Vodobrana Sarajeva is a campaign started by activists to pressure the government into resolving Sarajevo’s water crisis, which become increasingly problematic in the summer of 2017. Anes Podic wrote an in-depth analysis of the issues that concern the local water governance.
Author: Anes Podić
In 1976, the Sarajevo local government launched a project aimed at the rehabilitation of the city’s water and sewage infrastructure, which was partially financed by a World Bank loan. However, in the last three decades, the number of Sarajevo residents almost quadrupled and this significantly increased the water needs of the city.
At that time, apart from the replacement of several sections of old infrastructure, additional water infrastructure was built and it is still in use: well systems, pump sets, numerous reservoirs, hundreds of kilometres of sewage, wastewater treatment systems, etc. The amount that corresponds to today’s 400 million USD was spent on this project. From the daily political perspective of our cantonal leaders, this amount was surely unnecessary.
The expansion of the city continued and was followed by an increasing influx of population. However, in 1991, just before the war, parts of Sarajevo were occasionally stricken by a reduction in water supply during the night.
At the end of the war, Sarajevo inherited a water system with significant physical damage and losses in the network estimated to have been as high as 70%. This is why several projects were launched to reduce losses with the support of numerous donations. A significant number of urgent and transitional arrangements were implemented, resulting in the reduction of losses to 56% (June 2000) and regular water supply without reductions. But in the past 13 years, major parts of Sarajevo have been experiencing reductions in water supply during the night and in the summer, during the day as well.
Sarajevo without water
Sarajevo’s central water supply system receives water from a large number of different sources, including well systems, water sources, and river water intakes. The most important water sources are well systems which provide over 75% of the water, while 13% is provided by water intake filtering and 9% of the water comes from gravitational waters. The remaining amounts of water are purchased (from Pale Water Supply Company and from another cantonal company that is partially in private ownership). In total, the annual amount reaches over 100 million m3. This amount of water would be sufficient for supplying a city three times larger in population than Sarajevo, only were it not for one “small” issue – almost two-thirds of water is lost on its way towards consumers; it runs through numerous pipe failures and part of it gets stolen. In the end, every fourth litre of water produced at the source gets billed.
There are many reasons for this situation. A significant part of the water supply network has been illegally installed, beyond all technical standards. There are settlements around Sarajevo that were illegally built after the war, with the approval of cantonal authorities. The Water Supply Company does not even have information on the water supply network installed in these settlements. According to some estimates of the Company, almost every third kilometre of the network in Sarajevo was illegally installed. It is no wonder that during the bitter cold period last winter the majority of failures occurred in these places.
After two decades of management appointed by parties that led to stripping the enterprise of staff and assets, Vodovod i kanalizacija Enterprise was no longer able to meet the needs of the crisis in the water supply process without drastic reforms in operation, assets, and organisation.
The existing revenues, organisation, and expenses failed to enable this enterprise to operate without losses. It had enough financial assets to pay salaries and the most urgent bills, while it saved on equipment and installation maintenance. Even though the Canton is obliged by its own Law to provide additional assets for the maintenance of the water supply infrastructure, it kept avoiding this obligation. The financial support provided by the Canton for the reconstruction of the water supply infrastructure was reduced from 6 million KM provided in 2012 to a symbolic sum of 1,000 KM in 2017.
The rate of written-off equipment and installations of this Enterprise reached an unbelievable 93% at the end of 2016. The lifetime of many critical Vodovod installations, such as pump sections or power facilities, has long expired, which means that the probability and frequency of failures increase dramatically. At the beginning of 2016, Vodovod only had two excavators produced in 1997 for the activities of installation repairs. The consequences included a deteriorating network, equipment, and installations.
Failures were not the only reason for the decrease of water supply. Significant amounts of water vanish from sources as well. According to an audit report, 19 companies are currently exploiting drinking water for their needs in the Sarajevo Canton. Only five of them have concession agreements with the Cantonal Government. The agreements grant them unconditional exploitation of water for up to 30 years.
However, they do not pay the symbolic amounts that they are obliged for consumed water. Coca-Cola only owed Canton Sarajevo over 200,000 KM in 2015. The total debt of private companies to the Canton of Sarajevo, on the basis of different concessions, reached the amount of 7.5 million KM. Municipalities are owed for concessions even more because 40% of the concession charge is transferred to the Canton and 60% to the municipalities.
The total budget deficit reaches almost 19 million. This is a modest estimate since the calculation is often made on the basis of reports drafted by the companies themselves. On the basis of concessions, the Canton only earns 200,000 KM a year.
With the hot summer period adding to this difficult situation, it results in a water supply crisis that has not been dealt with since the siege of Sarajevo.
If this issue had been given enough attention and if the required assets had been provided, the crisis would have never occurred. However, the Cantonal authorities had different priorities, such as the urgent construction of a new water supply system for the illegally built apartments on the Bjelašnica Mountain (the mandatory environmental impact assessment has never been made for this settlement), entirely financed from the public budget. This year, apartment owners will probably get water from the Treskavica Mountain slopes, the source of one of the purest waters in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Almost seven million KM of public money – mostly assets of the FBIH Environmental Fund – have now been spent on the repair of the accumulator of wastewater coming from several hundreds of apartments built on Bjelašnica. The Bosna River Source and Bosna River water, which provide one-eighth of the water that supplies Sarajevo, have been polluted by wastewater coming from the Bjelašnica apartments since 2005.For now, only for the purpose of unsuccessful repair of the sewer, more than 5,000 KM of public money has been spent on each “occasional” resident of the Bjelašnica apartments. If we add two million KM spent for the gas line almost three million KM, has, for now, been spent on this water supply system.
The Canton surely has the money, it is only that their priorities are such that supplying Sarajevo with water is completely irrelevant – we have been waiting for nine years for the EBRD loan just to start solving the issue of supplying Sarajevo with water.
The only thing left is to make it official through a decree that in Sarajevo there is a water supply system for the rich and one for the poor. The current situation of the water supply is a direct consequence of entirely distorted priorities of the Cantonal authorities. It is now completely clear that the citizens are not their priorities.
Vodobrana Sarajeva! Protest
While we were going to local communities in Sarajevo in the fall of 2014, we were in disbelief hearing that the SDA municipality council members called for civil disobedience and non-payment of water bills – as if the water supply situation (worrying for some parts of the city already in this period) had nothing to do with the authorities, as if the country – described by them as a “bad boss” – had been governed by some mysterious forces instead of the magical coalitions that SDA has often been the most important part of in the past thirty years.
This was soon after new EU reform plans emerged for the completion of privatisation in BIH. This year marked the beginning of a true consultant agitation for public-private partnership as the best solution for the piled up problems in the utility sector, especially in Sarajevo.
No one here wonders about the source of the greatest utility problems in the richest canton or whether we really want to implement a model that was proven bad in many parts of the world. In the meantime, the water supply crisis aggravates – negligence and carelessness of the authorities only make it deeper.
Considering that this crisis requires urgent measures directed at the improvement of the water supply network and reorganisation of the Vodovod i kanalizacija Enterprise, and that it must not be used for any kind of water privatisation, we have started a new fight for water that aims at long-term changes in the system of water resource management. We do not want private interests or interests of party bureaucracy in the exploitation of common natural resources; we do not want the collapse of what used to be a very successful enterprise and we request everyone to have access to clean water 24 hours a day.
At the beginning of September 2017, we started gathering signatures for the protest call to the Canton Assembly to provide Vodovod with the required assets. Thousands of signatures and strong media pressure resulted in calling for an urgent session of the Sarajevo Cantonal Assembly that was held at the end of September. For the first time in the history of the Canton, the topic of the session was the issue of water supply. Besides a brief discussion and vague conclusions, there was still some kind of progress; the first small steps were made towards the solution of the problem. As small as these steps might seem, one should bear in mind that the Canton’s government has been in a continuous session since mid-August and that, besides deceiving the public, it failed to do anything, even though reductions in the water supply became common and lasted longer for most of the city.
In order to prevent forgetting the problems associated with the first rain period in the fall, which increases the amount of water at the sources and results in cessation of water provisions during the day, as it used to happen since the first year, we organised a protest in front of the Canton building. Only several hundreds of citizens attended the protest, which was a disappointment on one hand, but on the other, after thirteen years of online campaigning, the citizens gathered to request clean water for themselves, for everyone, immediately.
The protest was followed by a set of activities such as the distribution of information and awareness raising materials and fierce fights in the virtual space of social networks in order to neutralise the side effects of a series of false information made public by the Canton authorities and their clans.
At the end of the protest day, when the situation reached a peak, the media reported that the Canton would revise the budget and urgently provide an additional 10 million KM for the reconstruction of water supply infrastructure and that they would not wait for the approval of EBRD loan.
These activities must continue in order to prevent those in power from doing their usual business, as it has happened on a myriad of occasions so far. We must pursue common efforts to ensure that the money allocated for the reconstruction of the water supply network is spent efficiently (in BIH, it became a principle that enormous amounts of public money end up in private pockets), that the citizens restore their trust in the water system through good-quality and frequent inspections of the cleanliness of water, that the management of key public enterprises become accountable before citizens instead of political parties and their interests, and that the right to drinkable water becomes an integral part of the Canton Constitution.
The group Vodobrana Sarajeva still has a lot to do, but it is leading a turning point, not only in terms of recruiting people, fostering readiness to participate in the campaign and reacting to the authorities, but also as a step towards finding a way for the full participation of the general public in the management of social goods, which this society was deprived of through a strictly dosed parliamentary democracy.
 Water Supply and Sewage Public Enterprise in Sarajevo
 Party of Democratic Action