The privatization of drinking water sources in Serbia – and the region – has proceeded fairly unnoticed and under the radar. By contrast, the construction of small hydropower plants (SHPPs), especially in protected areas, has caused a revolt in parts of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania, while the response of Serbian citizens to the adoption of a law that allows private companies to provide water supply services is still to come. In the meantime, there is a growing number of civil initiatives that say that water is a basic human right. We are interested in what you think about the issue and invite you to participate in Balkan Green Energy News’ survey on water ownership and use.
In 2008, the United Nations proclaimed the right to water to be a basic human right. With the exception of Slovenia, which prohibited the sale of water resources under its Constitution, countries in the region seem to be unaware that poor and irresponsible water management endangers one of the basic human rights.
Nevertheless, we are increasingly witnessing the awakening of civil activism in an effort to preserve this right. The beginning of a kind of resistance is related to the fight against the consequences of building small hydropower plants (HPPs) throughout the region – in Serbia, Albania, BiH.
In Serbia, citizens’ initiative Defend the Rivers of Mt. Stara Planina has been trying for two years to stop the construction of small hydropower plants (SHPPs) in the protected area. The initiative organized a major protest in Pirot in September, and has also announced a protest in Belgrade in late January.
The “Brave women of Kruščica” from BiH have won a formal victory in their battle to block the construction of an SHPP in their town, which lasted for more than a year. Several days ago, a court annulled the SHPP construction permits.
For several years, citizens not only in Albania, but also in the region and in the EU, have been opposing the state and private investors over plans to build more hydropower plants on the Vjosa River in the Balkan country. Due to its beauty, Vjosa, whose source is in Greece, is also called the last great wild river of Europe.
The Right to Water coalition: Declare the right to water a basic human right
In an effort to encourage citizens to ask themselves how important water is, organizations including the Left Summit of Serbia, 7 Requests, and the Social Democratic Union founded the Right to Water coalition, which advocates that water is a public trust.
Iva Marković, an activist of the Green Youth of Serbia and the Left Summit of Serbia, says the coalition is a proponent of constitutional amendments to guarantee a sustainable supply of households with quality drinking water on a non-profit basis.
An excellent example is the civil initiative launched a few days ago by the Consumer Protection Center Forum from Niš to declare the right to water a basic human right under the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, she said at the Fight for Water conference, organized by the Right to Water coalition.
Though it may not seem so, the situation is not great in the European Union either, said Pablo Sanchez Centellas of the European Water Movement, adding that the struggle for water as a public good is not a struggle that is conducted only in the Balkans, but in the EU as well.
Right to Water: Water must be a public good
The European Water Movement has realized that bodies of water are in danger, threatened by investors who want to earn money using water, and that’s why people have raised their voice against the commercialization of water, he said, adding that so far, 1 million signatures have been collected to declare the right to water a human right at the EU level.
There have been three proposals in the EU to declare water a human right under the constitution – in Belgium, Italy, and Slovenia. Only Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic, however, adopted such proposal in November 2016, making it impossible to privatize water resources and leaving them under state management. A few months ago, Lora Vidović, Croatia’s ombudswoman, organized a roundtable to initiate a public debate on the need to protect the right to water under the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia.
The first private water supply plant in Zrenjanin
Iva Marković said that the December 7 changes to the law on utilities made it possible for private companies to offer water supply services, meaning that water is no longer an inalienable public good that can only be managed by a public company. However, the situation was not great even before the latest legislative changes, as evidenced by the privatization of water bottling companies.
The privatization of these companies trampled on the principle of public good, enabling the sale of springs under the concession model, which is very questionable, she said.
Marković noted that the recent legislative changes, which appear to have been written for a certain foreign company, more precisely for the partner of the Zrenjanin city government, facilitates the entrance of these companies into the utility services market in Serbia.
The privatization of water bottling companies trampled on the principle of public good, enabling the sale of springs under the concession model, which is very questionable
Fourteen years ago, the City of Zrenjanin banned the use of water supplied by the local utility. The city has signed a contract with a consortium of private companies to build a water treatment plant, but when it was built, it couldn’t be used because under the law on utilities, water supply could not be managed by a private company.
The law was changed on December 7 and now water supply is managed by a private company, she said.
80% of privatized water bottling companies were bought by foreign companies
It is small wonder that drinking water sources were among the first resources to be privatized in the region. After all, water is the top commodity, with everybody being a consumer.
The first major privatization of a water bottling factory in Serbia took place in 2004, when offshore company FPP Balkan Limited became the owner of water bottler Knjaz Miloš. The company is todayowned by private equity firm Mid Europa Partners. Then in 2015, Coca-Cola bought Vlasinka and its Rosa water brand.
About 30% of drinking water sources in Serbia have been privatized
Today, Agrokor is the owner of Nova Sloga, which bottles Mivela, offshore investment fund Global Water Investment Group owns BB Minaqua, and Atlantic Grupa is the owner of Palanački Kiseljak.
About 30% of drinking water sources in Serbia have been privatized, and 80% of these privatizations have been carried out by foreign companies, said Marković.
Eurostat’s data from October 2017 shows the region has much to offer when it comes to water.
Croatia has a long-term average of 27,330 cubic meters of freshwater per capita, which puts it at the forefront in the EU. Slovenia is in fifth place (15,550), Bulgaria in seventh (14,160), and Greece in 14th (6,680), while Romania’s 1,840 cubic meters are close to the threshold of 1,700 cubic meters set by the UN.
Balkan Green Energy News invites you to participate in a survey (here) on the topic of water. Detailed results with an analysis will be announced after the survey closes in January 2019.