An unusually dry winter has left water reservoirs in Kosovo perilously low. If rain or snow does not come soon almost half a million people will face severe water shortages, but experts say such crises are avoidable.
The cracked bed of the artificial Batlava Lake, in the north-east of Kosovo, is a telling sign that the expected snow and rain simply hasn't come.
"The situation this year is almost catastrophic. Nobody remembers the water levels dropping this much at this time of year," local resident Xhevdet Termkolli told the Associated Press. "And no one recalls not having had snowfall by this time either."
While North America freezes, Europe is experiencing an unusually warm winter. In Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in 2008, years of under-investment in weather monitoring and water infrastructure have left it unprepared to face seasonal fluctuations in temperature and precipitation.
Heavy snow caused widespread closures in Kosovo in 2012, but the lack of snow is causing drought this year
"They have a very challenging water resources regime to deal with," international water consultant Brian Faulkner told DW, describing the typical heavy snowfalls, followed by a fast spring melt and long, dry summers. "That requires a high sophistication of management and forward planning and early warning, those kinds of things which they just simply don't exercise because of lack of staff expertise and budgets and all the rest of it."
Praying for snow
The regional water supply company for Pristina said Kosovo's capital, home to some 400,000 out of Kosovo's 1.8 million residents, would face strict water restrictions if the Batlava and Badovac basins, which feed into the city, are not replenished in the next few weeks.
"We're told there will be snow falling intensively from January 19 and we pray for that. We are still not in the emergency phase of water supply," Arieta Mjeku, a company spokesperson, told AP, adding that those who got their water from wells were not at risk.
But the issue runs much deeper than waiting for the next rain or snowfall, according to Faulkner. He cites systemic issues such as the lack of infrastructure to capture the major snow melts to their full potential. The water which does end up in reservoirs, often does not reach the people who need it.
"The wastage of water in the Balkans generally is enormous," Faulkner said. "At least 50 percent of what is put into supply is lost…it just disappears into the system and a lot of it is leakage."
A lack of weather and water monitoring infrastructure is also a concern. Kosovo's hydrometric networks were destroyed during the war from 1998-1999 and are still not back up and running, said Faulkner, partly due to a lack of political will to spend money on the systems.
"I have had many meetings with water directors in Kosovo and they are very reactive to the situation," he said. "They just happen to see reservoirs are emptying very rapidly or the rivers have run dry and almost always you are back into a crisis management sort of situation."
Unprepared for climate change
The vulnerability of Kosovo and the rest of the Balkan region to shifting weather patterns is acknowledged by international groups like the European Union and Germany's agency for international cooperation, the GIZ.
The GIZ is investing 3.5 million euros ($4.8 million) into working alongside government agencies in Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo to prepare for the impacts of climate change.
Faulkner, who makes frequent trips to Kosovo through his work with the GIZ to establish an improved early warning system for floods and droughts, said according to climate change predictions, the Balkans area is at a high risk of more extreme weather.
"The summers are going to get drier and hotter, the winters are going to get colder potentially and that is going to make the management of water generally much more problematic," he said, adding that with a growing population demanding more water, Kosovo's budget-stretched leaders needed to be proactive in boosting water monitoring, infrastructure and conservation. "Crises like this serve to demonstrate that they cut these networks at their peril."