An economy based on the high-quality management of the environment doesn’t only represent the economy of the future, but is also a precondition for the survival of human civilisation. Serbia is missing out on one opportunity after another to at least “keep pace” with countries that have similar economic power, and in certain areas it could be not only a regional leader, but easily also a European and world leader
In the interview he gave for our publication six years ago, Imperial College London professor Čedo Maksimović warned that the whole world is confronted by a need to seriously reconsider long-term strategies for the management of water and that the old rules are no longer valid, as they are easily failing to deliver the services for which they are planned. That’s why we used our first question on this occasion to ask him to determine whether we’ve been successful in identifying new long-term strategies and new rules during this period.
“New strategies are being identified and some of them are beginning to be implemented in practice relatively quickly. Faster in developed countries, slower in less developed countries, while many are failing to deal with new strategies and technologies at all. At the same time, the situation with shortages of good quality water is worsening almost the world over,” says our interlocutor, before clarifying: “the amount of water “in circulation” is the same, but the amount of water of a satisfactory quality is decreasing rapidly, primarily due to ever increasing water pollution. One fundamental new development is the revelation that it is becoming increasingly difficult to solve water problems in isolation. The solution lies in the gradual acceptance of integrated solutions (nexus) e.g., water in interactions with food, energy and pollution reduction. This is what we call Blue Green Solutions – BGS.”
We are living in times when it seems that all the answers are to be found in the applying of high-tech solutions, in the use of artificial intelligence and in digitalisation. To what extent can these solutions help when we’re confronted by such a basic problem as water shortages?
That’s just part of the story. Automation, digitalisation and artificial intelligence are best put to use in large and complex systems (for example, in supplying water to Paris or Los Angeles), and there the advances of operations with high technologies are great. However, (as you say) the problem of water shortages, particularly in smaller systems, and in small and isolated areas, can also be solved through simple methods, simply by applying instruments of the rule of law (when it exists). For instant, if the dam and reservoir of the Gruža Lake was created (with large funds invested and agricultural land sacrificed) in order to provide additional water resources for Kragujevac and that part of Šumadija, but then uncontrolled urbanisation is permitted “all around” (holiday houses, residential facilities, taverns, farms etc.) without the appropriate, stringent application of basic rules of “sanitation”, it is clear that the quality and “availability” of water will gradually decrease, leading to a shortage of high-quality potable water. There’s no help from artificial intelligence and digitalisation here. Simple logic (kind of the “rule of thumb”), and the strict application of the basic legal requirements of sanitation, reduces this type of shortage.
Serbia still has a “critical mass” of high-quality experts capable of planning and designing advanced water infrastructure solutions and working on the management of complex systems, but that is gradually shrinking, both in this and other areas of professional competence. In order to reverse this negative trend, it is essential to “reset” the system and to restore, in the right place, basic principles of the rule of law, the professional and ethical values of the profession and their consistent implementation
When it comes to this kind of knowhow and these opportunities, what does Serbia use today; and what could it apply if it amended its policies?
Serbia still has a “critical mass” of highly competent experts capable of planning and designing contemporary solutions of water infrastructure and in the management of complex systems. However, this significant human resource capacity is gradually being lost through several “mechanisms”: (a) quality experts and companies are subjected to conceptual solutions “imposed” by incompetent but “powerful” government officials who “operate” using a different logic (maximising their personal gains); (b) under the threat of simple existence or permanent job loss, both experts and companies agree to “elaborate” and sign up to the imposed concepts, i.e., “surrogates” of sound logic; (c) younger experts are lacking opportunities to gain quality expertise to cope with the challenges of modern technologies, i.e., to be part of the creative process of mastering innovative technologies, rather than gradually “fitting into the system of obedience” by recycling obsolete solutions, to the “detriment” of the profession; (d) executive positions in urban planning institutions and public utility companies are given to obedient and professionally incompetent people, thus closing the cycle of the “collapse” of the system of professional values. Water systems are no exception.
Your opinion is that the key solutions to future healthy cities are based on prudent combinations of blue and green structures, i.e., urban waters and areas of greenery. Do you see examples of such a principle being applied in Belgrade or other cities in Serbia?
Blue-green solutions (BGR) and their combining with the “reset” of the social and legal framework and the system of true values in a civilised society is the goal that we should be striving to achieve in Serbia. In Belgrade and some other cities, we’re seeing the emergence of ideas for their application on a micro scale.
However, mass implementation is unlikely to happen without the aforementioned “system reset”. This could be contributed to, to some extent, by the programmes of two ongoing EU projects: “euPOLIS” (https://eupolis-project. eu/) and “HEART” (https://www.heart-project. eu/), under the scope of which “demo examples” are being conducted at two locations in Belgrade. Hopefully, they can be extrapolated to larger scale, encompassing the whole city and other cities.
Ecological issues recently became one of the important social topics in Serbia that leads people to take to the streets.
At both the global level and the level of our country, there is rising awareness of the fact that preserving and improving the quality of the natural environment is an important prerequisite not only for the quality of life in urban, rural and natural environments, but also (without exaggeration) for the very survival of human civilisation. When those in power turn a deaf ear to both the initiatives of competent experts and the “cry of the people” to create a “healthy” long-term strategy based on the latest scientific and professional achievements, then “civil disobedience”, unfortunately, is the only way to call on “key decision makers”, and their unconditional followers, to start solving the backlog of environmental problems in a logical way.
When it comes to making strategic government decisions at the national and local levels in the UK, how much are the will of citizens and the views of experts respected? The government there is also ambivalent. The will of citizens and the initiatives of experts and professional “bodies” are respected and implemented in many cases, mainly at the local level, through a system of public consultations for approving planning permission.
However, there are also examples of the opposite, such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel – Super Sewer project. Despite opposition among the public and almost the entire academic community (in the field of water), which claimed that this is an outdated concept (a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem), the central government of the UK and the then council of the City of London took this project and “pushed it through the decision-making system”.
Blue-green solutions (BGS) combined with the “reset” of the distorted social framework to a system of true values, and restoring the role that belongs to the community of professionals in a civilised society, is the goal that we should be striving to achieve in Serbia
You are in a position to compare the two education systems of Serbia and the UK. What are the differences and similarities between their approach to solutions that can be applied in the economy in real time?
The British (higher education) system is a combination of “traditional values” and the swift, modern acceptance of innovation (new courses etc.) and clearer strategies for meeting the needs of society. They are certainly in a better financial situation: equipment, laboratories etc. Here I’m referring to “state” faculties with proven education values – as opposed to those that deliver values of dubious quality and fake diplomas”. One can still say that they are based on a profound theoretical basis for education. Upon graduation, good students easily fit into the world’s leading academic and scientific institutions. A major disadvantage, however, is that, in our country, we don’t develop “complementary skills”, such as how to “package” and properly present the results of expert work.
It is sometimes said that countries like ours can make a “quantum leap” in development by adopting some new technologies, and bypassing some old ones that they had neither the time nor the resources to implement earlier. Is that possible for Serbia when it comes to your area of expertise?
Instead of the word ‘CAN’, I would use the word “COULD”, provided the “social environment” was at the required level to place the interests of the country ahead of the personal interests (usually financial) of the decision-makers). I’ve spent the last several years trying to achieve such a “quantum leap” in the field of urban waters, primarily in the design, construction, and management of the operations of WWTP (wastewater treatment plants). Given that Serbia has almost no WWTPs, it could immediately apply the latest technology: plants that are cleaner, far more “ecologically advanced”, cheaper to construct, operate and maintain, requiring much less space and energy, and which don’t stink. Instead of that, “the cards have already been dealt”, the government opted for the outdated “stinky”, overpriced (“dinosaur”) technology (19th-century solutions to serve the needs of the 21st-century). A great chance to “be a champion” is being gambled away. For more details on this, please check out the presentation: https://youtu.be/ab819Y4npn8 on YouTube.
You consider that everything which is today considered waste will be considered a valuable resource in the future.
Certainly. Such a future (circular ecology) has already begun in many developed and developing countries. Something that represents waste in one industry is a raw material for another, and so on “in a circle”. Serbia, as we can see today, is full of landfill sites, illegal dumps and polluted rivers. That’s just one of the indicators of a “distorted value system” and a disorderly legal and social system, with complete disregard for the health and well-being of the public. The standout examples here are systems that should be “exemplary”/carriers of economic development, such as tourism. You need only to take a slightly closer look at (and smell) our most famous mountain resorts (Kopaonik, Zlatibor and Divčibare). In less than the last 10 years a, they’ve experienced uncontrolled/ chaotic “urbanisation” with the construction of accommodation facilities lacking even the minimum level of long-term strategy, without proper inspection oversight and without supporting infrastructure.
Around the world and in our country, awareness is rising regarding the preserving and improving of the quality of the natural environment as an important prerequisite not only for quality of life, but also for the basic survival of human civilisation
Given that Serbia has almost no wastewater treatment plants, it could immediately implement the latest technology. Instead of that, the government opted for an outdated and overpriced solution
When we look at what’s already being built and what’s planned for our carriers of economic development in tourist resorts, one shouldn’t be surprised if there are outbreaks of significant epidemics in those locations