By Katerina Karakatsanis
Pristina, the capital city of the young declared state of Kosovo, has been making international headlines with videos of MPs setting off tear gas in Parliament, and the opposition’s protests often reaching violent levels.
Meanwhile, Pristina faces another crisis. An issue that affects Serbs and Albanians alike: air pollution. The tiny nation of 1.8 million holds the fifth largest reserves of lignite coal in the world. And its power plants are using it. Compared to traditional black coal, lignite or “brown coal” has a much lower energy density whilst also causing higher levels of CO2 emissions per ton when used. This pollution travels through the air, where it is mixed with chemicals emitted from old cars and buses, indoor coal burning and dust. Particularly during winter months, the air in Pristina is a foggy mixture of burnt coal, dust, diesel and polluted gasses.
The Silent Killer:
According to World Bank estimates air pollution in urban areas in Kosovo leads to “835 premature deaths, 310 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 600 hospital admissions and 11,600 emergency visits each year”. To put this into perspective, the population size of Pristina is 211,129, and Kosovo’s next biggest city Prizren is 184,586. Air pollution in Kosovo acts as an unassuming killer, amid a society still struggling to grapple with its memories of the death of war.
Let’s put this into money terms. The World Bank has argued that, in Kosovo, the cost of pollution in health consequences amounts to about €37 million to €158 million a year or 2.3 % of the 2010 GDP. A recent report by The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) has gone further and argued that across Europe, coal-pollution costs €42.8 billion per year. So, due to the health effects of pollution, which includes chronic respiratory diseases (such as lung cancer or bronchitis) or cardiovascular diseases like heart failure, the environmental impact has a high cost. As this diagram by HEAL clearly shows that these health effects impact working days, premature deaths, and so on.
So what is polluting Pristina?
The main sources that lead to Pristina’s high levels of pollution are its power plants, as well as outdated energy sources, such as coal for indoor heating and diesel for buses. In March 2015 the government removed age restrictions for vehicles which both increased the number of road accidents, as well as leading to higher levels of pollution. Coupled with high levels of dust, Pristina’s air has alarmingly high levels of pollution.
A few kilometers outside of Pristina lays power plant A and B, both owned by the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK). Around 95% of the energy in Kosovo is obtained from these power plants. At full capacity, these power plants emit “25 tons of dust and ash (that includes gasses) per hour, which is 74 times more than the European limit” (due to old age, these machines don’t use around 628 MB of their capabilities). Particularly, Kosovo A, a remnant of the communist era, is accused of causing cancer and other health problems as a result of its high levels of pollution. For example, in surrounding villages such as Kastriot/Obilić, citizens have higher levels of cancer, and as the director of the primary health centre Atifete Shulemaja reports to Al Jazeera, “[a]pproximately every month we have four new cases of lung cancer”. This past December the Kosovo Hydro-Meteorological Institute warned of the highest level of pollution in Kastroit/Oblicic which reached three times over the limit.
Kosovo suffers from extremely high levels of poverty and unemployment – making it one of Europe’s poorest nations. Power cuts can be common, and as most of the population does not have municipal heating, during the winter months burning coal is used to stay warm. Old, cheap cars and buses are the only affordable options for some of the population, despite the fog of chemicals and strong diesel odder that they emit. All of these chemicals, from the power plants, cars, and indoor heating, travel through the air landing on soil and produce, and within the lungs of the population.
The new power plant:
The Government’s proposed plan has been to close Kosovo A, rehabilitate Kosovo B and to create a new coal based Power Plant (Kosovo e Re). Although the proposal to close Kosovo A has been projected for 2017, no definite plans have been confirmed.
In the lignite coal-rich village of Hade where the new power plant will be built, 7,000 citizens are to be resettled. Evictions have already been going on for years, leaving many residents critical of the Kosovo Government. Many have also criticised the World Bank’s role as an adviser on this issue. The World Bank has recently pledged to support the plan for the new power plant, but many claim that the bank has been involved since the beginning and knew that the government was forcing resettlements without adequate compensation. As a result, some claim that the bank has, contrary to its mission aims, allowed ‘involuntary resettlement’. For more information on these evacuations, check out ICIJ and Huffington Post’s investigative piece.
Proponents of the new power plant argue that this will allow for greater jobs and energy capacities – both of which the citizens of Kosovo will benefit from. Energy consumption in Kosovo is developing at a higher rate than the two outdated power plants can cope with, particularly during the harsh winter months. This causes higher levels of pollution while also forcing the government to import energy; usually at a high price as the greater levels of energy consumption across the Balkans is causing an energy deficit. The government thus hopes that the new power plant could help them reach their goal of sustainable energy levels.
The debate surrounding Kosovo’s power plants raises the question of whether developing nations should be concerned with the same environmental issues as nations which have higher levels of sustainable development. Should Kosovo be concerned about pollution yet, or is that an issue secondary to basic electricity and employment issues? Should undeveloped Kosovo refuse to exploit its abundance of coal, simply because Western states who developed largely through , have now deemed caring about the environment in vogue?
Are there alternatives?
However, many disagree with the Kosovo Government’s energy strategy. Despite the increased energy output that the new power plant would provide, the University of California’s Professor Kammen has argued, in agreement with environmental organisations in Kosovo that options that use more sustainable energy methods are possible.
Environmental group the Sierra Club has also written multiple reports where they argue that cleaner energy alternatives exist, but have been largely ignored by the Government and the World Bank. Within Kosovo, a local NGO called the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) has been closely following the Power Plant developments, conducting research into topics such as energy alternatives and whether the resettlements comply with international law.
Further, Kammen and Kittner argue that Kosovo and the rest of the Balkan states should take care to implement more advanced energy systems as a way to fast-track EU accession. While the EU is currently trying to implement policies to cut down emissions, continuing to invest in lignite coal may lead Kosovo down an intractable path away from their European goal. Thus, this environmental issue carries implications that are not obvious at first glance. The country needs to clearly define its short and long-term goals, and what policies could help them reach these.
Pollution in Kosovo, and across the Balkans, has been a long-standing issue which looks like it won’t be resolved anytime soon. The new power plant will arguably slightly improve conditions as it will allow the government to close Kosovo A. However, this still won’t solve the issue of lignite coal pollutants traveling through Kosovo. Further, recent legislative changes, such as the removal of age restrictions on cars, make it difficult to a future of clean air anytime soon. For now, fresh breaths in Pristina are still a distant reality.
Photos are authors own.