Sarajevo (Photo © Aldin033/Shutterstock)

Sarajevo (Photo © Aldin033/Shutterstock)

Last December, Sarajevo was the most polluted capital in the world. What are the main causes of pollution in the Bosnian capital? An interview with Anes Podić, coordinator of Eko Akcija

16/01/2019 -  Alfredo Sasso Sarajevo

Eko Akcija is one of Bosnia's most active environmental associations, particularly attentive to the monitoring of air pollution. In the days when Sarajevo was one of the most polluted cities in the world, we met Anes Podić, coordinator of the association, who welcomed us with a folder full of charts and figures.

What is the situation of air pollution in the Sarajevo canton?

These [showing the data] are the data about PM10 in Sarajevo, from 2014 up to the present day. Apparently, winter is especially problematic. In 2014 we reached 400, even 500 in the following years. Only in 2017 we had more luck thanks to the many windy days.

Sarajevo - Average daily concentration of PM10 fine powders from 2014 to today. Processing: Eko Akcija - Click to enlarge the image

One of the problems we have is the alert threshold for fine particles. Even if they are not binding directives, a number of countries and cities in the region have applied them. Bosnia and Herzegovina has adopted European legislation only where convenient. On paper everything looks OK, but some important parts are missing altogether.

The alert levels are set in such a way that, when they are reached, measures are taken to reduce pollution and protect the population: schools are closed, pregnant women are advised to stay at home, etc.. But we do not have these thresholds in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is no Ministry of the Environment at the state level, there are ministries at the level of the Entity. And the ministry of the BiH Federation did not set the warning thresholds, but has let the cantons do it.

The situation is such that the cantons either have no warning threshold, as in the case of the cantons of Tuzla and Zenica which, according to the data at our disposal, are among the most polluted; or they have an alert threshold of 400 micrograms, as in the case of the Sarajevo Canton. But 400 micrograms are 5 times the threshold in Paris! And why did they pick 400? Because they looked at the statistics and thought that the 400 threshold would never be reached (laughs).

Zenica - Average daily concentration of PM10 fine powders from 2014 to today. Processing: Eko Akcija - Click to enlarge the image

Instead, the threshold was reached in December 2016. How did you react?

We created a smartphone app. People read: danger, danger, danger... And when people saw this message continuously, they put pressure on the cantonal government to do something. And so the government set up alternate license plates, but withdrew the provision the day after because of protests. And who did it blame? The ones who created the app, accusing us of spreading panic and false news. And yet, look at [pointing at the chart]: Paris is there, we are here. If this had happened in Western Europe, there would have been the army in the streets, the police would not have allowed people to go out on the street, the heads of various ministers would have rolled. Here, instead, it is the fault of those who spread the information.

When did you actually start dealing with air pollution?

Eko Akcija was founded in 2009, the intention was to take care of protected areas. Bosnia and Herzegovina is very rich in nature. However, in 2013 the canton adopted the plan for the reduction of fine particles, and we took an interest, looked at the available data, compared with world standards and... the shock came. Pollution was sky-high in winter 2013, and the reaction of the government was the following: the representative of the Institute for Public Health of FBiH advised to "put a scarf in front of the mouth and nose". She had no idea that these particles are microscopic and that a scarf is useless.

The FBiH Institute of Hydrometeorology explained instead that pollution is not so dangerous for health, that life in the city is like that. The actual phrase was: "It is the price to be paid for living in the city".

At the time we asked for the closing of schools and other measures. But the response of then Prime Minister of the Canton Suad Zeljković was: "If some parents want to prolong the winter holidays, they can go skiing". It was always a reaction along these lines.

In 2013, the institutions were still in denial and pretended not to know. After five years of campaigning, they can no longer deny and they give better instructions. At least they are no longer advising to put a scarf in front of your face.

After the October elections there is a new majority in the canton of Sarajevo, with mainly centre-left parties. Can this lead to some change?

What we are actually missing is an exact diagnosis of the problems. Some research has started in recent times, but it is not enough. We do not have a diagnosis of the situation, as in knowing from what source we know what. These political parties do not have a common line. Now in the talks for the formation of the government they have many points to discuss, but where is the point on the environment? There is not. The only point is to apply the plan that had already been prepared by the SDA [the party in power in the previous government] and their consultants, which will not serve to clean the air, but only to give more money and jobs to consultants themselves.

What is the main cause of air pollution in Sarajevo?

The decisive factor remains domestic heating. This year, the use of coal has increased because the price of wood has increased. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the largest producers of timber in Europe, but prefers to export it, because it is more profitable, thus raising the price on the local market. This is why many switch to coal, which according to the recommendations by the World Health Organization should be completely banned. In Sarajevo, however, one of the government's measures was to authorise the sale of coal with less sulfur. This does not mean anything: coal with less sulfur will produce fine particles like the one with more sulfur. Only a complete ban would make sense.

But first, of course, you need to give people an alternative. For example, timber with a controlled price. Maybe you do not notice it in Sarajevo, but outside cities people are in such financial difficulties that buying wood can be for them the decisive moment of winter. Only when they buy wood do they know that they will get through winter without problems.

Another problem is energy efficiency. This should be solved by replacing stoves and boilers. They could make replacement mandatory in 60,000 apartments, but without paying for everyone. Those who have enough money pay for themselves... Such a plan would cost less than 25 million Euros. And the canton's annual budget is 475 million Euros.

What other measures would you suggest?

In 1992, the city of Graz lowered the speed limit to 30 km per hour. However, ours remains at 50. The reasons for reducing it are: first, fewer accidents; second, cars produce more emissions when they accelerate, and this is often the case in Sarajevo. From Ilidža [suburb on the outskirts of Sarajevo] to the centre there are 15 traffic lights. You stop at least five times, if you are lucky. And if you accelerate, emissions increase; if you slow down, instead, emissions decrease. Yet, our experts say that traffic should be sped up! [laughs].

Our experts do not know that Graz has a similar number of inhabitants to Sarajevo and is similar in many geographical aspects. In Graz there are warning thresholds, and you are always under 70 micrograms. On the other hand, limits vary from city to city because the sources of pollution are not the same everywhere. We indicate Paris in our charts because a couple of years ago Paris had a major pollution crisis, but then applied the threshold, like more or less throughout the European Union, except in Poland where there is a threshold of 300, but that is because they have a lot of coal and the industry lobby.

All countries suffer from pollution, Western Europe has been very affected by pollution. Think of London in 1952, the five days of smog in which 12,000 people died. But what did London do then? In 1956, it adopted a law with a series of limitations. The so-called "smoke-free zones" are established, where raw fuels can no longer be burnt, but only clean fuels that do not produce emissions.

In Sarajevo, at the end of the 1960s, problems were more serious than they are now. The population had quadrupled in twenty years, there were many factories, all with coal-fired boilers. And yet, in 1969, in the Oslobodjenje newspaper [Sarajevo's main newspaper], a letter appeared from some doctors, who said that several sick children arrived in the hospitals. And there was a fuss. The entire city community, led by the then Communist elite, undertook to solve problems to keep people healthy. And, in the summer of 1972, coal was banned. But first, in order not to let people die of cold, they ensured cleaner alternatives: naphtha, fuel oil, gas. Small pumps were built all over the city where naphtha was bought. Some are still around, like archaeological finds. Even courses were organised in local communities to learn how to use heating.

At the time, Sarajevo reduced pollution by 30% thanks to these measures. Then it asked for a loan from the World Bank, it was the first time that the World Bank financed a project for the environment. The agreement was reached in 1976. At the time, we spent for the reconstruction of the aqueduct and air maintenance the equivalent of a year's budget today. Today, it would be totally unthinkable.

In addition to heating and traffic, are there other pollution factors?

There is not much industry left, but what remains is not regulated. The mechanism for controlling environmental permits does not work. In the European Union, at least, there are significant fines for companies that do not respect limits. Here, on the other hand, the maximum fines are 10,000 marks [just over 5,000 Euros]. Mittal in Zenica, in 2016, paid a total of 6,000 marks [just over 3,000 Euros]. In Sarajevo there are many businesses, especially restaurants, which cook on the grill, which produces a lot of pollution – we have hundreds, and there is no regulation.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has major environmental problems, not just air. We have landfills that emit an enormous amount of gas creating huge health problems. Sarajevo's municipal landfill was built after the war, then after 2008 it began to saturate, today for a few kilometers the inhabitants are overwhelmed by the miasms. And then we have wild landfills scattered across the country. 30% of the Bosnian population is not covered by waste collection.

Meanwhile, the EU strategy for the Western Balkans does not have a point on the environment. It covers energy, migrants, international cooperation, training, but not the environment.

And we have a government that keeps telling us, "But to solve this we need money, and there is no money". Yet, we build highways. A few hundred million marks will now be allocated for the construction of new highways. According to a 2001 study by the Japanese Agency for Development, the only really useful route in the Bosnian territory is Sarajevo-Zenica. Yet, now new highways are being built over Zenica, 4 kilometres of highway cost 67 million Euros, and they make sure that profit for the constructor is guaranteed. If there is not enough traffic, the state will jump in. And of course there will not be enough traffic, so we will have to pay for it.

Another example: every morning there is a terrible line from Vogošča [suburb of Sarajevo] to the city centre, in the evening in the opposite direction. Approximately 30,000 vehicles pass every day on that road. Now, the government wants to build a road Vogošča-centre that will cost around 150 million Euros. With that money, they could modernise the tram and railway lines, buy new vehicles.

The heart of the matter is that cities are now seen as a set of properties to profit off of, and not as a place where people live with their needs. This is the main problem.


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