both the natural and cultural heritage of Bosnia, it lacks adequate protection.

The Neretva River flows through the Dinaric Alps to Mostar in southern Bosnia (Burton/TYG).
The Neretva River flows through the Dinaric Alps to Mostar in southern Bosnia (Burton/TYG).

After devastating flooding in northern Bosnia, the Sarajevo Canton, and Tuzla in May 2014, Bosnians criticized the government’s slow response and failure to effectively distribute aid. The rising waters swept away homes, destroyed infrastructure, and resulted in countless deaths. Landslides throughout the region dislodged land mines and warning signs from the war, making cleanup more difficult.

Water is more than just a necessity for life in Bosnia. It turns folktales into physical realities and links Bosnia’s past and present. With adequate protection, people will continue to be able to drink from cool springs, search for dragon streams from folktales, and leap from Ottoman bridges into bright blue waters.

Olivia Burton ’18 is in Morse College. She can be reached at