Fight for water: valuable Bosnian rivers are disappearing in concrete

19.2.2018 - BANJA LUKA
Željeznica is still drinkable - thanks to local people.
Photo: Majda Slaámová, Arnika

That water is the source of life, we all know, but we rarely ask what it really means. And we should ask because what is happening with the natural wealth in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially with its rivers, can be called an attack on life without exaggeration.

Transformation or big robbery
That "glorious" transformation concept, which represents the transition from a planned to a market economy, or the privatization of former socialist property, has changed into a robbery of unprecedented proportions. Industry, agriculture, services, everything that could be privatized has been robbed by the same scenario - decimate, bring to fruition, sell under price to those we call today "controversial moguls" and who are in fact people who are close to political functionaries or they themselves have a political function. Revenues obtained through the resale of land, the destruction of domestic agricultural production, the prosperity of foreign companies that come with food products of dubious quality or in some other way have made these people immensely rich.

In the same way that destroyed a large part of the economy, they are also trying to dispose of the natural resources, especially water, now.

Hydroelectric power, energy, and water
We often see water as a matter of course. Most households draw drinking water directly from the streams of our rivers. Thanks to hydropower plants built on the rivers, we also have electricity, but each river has its biological minimum flow. This does not interest investors because small hydropower plants often bring enormous profits.

The system is the following - we, all of us who have electricity in our house, are also paying a small amount for renewable energy. This small sum is enormous at the national level for a year. From this money, the state gives investors subsidies for the construction of small hydropower plants, and investors pay to state a concession commission. Revenue from concession commissions for the use of natural resources is several times lower than subsidies received from investors.

When one small hydropower plant is built up, the investor sells electricity to the energy company as a privileged producer of renewable energy, and then electricity is charged to us through a fee for the use of renewable energy sources. This means that we are paying the investors to build a small hydropower plant to pay their support for electricity production and the electricity it sells. Very profitable activity with minimal cost.

That is why we cannot be surprised that several small hydropower plants are being planned on some rivers. Of course, to citizens are given stories about new jobs, but they usually always come to employees of companies that are owned by investors' relatives. Work will not come even when the power plant starts operation. One worker can serve up to three such power plants.

But the problem with the expansion of the construction of small hydropower plants does not end. Not holding the minimum residual flow has disastrous consequences. Without water, the world of plants and animals will disappear. Farmers cannot feed the cattle and irrigate the soil, so they collapse. As the climate changes, it is clear that the aqueducts could also dry, and hundreds of thousands of households would be left without water. It is not even possible to develop tourism that would actually mean employment and income for citizens.

In addition, the construction of small hydropower plants is planned in some protected landscape areas and areas where it is expected to become protected in the future. In this, the interest of individuals and profit is officially superior to the public interest.

Fight for rivers
The inhabitants of the villages of Dusina and Gojevići in the Fojnica district did not allow the construction of small hydropower plants on the Željeznice River. As they themselves say, if they did not have the chance to see what happens to the river with the hydropower plant, they probably would not act.

"We organized ourselves, watched for 24 hours, and when machines and watchers came in, we told the others, they grabbed their hands and made it impossible for them to pass through. Women have always been in the first row. We agreed so to avoid violence. Over time we got help, advice, we invited a lawyer and filed a lawsuit. We slowly learned about non-violent resistance and activism. For over three hundred days we have not left the place for a moment. More than a thousand people participated in the fight for the Željeznice River. According to the documentation, the building permit expired and was not renewed, contracts expired and the amendments do not exist. More than a year ago, we demanded copies of these contracts, paid an administrative fee and we have not received anything yet,” describe their struggle these brave people.

The four small hydropower plants planned on the Željeznice River will not be built, but residents are still cautious. They founded the Ecological and Humanitarian Association Gotusha, which gives them a much broader field of expertise, not only the situation around the rivers is making them worries.

Not far away from where small hydroelectric power plants were to be built, a gold mine is allegedly being built. But no one knows what exactly will grow here, as the investor is, among other things, registered for the storage of radioactive waste.

The activists from the Gotusha Association first contributed to help the inhabitants of Kruščice, the villages in the Vitez district. There were also machines to begin construction of two small hydropower plants on the river of the same name. By the water from Kruščice is completely supplied Vitez itself and about two-thirds of seventy thousand households in the Zenica. For this purpose, in the late 60s of the last century the water supply, the residents of Kruščica severally agreed to the trough of the river, leaving only the necessary minimum of water. The construction of small hydropower plants would destroy Kruščice by diverting the remaining water, which is mostly drinking water.

The women from the village occupied the bridge and blocked the only way leading to the riverbed. Special police units have been put in place to let the machines pass smoothly by violence. This, however, did not deter local people from other peaceful gatherings until they succeeded in forcing the workers to leave again with all construction machines. Now the footbridge is rightly called "The Bridge of Brave Women from Kruščice".

Everything that happened in Fojnica in the canyon of the Željeznice River called Gotusha is now also happening in Kruščice - pressure, threats, snoring, fines. The same is also the man who is supposedly standing on top of the pyramid of proponents of the construction of small hydropower plants - Salko Selman, former prime minister of the Central Bohemian canton, now the director of the Development Bank of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The inhabitants of Kruščice are equally united with the inhabitants of Fojnice - they will defend their river as long as it is needed.

"Next to the bridge, we built a nylon tent and watch over here, but the days are getting colder and winter is coming. Now we need the most a place where we can stay and where we can get warm. We've been thinking about the containers that are on the construction sites, but we do not have money for them. Somehow we deal with it, we must, because we do not want to give up," the inhabitants of Kruščice say.

Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Bosna and Herzegovina River Protection Coalition was set up in June 2016 by civil society organizations and nature lovers who monitor and review plans to build hydropower plants and advocate the development of tourism and traditional and complementary activities that can provide more diverse jobs and realize the greater development of local communities. In addition to environmental organizations, individuals and organizations play an important role in the coalition by showing how rivers can be used sustainably with a minimal impact on nature and profit for the local population.

The aim of the coalition is to provide support to the local population to become involved in decision-making and take a stance on the construction of hydropower plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnia and Herzegovina River Protection Coalition is currently grouping more than 20 organizations across the country and the number of members is growing.

Dilemmas, prejudices, and resistance
Also in the case of resistance, as in all other things, there are many dilemmas and prejudices. While some are calling for a general revolution, others believe that nothing can be done that every resistance is forever condemned to perdition. The truth is that all citizens of the struggle did not end the victory that is not possible. Citizens of Fojnice have succeeded, but there is no formula that can be copied from them. Some consider non-violent resistance to be ineffective and the only way to achieve change for the better sees in the use of force. However, power is destructive and it is, therefore, a question of whether something destructive can really result in positive changes. A lot of dilemmas, a lot of questions and few answers.

The most common prejudices linked to civic activism and resistance are "someone behind them" and "someone pays them". That someone is a politician or a non-profit organization. Politicians who deprive the public of the public good to enrich themselves will accuse other politicians of standing for citizens who have opted to defend the public good. They then accuse non-profit organizations, and ultimately the citizens themselves, that they are revolting because somebody is paying for it, and that's some strangers, some Soros. People are particularly concerned about these bums.

But to demystify it a little. Politicians are people that we, meaning all citizens pay to work on our behalf. We do not pay them in order to enrich some criminal activities of which are never accounted. When the other politicians stand for the resistance of citizens, then they do exactly what we pay for them, they work in our interest because we are their employers.

As for non-profit organizations, things are a little different. They are financed by various donations, including foreign ones, and that is no secret. The secret is not even the fact that some of them are not transparent, and they have taken steps that greatly harmed everyone else. But we must not generalize. There are a number of organizations that operate transparently, have the knowledge, logistics, and people  willing to provide citizens with all the necessary help. After all, these organizations bring the money they have left to that country through the taxes and contributions they pay for their employees. Working in a serious nonprofit organization is a job like any other, you have to have a certain qualification, you have full time and some uncertainty as well as private entrepreneurs, because you are not funded as politicians, nor does the policy put you in the positions you work on.

From the citizens of Fojnice we can learn that non-violent resistance can bring victory. They and the citizens of Kruščice also showed us that we must try to search for the paths leading to success. The help provided by the Banja Luka Environment Center is an example of how cooperation between citizens and non-profit organizations can deliver results that are useful to all because the rivers are water and the water is the source of life. The unity, solidarity, and perseverance that these people demonstrate are not only a prerequisite to succeed in their struggle, but it gives us hope that it is truly possible to build mutual respect and humane society in this country. They think of the future, not of theirs or of their children, but of their own, of their children, of their local community and of us all.

The original article "Borba za vodu - Pobjeda je moguća!" by Banja Luka journalist Mirjana Tešanović was published by the Impuls Portal information site in cooperation with the Center for Environment during a two-day trip to the Željeznica and Kruščica rivers. For purposes of Arnika, Monika Říhová and Hana Borejová translated the text with the consent of the author.

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