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'Choking season' in the Balkans

Samir Huseinovic Sarajevo | Ivica Petrovic Belgrade
November 4, 2019

With the onset of winter, many Balkan cities, such as Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb, become enveloped in a thick cloud of smog. But instead of tackling the problem, politicians are playing it down.

Smog in Belgrade
Image: Reuters/M. Djurica

In recent days, the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's capital, Sarajevo, were ranked by website AirVisual as among the cities with the world's worst air pollution. This should not come as a surprise. Authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia say that once winter sets in, air quality in other western Balkan cities drops as well.

But their admission is meant as reassurance; they say that there is no reason to panic and that this pollution not exceptional, but just "typical pollution for this time of year."

Read more: Europe air pollution caused 400,000 premature deaths 

And authorities in all three countries are not doing much to change this state of affairs — quite on the contrary. Activist Radomir Lazovic says that sometimes, authorities will knowingly take actions that lead to a further deterioration of the air quality. He says that, for example, "a waste incineration plant is being built in Vinca, near Belgrade, even though the European Investment Bank refused to fund the project because it fails to meet the standards Serbia has accepted as a prospective EU member state."

Lazovic thinks that by calling the smog seasonal, authorities are trying to downplay the issue and keep citizens quiet. He says calling the pollution normal is ignoring reality. "You can't say that pollution just happens. There is always a source of pollution and therefore a chance to reduce it," he says, adding: "But the authorities are actually taking steps that further reduce the air quality."

Bosnien und Herzegowina Smog in Sarajevo
Sarajevo often disappears under a smog blanket in winterImage: DW/Z. Ljubas

Gas vs. coal

While many Balkan cities mainly suffer from bad air quality in winter, the Bosnian cities of Zenica, Tuzla and Lukavac have a smog problem all year round, says Samir Lemes from the Eco Forum Zenica activist group. "Owners of industrial production sites have barely invested, or not at all, in technologies that reduce emissions," he says, adding that because of the wars in the 1990s, investments were put on hold.

And, he says, postwar privatizations did not help cut back sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, either. The consequence is that in 2018, in the city of Zenica — a major metalworking center in Bosnia-Herzegovina — the concentration of harmful substances in the air exceeded the legal limit on 252 out of 365 days. By law, this limit may be exceeded only three times a year.

Read more: Western Balkans waiting for a green energy revolution

Sarajevo also regularly ranks among Europe's most polluted cities. That's because it's located in a valley that hinders air circulation. To make matters worse, many residents still use coal to heat their homes, although the municipality installed gas connections throughout the city in the 1970s  All the same, says Lemes, the gas grid helped significantly to reduce the SO2 and soot concentration in the Sarajevo air.

Polluted air is a major health risk

But the city's air quality soon deteriorated again when car traffic increased along with the use of solid fuels because of high gas prices, says Lemes. "These developments soon undid the progress that had been made in the 1980s with regard to air quality." According to Lemes, the unlicensed construction of skyscrapers has further reduced air circulation in the city, and building homes without gas or central heating hasn't helped, either. With parks becoming fewer and fewer, he says, citizens are increasingly condemned to breathe polluted air.

Read more: Where air pollution hits hardest 

Nenad, a Sarajevo local, suffers from asthma. He says for those with such a chronic illness, "winter in Sarajevo is choking season." He says the worst part is not being able to freely move about the city when there is heavy smog, even though people like him obviously need to get to work or occasionally see a doctor. He says the best solution would be to "flee to the mountains, but even that isn't always an option."

Boro Nogalo, the director of Zagreb's Children's Hospital, estimates that "in 15 years' time, about half of all people will have developed allergies." He says there is a strong correlation between allergies and places with serious air pollution. "Pollution damages the mucous membranes of the airways and, in connection with allergens, causes allergic inflammation," he says.

Stethoscope being applied to child
Children are particularly at risk from air pollutionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/W. Grubitzsch

Time to listen to science: activists

Although Croatia joined the EU in 2013, it does not have better air than in other countries in the Balkan region. While Croatian cities along the Adriatic coast tend to have decent air quality because of their favorable location, that certainly cannot be said for cities further inland.

In the capital, Zagreb, and elsewhere, legal pollution limits are regularly exceeded. Samir Lemes says there is no simple fix to this problem. The activist says a whole bundle of measures would be needed, such as "filters and other technologies to reduce emissions from industrial centers; public transport needs to be improved and made more accessible." He thinks it is also important "to better insulate buildings to reduce their need for heating." And, he says, cars emitting particularly high levels of pollutants should be banned.

He also wants to see "coal gradually phased out as an energy source, because we are living in the 21st century, not the 19th." Lemes hopes to see renewable energy sources come to replace coal-fired power plants. He says it is not so much about finding new solutions, as many other countries are already leading by example. What he wants to see now is lawmakers finally listen to scientists rather than pursuing political agendas — and for them to start tackling the smog problem at last.

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