Kosovo: Developing in the Dark
12 years after the 1998-99 War and 3 years after declaring independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, the controversial state of Kosovo still lacks basic water, electricity and waste management.
Writer & Photographer: Anna Wiman
Kosovo is either considered an independent country in the Balkans or a province of Serbia. Both Serbs and Albanians claim Kosovo, while most of the international community that rushed to help rebuild Kosovo after the 1998-99 war supports independence. On July 22, 2010, the International Court of Justice declared that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008 did not violate international law. 75 out of 192 United Nations countries – 22 of them are European Union (EU) members – have recognized Kosovo as an independent state. The EU claims as usual to hold a neutral position. The most recent country to recognize Kosovo’s independence was Oman on February 4, 2011.
Living in Kosovo is also different depending on whom one asks. A majority of people living in Kosovo struggle to make ends meet with an average monthly salary of €250 with more than 50 percent of the population being under 26 years old. The well-known Kosovo diaspora (individuals who left Kosovo before, during or after the war) return at least once a year to visit family and friends who were left behind for various reasons. This diaspora is one of the most important economic revenues in Kosovo. Then there is the small group of “internationals” that work in Kosovo for military or international organizations.
The way in which people plan their day depends on their work. Like everywhere, people try to fit in meetings and run errands, but in Kosovo the daily routine is commonly determined by water and electricity. The average Kosovo Albanian will not describe their frustration at not being able to travel anywhere in Europe without a visa or that the average price for living is high in comparison to their salary – they will most likely complain first about the fact that water and electricity supplies are regularly cut off, despite having paid the bills.
Every day in Kosovo, the electricity is cut off for two hours. On bad days, electricity can be cut for several hours at a time. When this occurs, the national electricity company, Korporata Energjetike e Kosovës, KEK (Kosovo Energy Corporation), blames maintenance work on existing power lines or the inability to provide customers with enough electricity to match their growing needs (in wintertime more electricity is required to heat houses). 97 percent of electricity in Kosovo is delivered by KEK. The coal power plant that provides Kosovo with electricity, located near the city of Obiliq, is far too old to be able to deliver the amount of energy needed. There is an urgent need to replace the old Yugoslavian power plant. Unfortunately, life comes to a complete standstill every time the water or electricity is cut off, which in the delays the long-term development of Kosovo.
In the countryside, most families access water from private wells. They choose to do this for various reasons – one reason is that they feel the municipality water is not good enough. As a rule, pumping water from these wells requires electricity which meads having no water or lighting when the power current is cut off. The performance of the national electricity company, KEK, is a source of general frustration. KEK disconnects households when they do not pay their bills, or if illegal connections are found, or if KEK discovers that customers have tampered with their electricity meters (setting back counters is common practice). Albanians and Serbs as well as minorities like Turks, Bosnians and Roma equally experience difficulties paying their bills and although some Serbian enclaves have local Serb administration offices, they are supposed to pay KEK for the electricity that they provide.
Collective disconnections occur when a group of people in an area do not pay their bills or refuse KEK access to read their electricity meters. This means that families that actually do pay their bills and cooperate with KEK are accordingly fined due to others being unable to pay or cooperate. Yet, many have reason to not cooperate: KEK is owned by the government and considered to be one of the most corrupt institutions in Kosovo. To buttress the newly born Republic of Kosovo, international aid was spent on building schools, hospitals and roads, but due to non-transparency and lack of control, donations often disappeared into organized corruption. Dissatisfaction with the main electricity provider is only one example and continues to be a topic of conversation over every single cup of coffee served in Kosovo.
During the war, many Kosovars fled their homes or were forced to leave. Hundreds of thousands of houses were burned down or severely damaged by the Serbian military forces, resulting in the electricity meters also being destroyed. Sometimes families left their houses for weeks, sometimes months, depending on how dangerous it was to stay or return. After the war, it took years to repair destroyed houses and install functioning electricity meters. Despite these developments, KEK still bills households for electricity used during the war. These costs are assumed sums and are added to post-war electricity bills for families to pay. Only families that receive social welfare do not pay these sums since KEK remits debts prior to July 20, 2002, if a customer is registered for Social Welfare Scheme.
ORGANIZING WATER AND WASTE
Despite the fact that Kosovo lacks resources to develop proper water, waste and electricity management to match increasing needs, it would be unfair to say that the country has not invested in creating better organized services since the war. Lule Gjonbalaj, a Public Relations Officer and Personal Assistant to the Director at the Water and Waste Regulatory Office in Prishtina, recounts the story of development within the water and waste sector:
In Kosovo, water and waste were controlled by municipalities before the war. Until 2003, each municipality had its own unit. As the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) settled in Kosovo in 1999, the Kosovo Trust Agency was created. One of its main tasks was to establish public utilities. This was a first step in building a water and waste system in Kosovo. The Kosovo Trust Agency played an important role in reforming the water and waste sector by regionalizing and organizing the sector in a more efficient way. Instead of having small units in municipalities spread all over the country, the responsibility was divided into 7 regional water companies and 7 regional waste companies.
Another positive step was the creation of the Water and Waste Regulatory Office (WWRO), where Lule Gjonbalaj works, set up under UNMIK Regulation 2004/49. WWRO is the independent, economic regulatory institution for water and solid waste services in Kosovo. Its role is to ensure non-discrimination and the provision of reliable services of good quality at a fair price for customers with respect to the environment and public health. The WWRO is responsible for giving licenses to public enterprises that provide water supply, wastewater services, waste collection and waste disposal. They set and approve the tariffs for these services, monitor the licensed providers, supervise rights and obligations for both providers and customers as well as supervise illegal connections.
Another step forward was the integration of regional companies into the new administrative structures of Kosovo. Responsibilities were transferred from the UNMIK administration to the newly born state. The water and waste sector became Kosovo institutions under the Law on Public Utilities, which is part of the Kosovo constitution. Local authorities are involved to avoid total centralization and municipalities are meant to ensure that citizens are provided with water, electricity and waste disposal services. One reason why the municipalities are involved is because they are an important local contact institution for the service providers.
When it comes to the water sector, several actors have to cooperate in order for the water sector to work properly. While the WWRO is responsible for service-standards, tariffs and issuing licenses to water providers, the Ministry of the Environment is responsible for giving providers the license that gives them the right to use water to provide the costumers with it. And the Public Health Institution of Kosovo is responsible for checking the water quality.
“We are trying to establish and maintain contract agreements between the municipalities and the water companies. Our government has limited resources for the water and waste sector and the most powerful donors during the recent years include the EU managed by the European Commission Liaison Office (ECLO), the German Development Bank (KfW), the Swiss Cooperation Office (SCO), the World Bank (WB), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). At the moment, IPA (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance), an EU-funded project, managed by the ECLO is supporting the WWRO”, says Gjonbalaj.
Overall, most of Kosovo has clean, drinkable water, but according to the samples taken by the Public Health Institution the region of Gjakova, administered by part of the regional water company Radoniqi, has the highest quality. The Hidrodrini regional water company, based in Peja – the second largest city in Kosovo – has the most stable and efficient water system, operating 24 hours a day, and the freshest water. This is due to Peja’s geographical location at the foot of the Rugova Mountains, where water is more accessible.
One reason why not all regional water companies can maintain the same standard is the difference in geographical conditions. Western Kosovo has lots of natural water resources and mountains where Peja and the Hidrodrini regional water company are based. In the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina, water is turned off throughout the entire city between 10pm and 7am because of its location in a flat geographical region. Prishtina, with over 600.000 inhabitants, relies on the nearby artificial lakes of Batllava and Badovc for its water supply.
Several problems and difficulties regularly arise in the sector of water and waste. According to the 2009 Annual Performance Report, published by the WWRO, there are no operational wastewater treatment facilities in Kosovo today. Wastewater is collected through the sewage systems but without any treatment it flows into rivers and causes environment damage. The same report claims that about 66 percent of Kosovo’s population has access to drinkable water provided by the water supply companies – the rest is supplied by private wells. 48 percent of the population has sewage services and the waste collection services cover only 42 percent of the population.
The majority of water providers continue to be financially unsustainable due to the absence of investment and funding from the international community being used for other necessities like infrastructure. Difficulties within the water and waste service sector partly have to do with poor financial resources, partly with political decisions and tensions. Mitrovica in the north, for example, continues to be a sensitive region. Mitrovica is a city divided by the Ibar River, with an Albanian majority living south of the river and a Serbian majority living on the north side.
Problems of a more political nature in the northern municipalities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin remain unresolved and this affects the companies that provide water and wastewater services. The regional Mitrovica water company on the southern side of the Ibar is in a difficult position: since the war, over 20 percent of water produced by this company has been sent to the northern side without receiving any compensation. More difficulties faced in the Mitrovica region are apparent in the following practical examples of political decisions and social tensions:
1. Non-participation of the municipalities and communities with a Serbian minority in the regional structure of water services sector. The creation of 7 regional water companies is a policy statement in Kosovo with regard to the water and waste services which was not been adopted in northern Kosovo due to political decisions.
2. Non-participation of the municipalities and communities with a Serbian minority in the applicable regulatory regime in Kosovo. This means that water companies in northern Kosovo are not licensed and subsequently not subject to the economic regulation enforced by WWRO in other parts of Kosovo. Again, motives for this non-adherence are political.
3. Non-payment for treated water supplied by the regional Mitrovica water company (south of the Ibar) to northern Mitrovica. This has an adverse financial impact on this specific regional water company, and again, the reasons for non-payment are political.
WATERED DOWN WASTE
All water companies operating in Kosovo today are public and owned by the state while the waste sector is a private-public venture. The water sector was given higher priority by the government which explains why the waste sector is still badly organized with weak monitoring and controls. Post-independence private waste companies have been supervised by the municipalities which are the only entities to give licenses for private waste collection. The regulatory law says that private waste companies only have a right to operate as sub-contractors to the public regional waste companies. Who should control and monitor private waste companies then? “In Kosovo in general, the water sector is much better off financially than the waste sector. The WWRO generally monitors the general performance of water and waste regional companies but we hope that the waste sector will become much better organized in the future”, says Gjonbalaj.
A visit to the WWRO office in Prishtina gives the impression that Kosovo really is developing its water and waste sector to reach decent standards with stronger ties between Prishtina and the regional water and waste companies around Kosovo, but concern should be raised about the waste sector: collecting trash decreased from 61 percent to 55 percent in 2009 and none of the waste collection companies paid their annual licensing fee to WWRO. Fortunately, there are some good examples: the waste disposal facility “Veliknica” in Gjilan has the most organized waste facility established according to high standards. Not only is it geographically ideal but the project that supported the implementation of the Gjilan facility was very successful from the beginning to the end.
At the Higjiena Publike waste disposal facility in the villages of Lutogllavë/Sverk e Thatë, located east of Peja in western Kosovo, a friendly middle-aged man, Nystret Kuqi, has just arrived to his 16-hour shift from 3pm to 7am. He is lightly dressed and does not wear gloves, despite the below zero temperature. His duties include guarding the waste grounds to stop illegal dumping. Since 2003, he has worked at the facility three times a week for €155 per month. This is the largest solid waste disposal facility in the whole Dukagjin area, including the cities of Peja, Klina, Decan and Istog. Some years ago, the city of Istog also brought waste to the facility, but now it goes to a similar facility near Prizren in southwestern Kosovo.
The 60 hectare facility was built in 2000-01 by an Italian aid organization and now belongs to the Peja municipality. Although the facility is public, Kuqi and his eight fellow employees receive their salaries from their boss, Besnik Kelmindi, and not from the municipality. Kuqi says: “If we could become direct municipality employees, we could get better salaries directly from the municipality.” Stumbling along on a small path beside the waste, Kuqi points down the hill of waste, towards a little cement house. “This is where the water coming from the waste ends up. To create more space for new waste that keeps coming here, we put water on the waste already here to make it heavier”, Kuqi explains. “It is really dangerous. There are a lot of families living not far from here. They take their drinking water from the river and some of this water flows into that river.”
When asked about environmental measures and health precautions, Kuqi looks incredulous: “Infection medicine? Twice a year we receive plastic gloves from the municipality. I have to buy my own working shoes and gloves. Since I started working here, people from Prishtina monitoring waste facilities have only shown up twice.” Kuqi turns and walks towards a colleague calling to him from across the waste. Roma children are searching through the waste. Another child emerges from behind a hill of trash. They have permission to search for things they might be able to re-use.
In Kosovo, the water and waste system exists but there is desperate need for improvement. Investment in the facilities, implementation of the law, creation of more specific strategies for all parties involved and the creation of a master plan for development are just a few that come to mind. Political positions also have to be cleared. According to the 2009 Annual Performance Report, both regional water and waste companies have deteriorated since 2008. To provide enough drinking water to all cities of Kosovo, more artificial lakes need to be created in the mountain regions which require more funding.
According to the same WWRO report, an estimated 6-10 percent of households in Kosovo experience difficulties paying their water bills. Some €1.2 million per year will be needed if the government were to provide financial support for water services to the poorest 10 percent of the population (this is about a quarter of the amount provided today to assist the poor with their electricity bills), and it would cost approximately €2.5 million if the same financial support for water was provided to 20 percent of the population.
The general willingness to pay for waste services is low, perhaps due to the bad service, and partly due to the poor communication between institutions and the public regarding waste disposal. This communication gap is caused by weak institutions and ineffective payment mechanisms. One way of solving the payment problems in the waste sector is to replace the current flat rate charging system for waste with a payment system financed through the tax system. Developing the water and waste facilities as well as forming strategy policies and development plans for all administrative bodies involved in the sector remains the most important step to take to improving water and waste services.
In order for Kosovo to develop and one day becoming part of the European Union, basic services like electricity, water and waste services are crucial. Replacing the old coal power plant in Obiliq is probably the most important task to prioritize in order to improve the electricity sector in Kosovo. The political situation in Kosovo continues to create tension. Basic services are not being prioritized because Kosovo is dealing with much bigger obstacles like unemployment and corruption. While institutions of Kosovo struggle to build functional governmental systems meeting the needs of its citizens, the people of Kosovo struggle to organize their lives in the dark.
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