“I don’t feel anything, don’t invent. “ Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday (January 17th) screened citizens’ concerns over air pollution, which is reaching peaks across the region. On the same day, the Serbian National Air Quality Measurement Network reported a particulate matter level of 152 in Belgrade: more than three times the acceptable limit for health.
Lignite fired power stations, wood and coal heaters that spit their particles have been poisoning the air of the Western Balkans for decades. The situation has worsened this winter due to unusual weather conditions of drought, plunging cities into thick and irritating fog.
“Even being a smoker and wearing contact lenses, I can smell the air pollution and my eyes are irritated”, says Nina, a 30-year-old from Belgrade. It demonstrated on Friday January 17 in Belgrade with hundreds of others on the initiative of the “Do not strangle Belgrade” movement to demand urgent and long-term measures.
Over 14,000 citizens have signed an online petition. Stocks of filter masks ran out in pharmacies over the weekend, a sign of concern among the growing public. Other rallies have taken place recently, notably in Bosnia, in Tuzla, where the pollution index, on the weekend of January 18-19, also exceeded 150.
Governments in denial
Governments place responsibility on winter as much as on bad habits of citizens. “It is a combination of bad weather, biomass heating and transport … It just happens every year”, justified Tomislav Coric, Croatian Minister for the Environment after a spike in pollution in Zagreb.
“The air is as bad as our standards of living are better”, said the Serbian president, while the health minister reassured: “There is pollution, but not to the point of having serious consequences. “ According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths worldwide each year. In the Western Balkans, up to 20% of premature deaths are due to air pollution according to the United Nations Environment Program.
The polluting industry relieved of its responsibilities
“There is a concerted effort by leaders to ignore the data”, said Ioana Ciuta of the environmental NGO CEE Bankwatch. The organization has highlighted what politicians are careful not to highlight: the effects of polluting industries and coal-fired power plants that several countries want to continue to develop, particularly to attract Chinese money.
According to Bankwatch, emissions of the toxic sulfur dioxide from North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia, thus exceeded in 2018 six times the limit set with the Energy Community, an organization which allows their connection to the market. energy from the EU.
There are still some reasons to hope. The Energy Community has launched proceedings against Serbia for failure to fulfill its obligations. A power plant project has been abandoned in Montenegro, and North Macedonia is considering a coal exit. Mostly, “The pressure from citizen movements is increasing, says Ioana Ciuta. We can no longer take people for idiots “.