The Serbian parliament has approved controversial changes to the Water Law, introducing no-bid agreements for the lease of public waterside land despite opposition from non-governmental organizations. Jovan Rajić, chairman of the board of the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI), has told Balkan Green Energy News that RERI will start collecting signatures for a petition to hold a referendum on waters.
The collection of signatures is organized in cooperation with the WWF, and the referendum would be similar to the one recently held in Slovenia. Rajić said that RERI believes the result would be the same or similar to the vote in Slovenia, where 87% said no to the “usurpation of rivers.”
The adopted changes will introduce “legalized corruption”
Rajić reiterated that the adopted changes to the Water Law are unconstitutional and that they will introduce “legalized corruption” in Serbia, adding that no-bid agreements are “a relic of the time when there was no market and there were no competition rules.”
The changes allow for leasing out public waterside land through a no-bid agreement in exceptional cases, where provided by another law, if such an agreement is the only possible solution.
According to Minister of Environmental Protection Irena Vujović, this applies to direct or indirect budget beneficiaries, within the meaning of the budget system law, as well as to contractors selected for the removal of river depositions for the purpose of building facilities of national significance, determined by the Government at the proposal of the ministry in change of construction and in accordance with the Law on Planning and Construction.
Waterside land can be leased through no-bid agreements for floating nightclubs in Belgrade
The changes prescribe that public waterside land can exceptionally be leased through no-bid agreements for floating structures installed on such land on the territory of Belgrade before the Water Law came into force.
Ahead of the vote in the National Assembly, Vujović said that the changes and amendments to the Water Law would also push back the deadline for determining the boundaries of waterside land to December 31, 2023.
Serbia bans construction of small hydropower plants in conservation areas
The parliament has also adopted changes to the Nature Protection Law, banning the construction of small hydropower plants in protected areas. The Ministry of Environmental Protection announced back in November 2018 that legislative changes to ban small hydropower plants in protected areas had already been prepared.
Serbia’s new minister of environmental protection Irena Vujović has said that the adopted changes define the principle of caution in cases where there is a threat of damage to a conservation area and where there is not enough scientific data.
However, civil society organizations had earlier warned that the proposed changes to the Law left enough room for approving the construction of a small hydropower plant in a protected area if the development was declared a project of “public interest” or “national significance.” The construction of small hydropower plants has for years been met with pushback and protests throughout the region due to severe environmental consequences of such projects.
RERI and 36 other organizations had demanded changes to be withdrawn
RERI, backed by 36 other environmental organizations, had previously demanded that the proposed changes to the Water Law be withdrawn and the fast-track procedure for their adoption cancelled.
It warned that the public was not informed of the proposed changes and that it was prevented from participating in the process.
Rajić said at the time that the proposed changes were “scandalous” as they would make it possible for waterside land, including sources of drinking water, to be leased “without clear criteria” and “without procedure,” breaching “the basic rules of competition and the market.”
He also explained that the proposal would separate waterside land in Belgrade from the rest of the country and expressed the view that the move would benefit the owners of floating nightclubs and restaurants in the capital.
Šabić: the changes were adopted in haste and with no debate
Former public information commissioner Rodoljub Šabić criticized the manner in which the controversial changes to the Water Law were passed, tweeting that this was done in haste and with no debate whatsoever.