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‘We will die before the Drina is clean’: Bosnia villagers hope for a solution to polluted river

Rubbish collected in a barrier by a hydroelectric dam on the Drina river, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Rubbish collected in a barrier by a hydroelectric dam on the Drina river, Bosnia & Herzegovina Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Hannah Brown with AP
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20 years since the breakup of Yugoslavia, a failure to establish good waste disposal practices has left Bosnia’s Drina river full of rubbish.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Drina river was once famed for its emerald waters. Now, after two decades of mismanaged waste, it’s full of rubbish.

Twice a year, between 10,000 and 15,000 cubic metres of plastic bottles, rusty barrels, used tyres, household appliances and other waste is pulled from the river at a site near the town of Visegrad.

Locals are losing hope that they will ever see the river clean again.

Why is the Drina river full of rubbish?

The Drina River runs 346 kilometres from the mountains of north-western Montenegro through Serbia and Bosnia.

Decades after the devastating 1990s wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, the countries of the region have made little progress in building effective, environmentally sound waste disposal systems.

Despite adopting some of the EU’s laws and regulations, unauthorised waste dumps dot hills and valleys throughout the region, while rubbish litters roads and plastic bags hang from trees.

The rubbish flows downstream from Serbia and Montenegro as well as Bosnia and collects at a rubbish barrier installed by a hydroelectric plant a few kilometres upstream of Visegrad.

The enormous rubbish flotilla is emptied twice a year and takes around six months to fully clear.

The waste retrieved from this section of the Drina ends up at the municipal landfill. According to local environmental activists, the landfill site lacks capacity to handle even the city’s municipal waste, let alone that amassed in Serbia and Montenegro.

“We now realise that our landfill, where we have been dumping this garbage [from the river] for years, is at 90 per cent capacity,” says Dejan Furtula of the environmental group Eko Centar Visegrad.

“So the question now is what will happen if next year we again face the influx of between ten and 15 thousand cubic metres of waste?”

What can be done to clean up the Drina river?

Communities within reach of the river have come to accept seasonal floods of waste as inevitable.

“After more than 20 years of living alongside the river, we had to accept this as a fact of life,” says Verica Djuric, a local fisherwoman.

“Of course, we tend to believe that we will die before the Drina is clean of garbage."

“It is ugly, it is sad, but we know that the problem must be addressed at higher levels [of government] and that relevant government ministers of the three countries involved are already engaged in talks, so all we have left is to hope,” she adds.

The environment ministers of Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro have been meeting regularly for the past three years, promising to work together to solve the problem.

But activists and residents insist authorities are too secretive and slow.

“We know that the ministers of Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia meet in different locations once every six months. They were here in Visegrad recently, but they never share conclusions of their meetings with the public,” says Furtula.

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To address the problem, Furtula thinks unregulated riverside landfills need to be cleared and several strategically placed waste recycling facilities would have to open across the three countries.

What is the government doing about the problem?

In written responses to AP, the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Construction and Ecology for part of the country said it had acknowledged and addressed the problem in its ten-year waste management strategy.

Due to “stagnation of efforts to solve the problem” the ministry has repeatedly urged relevant authorities in Serbia and Montenegro to restart work to “permanently solve” the issue of floating waste in the Drina River basin, it said.

The ministry also called for another trilateral meeting on the ministerial level, but “this has not happened because of other obligations of relevant ministers of Serbia and Montenegro”.

“The source of the problem of floating waste in the Drina River, as well as its solution, can be found in neighbouring countries, Serbia and Montenegro, but also in efforts to raise public awareness about the importance of environment protection in general,” the ministry wrote.

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Watch the video above to see the devastating pollution in the Drina river.

Video editor • Hannah Brown

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