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Will We Cook All The Fish?

Serbia remains a country of extremes – with territories of pristine nature, but a large number of areas where neglect, carelessness and poor public policies are destroying what we have

You can take an aquarium and turn it into fish soup, but you can’t turn fish soup into an aquarium… You’ve cooked the fish – It’s over! That’s history! – It might be a good idea to read this famous sentence of late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić multiple times today, when we are thinking about the ways we want to direct the future development of Serbia, and primarily its ecological future.

It is in that same context that we should probably also read one sentence of our interlocutor Dragana Đorđević from the University of Belgrade’s Institute of Chemistry, Technology and Metallurgy, who says: “It is easy to take agricultural land and turn it into a mine, but a mine can never again be turned back into healthy, fertile land”.

We interviewed Đorđević on the topic of the future of Serbia, which is being increasingly depicted as a country with enviable mineral wealth and a bright future from its exploitation. But let’s start from the beginning.

How do you view the quality of the natural environment in Serbia, based on the findings of your research work at the Institute? Is it a country of pristine nature, as we like to think, or a country that is still a long way from taking care of ecology, as we fear?

Places of pristine nature exist in Serbia, while on the other side there are dirty technologies and energy sources based on poor quality coal – lignite, which traditionally pollute many towns and cities in Serbia, as well as the surrounding settlements.

The open-air incinerating of various waste renders the air toxic. The attitude towards watercourses is one of negligence. The Bor River is Europe’s most heavily polluted river. Topčider River collects the runoff neglected industrial waste from former factories in Rakovica and carries pollution into the backwaters of the Sava, near the point where there are also three outlets releasing untreated faecal sewage, and all in the zone of the elite Belgrade Waterfront settlement.

Corruption, low mining rental costs, a lack of concern over environmental protection, cheap labour, a policy of low fines, the absence of state control mechanisms and the like – these are the reasons why ever more foreign mining companies are interested in opening mines in Serbia. Mining is the most destructive form of human activity for the natural environment

The absence of order in the waste management sector has led to the appearance of more than 3,000 wild landfills, which often catch fire. Farmers’ habit of burning fields to get rid of the leftovers after the harvest only serves to make the air even more polluted from the end of one agricultural season to the beginning of the next. Some problems in Serbia can, with political will, be solved.

There are numerous discussions being led in public about Serbia’s mining policies, both when it comes to the management of mineral resources in general and when it comes to specific projects, such as the exploitation of the mineral jadarite. From your point of view, what are the most important unanswered questions when it comes to these topics?

Corruption, low mining rental costs, a lack of concern over environmental protection, cheap labour, a policy of low fines, the absence of state control mechanisms and the like – these are the reasons why ever more foreign mining companies are interested in opening mines in Serbia. Mining is the most destructive form of human activity for the natural environment.

The exploitation of jadarite is particularly problematic, because the technology for processing it demands enormous amounts of water and the use of huge amounts of concentrated sulphuric acid and other aggressive acids, while enormous amounts of CO2 would be emitted into the atmosphere. The processing of the mineral ore would occur in a lively and populated area, where people live very well from agriculture thanks to the fertile land and high-quality shallow groundwaters.

Geological research is currently being conducted on 179 fields in Serbia. What, in your opinion, are the most important criteria when we need to decide whether or not to enter into the exploitation of some mineral resource; and is it possible to be a country that has both the intensive exploitation of minerals and “green policies”?

Leaks of toxic mine water occurred already during the exploratory works, poisoning family drinking wells, artesian wells, farmland and surface water. A small country like Serbia cannot be a country with intensive exploitation of mineral resources, because it would be devastated completely and permanently. Alongside the intensive exploitation of minerals, “green policies” are not enforceable.

It is planned to construct 856 small hydropower plants on small and clean mountain rivers on the territory of Serbia. They would collectively produce about three per cent of the total energy and completely annihilate watercourses of hills and mountains, while losses in the transmission network exceed 15% and nothing is being done to reduce them

There are numerous examples around the world, such as the Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea or Myanmar, and other small countries that multinational mining companies have devastated irreversibly. Serbia is primarily an agricultural country that’s rich in high-quality agricultural land (70% of the territory), which is in short supply around the world due to it disappearing rapidly and irreversibly. It is easy to take agricultural land and turn it into a mine, but a mine can never again be turned back into healthy, fertile land.

How would you rate the quality of the public debate on environmental protection in the context of managing mineral resources in Serbia?

It is practically impossible for the broader scientific community to participate in debate with the professional public, due to the shortness of the period from the announcing of a public debate to it being held, which is often during the period of national holidays or annual summer holidays, thus reducing the possibility of seriously studying the voluminous documentation that represents the subject of the public debate. It is the same case when it comes to the management of mineral resources in Serbia.

To what extent are colleges/faculties, institutes and scientific institutions included generally in the shaping of state policies, on the one hand, and in public debate, on the other?

It is possible that individuals from the academic sector, who have close ties to the government, are involved more, but the academic sector is, as a rule, not consulted when it comes to making key decisions. Information related to key decisions that politicians make is largely unavailable to the wider academic sector.

Considering that you are also involved in debate on small hydropower plants, could you give us your assessment of the impact that these plants have on the environment in Serbia?

It is planned to construct 856 small hydropower plants on small and clean mountain rivers on the territory of Serbia. They would collectively produce about three per cent of the total energy and completely annihilate watercourses of hills and mountains, while losses in the transmission network exceed 15% and nothing is being done to reduce them. Mountainous and hilly regions experience strong, torrential erosions and landslides, which are among today’s most urgent issues identified by global science. For example, it was shown in the Vlasina river basin that the launch of construction of a hydropower plant led to serious problems in the city’s water supply. Following rains and melting snow, erosive material descends from hilly and mountainous areas to the water catchment area of city water supply systems. This results in a break in the water supply until the catchment water is cleaned of mud, which can sometimes last days or even weeks.

The legislative framework is largely harmonised with EU standards when it comes to environmental protection. Application is lacking, along with the harmonisation of the punitive policy, which is inadequate when compared to the damage caused. That’s why many foreign investors are coming to Serbia

Small reservoirs for small hydro plants also emit methane (marsh gas), which is also a greenhouse gas with a much stronger potential impact than CO2. Toxic and carcinogenic oils that pollute the water are also used to lubricate the turbines. The plants’ transformers contain several hundred litres of oil, which occasionally boils when outflow occurs, and subsequently end up in the river. SHPPs are being massively removed around the world, due to their disastrous impact on the environment. The SHPP concept of energy transition in Serbia is exclusively due to the profits of investors close to the government.

Where should we start when it comes to providing higher quality care for the environment? From amending, and better applying, the legislative framework, or from the greater involvement of the profession in shaping public policies, or from something else entirely?

The legislative framework is largely harmonised with EU standards when it comes to environmental protection. Application is lacking, along with the harmonisation of the punitive policy, which is inadequate when compared to the damage caused. That’s why many foreign investors are coming. The greater inclusion of relevant science and professions in shaping public policies or making crucial decisions on the future directions of development is key to solving the problem.

OXYMORON

A small country like Serbia cannot be a country with intensive exploitation of mineral resources, because it would be devastated completely and permanently. With intensive exploitation of minerals, “green policies” are not enforceable

PROFIT

SHPPs are being massively removed around the world, due to their disastrous impact on the environment. The SHPP concept of energy transition in Serbia is exclusively due to the profits of investors close to the government

INCLUSION

The greater inclusion of relevant science and professions in shaping public policies or making crucial decisions on the future directions of development is key to solving the problem